A Profession In Search Of Itself (Cont.)

I’ve been thinking about the journalism world since writing my earlier piece on what the move away from “objectivity” means for the world of the newsroom.  I think there are some other forces at play that are making the world of daily newspapers very difficult right now — some unavoidable, some self-inflicted.

A Man Reads A NewspaperObviously, the main unavoidable problem is . . . speed.  People expect to get things faster and faster, and we’ve gotten so spoiled by instantaneous speed that we now groan at even a few seconds’ delay as our browser calls up a website.  The daily newspaper simply can’t compete with that — there are too many steps in the process.  By the time the newspaper lands on your doorstep, it will therefore likely be viewed as “old news” already.  It’s been all over the internet for hours — so who wants to sit down and read it again?  And how many people want to sit down and actually read something, as opposed to flipping through content on their cell phones as they head out for a jog or wait for an elevator?

Another unavoidable problem is cost. Newspapers of the past had large payrolls — from the reporters and columnists to the editors to the photographers to ad salesmen to the people who laid out the pages and the guys in the print shop running the presses.  How many labor-centric businesses are thriving these days?  And, as cost-cutting has occurred, newspapers cut into the muscle of daily journalism — the people who made newspapers different from and more reliable than bloggers, like experienced editors who would send stories back for additional fact-checking, or investigative reporters who might take weeks to produce a big, carefully constructed and rigorously tied down story.

But there are self-inflicted errors, too.  I think many newspapers have botched the inevitable move to digital delivery.  If you look at many news websites, they are a riotous mess from a presentation standpoint.  There’s no front page or above-the-fold organization that tells you what the lead story is.  Print newspapers may be old-fashioned, but there was a clear organization at work that was comforting, dependable, and helpful.  If you wanted to feel reasonably informed about what was going on in the world and your town, you read through the front page and the national, state, and local news sections, and then you could turn to the business section, or sports.  You knew that some intelligent person had made some thoughtful decisions about the relative importance of the stories.  Does anyone feel that way about most news websites on-line?  Hard news is mixed up with celebrity news and “sponsored content” that doesn’t look materially different from the “news.”  What do you need to read to truly feel informed?

And that brings me to a final point:  the trivialization of what is supposed to be news.  How many of the stories on a basic news website — say, msn.com — are what we think of as actual news reporting, and how much of what we see featured is content about celebrities being out with their boyfriends or clickbait articles about why a particular sports figure should be seen as a bad guy?  We’ve reached the point where somebody’s context-free cell phone video of a delivery driver who didn’t help an old guy who fell to the ground is featured as prominently — and perhaps more prominently — than an article about a foreign conflict.  And there are opinions, on stories large and small, everywhere you look.

In their quest to keep up with the times and be hip and edgy, newspapers have lost the sober, thoughtful perspective and reputation they once had, and have elevated the inconsequential.  It may appeal to some people, but it doesn’t appeal to people who remember newspapers as they once were.

A Profession In Search Of Itself

It’s tough times for journalists these days.  The profession is being rocked by outside forces — declining subscriptions and ad revenues and publications that are shrinking or shutting down entirely — and also by disputes from within.

d277b4879e30a2275fe28a4be1dc0bfa-disco-costume-dapper-gentlemanThe trade publications and some high-profile departures from publications have depicted newsrooms as kinds of battlegrounds, where political and social issues have come to the forefront and reporters on the newsroom side and writers on the opinion pages are at each others’ throats about just how much opinion, and also what kind of opinion, should be published on the op-ed pages.  This happened recently at The Wall Street Journal, where I once worked as a summer intern.  And through it all, the standards defining what it means to be a journalist are changing.

The Brown Bear sent me this piece from The Economist (which I think requires a subscription) addressing shifting views about the role of “objectivity” in journalism, with many in the profession now seriously questioning whether striving for objectivity is necessary, desirable, or even achievable.  Instead, some are calling for newspapers to give voice to “moral clarity” and to “tell the truth” as best they can.  Of course, “the truth” is not always readily apparent, and if “the truth” is presumed, some of the basics of journalism as I learned it back at the Ohio State University School of Journalism in the ’70s, in the post-Watergate era — like appropriate sourcing, and careful fact-checking, and a healthy sense of reporter skepticism in dealing with sources and tips — can end up getting short shrift.  That’s when embarrassing errors can occur that further erode the battered credibility of the so-called Fourth Estate.

