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.

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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.

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.

A Reporter Resigns

Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative reporter with CBS News, resigned from her position today. Her resignation is one of those stories where your reaction to it may well depend on your political inclinations.

By any measure, Attkisson was an accomplished television journalist. She was regarded as one of the top investigative reporters on TV, and in her career she had won five Emmys — for reports on the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking program, the Red Cross, Republican fundraising, TARP and the border patrol. She’s going to finish writing a book, tentatively entitled Stonewalled: One Reporter’s Fight for Truth in Obama’s Washington, that apparently will focus on the challenges of reporting critically on the Obama Administration.

Those ever-present anonymous sources, though, say there’s more to it than a desire to complete a book. According to the Politico article linked above, some people say Attkisson was fed up with a perceived liberal bias at CBS and tired of the lack of support for investigative reporting on the network. Other sources contend that network executives thought Attkisson lacked impartiality and that her reports were increasingly motivated by a bias against President Obama.

I don’t know the truth, of course, although I’m a bit skeptical of the unnamed sources. When reporters are reporting on fellow reporters, you wonder whether the sources end up being other reporters gossiping with each other. We’ll probably never know the real back story.

But, we do know this: there are too few investigative reporters on TV to begin with, and Attkisson’s resignation means that the count of capable investigative reporters has just decreased by one. I don’t care what her political views are — any loss of a skilled broadcast investigative reporter is a loss for everyone. We need more of them, not less. I hope she finds her way back to TV soon.

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.