The Brown Bear asked for my reaction to the piece in The Economist, and here it is:  I think jettisoning notions of objectivity in news reporting is a terrible mistake.  I think most of the standards that were applied in the effort to present the facts objectively led to better, more accurate reporting.  If you consulted with multiple sources addressing different sides of a story, if you treated everything you were told by everyone with a flinty-eyed dollop of doubt, and if you did what you could to check the “facts” that you were given by people who might be pursuing an agenda, you were much more likely to produce a credible effort at getting at “the truth.”  That’s a lot different than simply accepting something as “the truth” because it fits with your preconception of what “the truth” should be.  Striving for objectivity was a method of disciplining your reporting.

I think one other thing, too.  Working to be objective is difficult and challenging, and following that approach means you aren’t going to be everyone’s friend.  Objective journalists have to have a certain distance from their sources if they want to achieve that skeptical, check-everything role.  It’s not easy to do that.  Writing opinions, in contrast, is a lot easier.  You don’t need to check your facts, and you can adopt a viewpoint that is shared by others — like your friends.  I sometimes wonder if that reality is part of the impetus for throwing objectivity overboard.

What Should The WHCA Do?

Every year, it seems, something happens at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that is controversial, but this year’s dinner took the cake.  The combination of non-attendance by President Trump, who skipped the dinner for the second straight year after years in which other Presidents typically attended, and a crude stand-up routine by comedian Michelle Wolf that has been strongly criticized by people from across the political spectrum, has a lot of people talking about whether the dinner should be changed — or should occur at all.

180430_michelle_wolf_white_house_staff_roastMuch of the controversy was caused by Wolf’s routine, which launched a lot of insults at members of the Trump Administration, including some mean-spirited comments about high-profile women in the Administration like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Many people found Wolf’s performance offensive.  I’m not familiar with Wolf, but the reports of some of her “jokes” at the dinner suggests that she goes in for cheap jibs, often about physical appearance, rather than a leave ’em rolling in the aisles standup routine.  Insults about people’s looks aren’t exactly the highest form of wit.

And, Wolf’s comments put the assembled black-tie glitterati of the journalism community in the uncomfortable position of listening to an invited performer crassly describe the President’s daughter, for example, as “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons” — which isn’t exactly calculated to enhance the perceptions of many Americans about the objectivity of the White House press corps.  In an era in which the President routinely tweets about alleged “fake news” and claimed media bias, the Wolf performance at the WHCA dinner seems like a self-inflicted wound, calculated to reveal that the press is, in fact, highly partisan.

This year’s dinner has been viewed by many as such a disaster that it’s provoking some soul-searching within the WHCA about how the dinner should be changed — and whether it should occur at all.  After all, does the press corps really need to be seen rubbing elbows with the President and other high-ranking politicos, or would it be better to hold itself apart from the people it is supposed to be covering?

Why not just end the dinner?  As is true of so many things these days, it comes down to money.  The WHCA dinner is by far the biggest fundraiser for that organization, which then uses the funds to advocate for journalists.  The incoming president of the WHCA says the revenue generated by the event “keeps our association running” — and supporters of the event question whether big media groups will buy expensive tables for a more low-key function that actually focuses on journalism, rather than politicized comedy.

I think the WHCA serves an important function, and I recognize that money is important, so the annual dinner probably is here to stay — at least, until people stop coming.  But I think the WHCA needs to start self-editing a bit more, and thinking about the reputation of journalists everywhere when they are deciding who should speak at the dinner, and what kinds of things should be said.

Reporting With A P.O.V.

When I attended the School of Journalism at the Ohio State University in the late ’70s, journalistic objectivity was the standard.  We were drilled in the Dragnet approach to reporting — i.e., “Just the facts, ma’am.”  Sure, the facts could be presented in a vigorous, colorful way — that’s what made for good reporting — but the personal opinions or views of reporters were strictly reserved for “opinion” pieces that would go on the op-ed page, and probably would be labeled “opinion,” to boot.

The approach of the professional journalism community to objectivity has changed a lot since then.  I thought about the changes when I read the lead paragraphs of this news article by AP reporter Foster Klug about the meeting between the North Korean and South Korean leaders today:

180425155911-north-korea-south-korea-meeting-2-exlarge-169“In a historic summit more striking for its extraordinary images than its substance, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in set aside a year that saw them seemingly on the verge of war, grasped hands and strode together Friday across the cracked concrete marking the Koreas’ border.

“The sight, inconceivable just months ago, may not erase their failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff that has captivated and terrified millions, but it allowed the leaders to step forward toward the possibility of a cooperative future even as they acknowledged a fraught past and the widespread skepticism that, after decades of failed diplomacy, things will be any different this time.

“On the nuclear issue, the leaders merely repeated a previous vow to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, kicking one of the world’s most pressing issues down the road to a much-anticipated summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in coming weeks.”

We’ll never know how the story of this historic meeting would have been written in the old, studiously objective days, before point of view journalism was accepted as the new normal.  It’s safe to say, though, it would not have suggested that the meeting lacked “substance,” stated that the meeting involved a “failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff” and was viewed with “widespread skepticism,” and reported that the leaders “merely repeated a previous vow” and “kick[ed] one of the worl’s most pressing issues down the road.”  Imagine that kind of reporting at the U.S.-Soviet summit meetings of the ’60s, or Nixon’s visit to China!  It just didn’t happen.

Is the new journalism better than the old?  Proponents of point of view reporting say it simply recognizes reality, and that forcing reports to be mindlessly objective dehumanizes the reporter and fails to acknowledge that reporters bring a perspective to the story when they report it.  Perhaps, but I’m old school — in this case, literally.  I’d be much more comfortable if Foster Klug, whoever he is, left his perceptions, fears, and other baggage behind and simply gave us the facts — leaving it to us to draw our own conclusions.

Boots On The Trail

Hey, have you heard about Marco Rubio’s “cute boots”?  What, you haven’t?  What’s wrong, don’t you read the New York Times?

rubio20bootsBecause the NYT is featuring three — count ’em, three — articles on Marco Rubio’s boots.  One bears the headline Marco Rubio’s Shiny Boots Stir Up the Presidential Race.  Another, by the “Times Insider,” is headlined Marco Rubio’s ‘Cute Boots’ and Other Campaign Issues.  And the third, by “First Draft,” is headlined Marco Rubio Reacts to Those Boots That Were Made for Talking.   Hey, I get it — that’s a play on the Nancy Sinatra anthem, These Boots Are Made for Walking!  Pretty clever!

And in case you haven’t had enough of Marco Rubio’s boots (I use his full name because apparently the NYT style manual requires that headlines bear a candidate’s full name when the subject of the article is footwear) from those three testaments to quality journalism by the publication that has pretensions of being America’s Newspaper of Record, you can run a Google search and find articles where the other Republican candidates are razzing Rubio for the coverage his boots have received.

As for the boots themselves — well, they’re boots.  To my untrained eye, they look vaguely like Beatle boots, rather than cowboy boots.  And in any case, who gives a flying fig about boots?  With the Middle East teetering on the brink, North Korea just claiming that it exploded a hydrogen bomb, and the stock market suffering through its worst start to a year ever, the New York Times thinks Rubio’s boots are worth three articles?  Have I somehow been transferred to an alternative universe?

If you’re wondering why America’s newspapers are struggling and losing circulation, look no further.

Clickbait

It’s obvious that ad revenue on some free websites is tied to “clicks” — how many times people tap their mouse to access a story.  It’s one way for the website to account for its traffic and provide data to advertisers who want to know how many people are seeing their banners and pop-up ads.  Not surprisingly, many websites are set up to maximize clicks.  That’s why you often need to click “next page” to read an entire article, for example.

The most irritating aspect of the click-counting emphasis, however, are the articles that clearly are “clickbait.”  You’ve seen them featured on the websites you visit, cluttering things up like unsightly litter on the side of a highway:  where are members of the cast of an old TV show now, what “jaw-dropping” dresses got worn to a recent awards show, which celebrities have killed a person (number 8 will shock you!), what “weird trick” will allow you to immediately lose 20 pounds or secure your retirement, and on and on.  You’ve probably gotten to the point that you don’t even notice them anymore on the websites you visit.

What’s discouraging about the “clickbait” phenomenon, however, is that even more high-end internet content providers seem to be unable to resist publishing their own form of clickbait.  Those are articles that clearly are designed to stoke controversy and provoke criticism, in hopes that the articles will be linked and discussed on other websites.  They’ll gladly accept harsh bashings if a few more clicks come their way.

Even as august a publication as the New York Times isn’t immune from the lure of clickbait.  Recently the Times published an article called “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man” that can only be viewed as high-end clickbait.  It’s a silly piece that lists grossly implausible attributes of “modern men” — such as that they not only buy shoes for their wives, but will know their wife’s shoe size and which women’s shoe brands run large or small — and it’s gotten creamed all over the internet.  But I’m guessing that it’s been one of the biggest click-producers that the Times has published recently, and that will make the Times, and its advertisers, happy.  (I’m not going to link to it because the last thing I want to do is reward the publication of any more clickbait.)

It’s sad, really, to see publications like the Times stoop to the level of clickbait.  It makes me wonder what kind of long-term impact the internet is going to have on the quality of journalism in America.

I Won’t Watch It

Kish and I were driving home yesterday, so we missed the TV news coverage of the awful shootings in Virginia.  We therefore didn’t see the footage of the killer gunning down two innocent people, for reasons no one will be able to explain.

We listened to the radio, though, and heard the sounds of the gunshots and the terrified and anguished screams of the witnesses — and that was bad enough.

Whatever other twisted grievances and chilling fantasies may have motivated the killer to commit a cold-blooded murder of a reporter and cameraman on live TV, it’s obvious that a desire for public attention was one of them.  I won’t give it to him, nor will I have my sensibilities jaded and perverted and corrupted by watching something so horrible.  I’m not going to look for his Facebook page, or read his “manifesto,” either, nor am I going to put a picture of him, or his criminal deed, on this post.  Consider it my little protest against publicizing the evil actions of a sick, depraved mind.

There’s a serious journalistic ethics question lurking here:  if you are a TV news program, do you broadcast the footage, which plays into the killer’s desires and potentially might lead to copycat actions, or do you decline to do so, knowing that some of your viewers might change the channel to a station that takes a different approach?  I can’t fault those outlets that broadcast the footage, on a “just report the facts” rationale, but I can applaud those networks and programs that declined to do so.  Journalists are part of society, and as a society we have an interest in discouraging murderous acts by disturbed individuals.

We live in a weird world, where ethical questions arise that wouldn’t even have been possible in an earlier, less technological age in which “social media” didn’t raise the possibility that every criminal could also become a celebrity.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Virginia shootings, it’s a truly ugly world.  I’d rather not dive into that ugliness.

Without Dispatch

An era is ending in Columbus.  The Dispatch Printing Company is selling the Columbus Dispatch, our local daily newspaper, to the New Media Investment Group, a holding company that is headquartered in New York City.

The Dispatch has long been identified with the Wolfes, an influential Columbus-based family that has owned and published the newspaper for more than 100 years.  Indeed, the Wolfes are so associated with the Dispatch that when the sale was announced this week the current publisher, John F. Wolfe, wrote a letter to the community explaining why the family would part with their flagship publication.

Wolfe’s stated reasons are familiar to anyone who follows the newspaper business:  he believes that independent, locally owned newspapers cannot realistically compete in an era where media conglomerates have the advantage of economies of scale.  Such economies are crucial in a business where the costs of acquiring, printing, and distributing a hard copy newspaper — to say nothing of providing it with content — put the daily newspaper delivered to your doorstep at a clear disadvantage compared to digital outlets that don’t have to buy paper and ink, maintain printing presses, and pay printers and delivery people.  When you combine the cost disadvantage with overall national trends of falling subscription numbers and declining advertising revenue, you produce a witches’ brew that ultimately has been fatal to many independent dailies.  The Dispatch has tried to cut costs, by shrinking the physical size of the newspaper among other steps, but ultimately it, too, succumbed to the inexorable forces of the marketplace and the reading habits of the American public.

The Wolfe family has been a central force in Columbus forever, and whether you agreed or disagreed with the Dispatch‘s editorial positions or approach to the news you at least knew that their hearts were here, in Columbus, and their focus was on their newspaper.  Now the Dispatch will be operated by a faraway conglomerate that owns 126 dailies in 32 states.  For those of us in Columbus for whom the Dispatch has been synonymous with the Wolfe family, it is a stunning development — and now we will see what those economies of scale will look like, and how being one newspaper in a corporate stable of more than 100 newspapers will affect news coverage, content, and the focus of local reporting.  We can safely predict that Columbus will never be the same.

Dredging Up The News

Richard had another really good article published in the Florida Times-Union this week.  This one is about the history of Army Corps of Engineers’ chronic underestimates of costs — and the resulting substantial cost overruns — in prior efforts to deepen the Jacksonville harbor.  It’s a significant issue for the people of Jacksonville, because a new river-dredging project is being touted, and local government would be picking up part of the tab.

This kind of story is important, whether you live in Jacksonville or not, because it deals with a very common scenario.  Business leaders and politicians pitch a big project, promising that it will create jobs and is needed to keep the community competitive.  Politicians like big projects because they create a sense of progress and, not incidentally, the pols get to award contracts for the construction work.   Project boosters produce feasibility studies and cost estimates that make the project seem like a bargain and it gets approved — but then when the bills roll in, the costs are far above the estimates and, often, the promised economic benefits either don’t materialize at all or are far below what was forecast.

In this instance, Richard used public records requests to obtain documents that show what prior Jacksonville harbor-deepening projects actually cost, which is typically many multiples of the rosy cost estimates provided before the projects got underway.  It’s another good example of Richard’s smart use of access laws to report facts that help to educate the reader and provide some meaningful context to the political promises.

It’s interesting that one of the people Richard interviewed for the story, a professor who studies ports, noted that every large infrastructure project involves cost overruns and delays.  We would all do well to keep that reality in mind the next time our local leaders want taxpayers to endorse a new jobs-and-progress project.

The Rolling Stone Retraction

Yesterday Rolling Stone formally retracted its now-notorious story about a gang rape that supposedly happened at a University of Virginia fraternity.  The retraction followed the release of a report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that concluded that the publication of the story in the first place was the product of a devastating series of failures by Rolling Stone, its reporter, and its editorial staff.

It’s to Rolling Stone‘s credit that it commissioned the CSJ report in the first place, but the report itself, and Rolling Stone‘s response to it, make me wonder whether I will ever fully credit one of its stories again.  The report documents a breakdown in basic journalism — relying primarily on one source, accepting stories at face value without sufficient fact-checking, failing to confirm quotes and facts with multiple sources, and allowing sensitivity for the alleged victim to trump the skepticism that should be an essential part of every reporter’s tool kit. It is a damning indictment of Rolling Stone‘s entire editorial process.

In response to the report, Rolling Stone‘s long-time publisher, Jann Wenner, said that the reporter who wrote the piece would continue to write for the magazine and that the managing editor of the magazine and the editor of the story itself would keep their jobs.  It’s a show of loyalty on Rolling Stone‘s part, I suppose, but it’s astonishing that people who utterly failed in the basics of reporting are not being fired for their role in a piece that ruined the magazine’s reputation for credible journalism — and, of course, maligned the University of Virginia, its fraternity system, and its students as well.

One other thing about Rolling Stone‘s response, as reported by the New York Times, seems a bit too pat:  the explanations for their failures, from the reporter to the editors, all come back to the notion that they wanted to be sensitive to the claimed rape victim.  I suspect that back story is a bit of a dodge.  I expect that someone along the line concluded that Rolling Stone had a sensational and sordid story in hand, and the basics of reporting were sacrificed in the rush to make a big splash.  It would have been nice if someone at Rolling Stone had admitted that sensationalism, too, played a role.

Faking It

NBC News anchor Brian Williams publicly admitted yesterday that a story he had been telling about a wartime experience in Iraq was false, and apologized.  Williams had said, including as recently as a week ago, that while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down.  That didn’t happen; Williams and an NBC crew were aboard a following aircraft that was unhit.

The Williams incident is interesting, because as the story linked above indicates, he initially accurately recounted that he was not in the chopper that was hit by rocket fire.  But over the intervening years the story morphed, and last week in a tribute to a soldier at a hockey game Williams said “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”  Why did the story morph?  Williams attributes it to the “fog of memory” after 12 years and constant viewing of the video of him inspecting the impact area, which caused him to “conflate” his experience with that of the soldiers in the stricken helicopter.

Of course, only Brian Williams knows how and why the real story became submerged beneath the fake one.  It’s hard to imagine ever becoming confused about whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket and personally felt the jolt of the impact and the fear about survival and the chaos of the forced landing — even if it was 12 years ago and you were a big-time newscaster who has had lots of exciting experiences since.

Many people might attribute the change in the story, instead, to the human tendency to exaggerate actual experiences to make our lives seem more interesting and worthy.  It’s a common phenomenon — who can forget, for example, Hillary Clinton’s debunked claim to have run across a Bosnian airport tarmac under sniper fire? — and it’s reflected in false resume entries, “fish stories,” and tales that grow in the telling over the years until the recounted story bears only a faint connection to the reality of the actual incident.

This doesn’t excuse a news reporter telling a false story, of course — but it does make you wonder how many of the personal incidents we hear about from public figures are true.  My grandmother used to say:  “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s not a bad rule of thumb.

When A Reporter’s Story Makes A Difference

Earlier this week The Associated Press reported that the federal healthcare.gov website — the portal that many Americans have used to search for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act — was sharing private information about users with a number of third-party entities that specialize in advertising and analyzing internet data for marketing purposes.  The AP reported that the personal information made available to those entities could include age, income, ZIP code, and whether a person smokes or is pregnant, as well as the internet address of the computer that accessed the healthcare.gov website.

The federal government responded that the point of the data collection and sharing was simply to improve the consumer experience on the healthcare.gov website and added that the entities were “prohibited from using information from these tools on HealthCare.gov for their companies’ purposes.”  The latter point seems awfully naive — once data gets put into detailed databases on powerful computer systems, who is to say it is not used to help a third-party company better target pop-up ads for their other clients? — and in any case ignores the ever-present risk of a hacking incident that exposes the personal information to criminals.  Privacy advocates and Members of Congress also argued that the extent of data collected went beyond what was necessary to enhance customer service.

On Friday the AP reported that the Obama Administration had changed its position and reduced the release of healthcare.gov users’ personal data.  Privacy advocates remain concerned about the website’s data collection and storage policies and the available data connections with third parties — connections which conceivably could be used to access personal information — but the Administration’s response at least shows some sensitivity to privacy issues and is a first step toward better protecting personal information.

It may not amount to a huge matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, but it’s gratifying when an enterprising reporter’s story can expose a troubling practice and cause a change in a way that benefits the Average Joe and Jane.  It’s how our system is supposed to work, and it’s nice to see that it still work when journalists do their jobs and do them well.

Black Eye For Reporting

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism back in the ’70s, I bought a book called The Rolling Stone Guide To Journalism — or something similar.  It was a great collection of pieces authored by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and other terrific reporters in the ’60s and ’70s, when Rolling Stone was forging new frontiers in journalism.  I loved it, and I still have it.

How the mighty have fallen!  The apparent failure of the Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat party.is a devastating blow for journalism that hurts just about everyone involved — the University, the fraternity, other victims of sexual assault who want to tell their stories, and the credibility of the reporter and Rolling Stone itself.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of publishing a significant story — and a claim that frat pledges committed a heinous criminal act certainly qualifies — expects that such stories have been carefully vetted, scrutinized by lawyers, fact-checked to the smallest detail, and read, re-read, and considered top to bottom before going to press.  When the publisher itself says it has doubts about a story, as Rolling Stone did today, it gives journalism a black eye and hurts the cause of everyone who hopes to us the press to focus attention on injustice or wrongdoing.

I think Rolling Stone owes it to reporters and readers alike to explain how this article saw print, what fact-checking processes were followed, and where the systems failed. How in the world did this happen?  There’s a real story there.

Another Really Great Story

Richard continues to hit it out of the park in his internship for the Chicago Tribune this summer.  His most recent story is a really great piece about how the recession hit the South Side of Chicago especially hard and that, years later, the development efforts in South Side neighborhoods still have not recovered.  The piece includes a well-done and easy to use interactive map that allows you to look at the impact of the recession on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

IMG_2349This kind of story is really good reporting for two reasons.  First, it addresses a topic — the status of rich neighborhoods versus poor neighborhoods in America, with the impact of crime and teetering city finances thrown in for good measure — that is not frequently addressed in the media. It’s not a pleasant, or easy, story to report, but it’s essential to cover if we are to get a true sense of economic reality.

Second, it involves real shoe-leather reporting, which often involves digging into public records like construction permits and figuring out boring topics like tax increment financing districts.  It’s easy to call the head of a development agency, get his or her spin in a pre-packaged quote, and stop there; it’s much more challenging and time-consuming to sift through documents obtained from a municipal office and do the kinds of painstaking, but powerful and irrefutable, comparisons that Richard has done in this piece.  People might pitch things to advance their agendas, but the construction permits don’t lie, because without the permits nothing gets built.

Forgive me for a little proud bragging — although what’s a family blog for if not for a little parental boasting? — but I greatly admire Richard’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and tackle some of the tough and challenging issues found in the urban areas of America.  He has become a really fine reporter.

When Should Newspapers Use Profanity?

Recently the New York Times carried an interesting opinion piece about when the news media should print profanities, vulgarities, and other offensive terms — the actual words, unmistakably spelled out in black and white, and not euphemisms like the “f-word” or “a racial epithet.”

The writer argues that in modern society the use of profanities has become increasingly commonplace, whether it’s in a diplomatic faux pas or on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and often the use of the word itself is what makes the story newsworthy. Why run the risk that the reader might not actually understand what the word is? In addition, because cuss words have even invaded the titles of books and plays and other literary works, what are newspapers supposed to do when they review those pieces? And the writer also notes that journals in other countries, like England and Australia, are not shy about publishing offensive words in full.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. We’re exposed to more than enough vulgarity in our daily lives — and so are our kids. Why shouldn’t newspapers strive to maintain a semblance of decorum? The fact that powerful people use profanities may be a news story, but that doesn’t mean we need to have a full frontal exposure to the obscenity itself. I don’t buy that there is a risk of confusion about precisely what the offensive word is, either. When people see the “f-word,” they’re not going to think that the article is talking about fracking. And in response to the argument that Aussies and Brits publish offensive words, my mother would ask me if I would jump off a cliff just because all my friends were doing so. I never came up with a good response to her argument.

I’m sure this makes me seem like a fuddy-duddy, an out-of-touch codger who is arguing for a senseless fig leaf that has no place in our hip, wide-open modern world. But I’ve seen how our culture has grown coarser, and coarser, and coarser as my adult years roll by, whether it is shock jocks on radio or sex- and violence-saturated TV programming or stand up comics who routinely use the “seven forbidden words” without the wit of George Carlin. I don’t like the direction we’ve taken, and each little modification seems to open the door to more coarseness to come.

So, I’m willing to draw a line. In my view, newspapers should aspire to a higher standard, and should draw the line to preserve a small enclave of decency and taste in an otherwise obscene world. Leave the profanities for the internet.