TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Why Journalists Get It Wrong (

Why Journalists Get It Wrong (
Fri, 17 Feb 2006 14:23:01 -0500

Why Journalists Get It Wrong
Why Journalists Get It Wrong
Why Journalists Get It Wrong

A discussion featuring ... journalists

w/four lists of reasons

by Alan Korwin
The Uninvited Ombudsman

February 17, 2006

In a move virtually without precedent locally, the Phoenix Society of
Professional Journalists chapter staged a meeting to examine, "Why
Journalists Get It Wrong," at a quiet private location in the
northeast valley.

Only about twenty attended the widely announced meeting, most of them
working journalists or PIOs (public information officers, the current
title for official government and private spokespersons).

The meeting began tentatively, with a moderator asking thoughtful
questions of the four panelists -- a courts reporter (Tribune), copy
editor/headline writer (Arizona Republic), TV news director (ABC-15
Phoenix), and the PIO for the Peoria police. By the end of the
90-minute session, the room was alive with honest, introspective
discussion, looking into some of the darkest corners of the
beleaguered journalism profession.

In the mild-mannered startup, the usual suspects were outed as reasons
why mistakes occur. At this point, and to some extent throughout the
evening, "getting it wrong" meant minor factual errors like getting
names and dates wrong, or erroneous details contained in a piece. Be
patient. It gets better.

Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #1
Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #1

The usual suspects, widely recognized:

Competitive pressure
Time pressure
Deadline pressure
Lack of management oversight
Novice staff
Working from memory
Non-malicious editing distortion
Fixed amount of print space
Fixed amount of broadcast time
The effects of shortening
Editorial predilection for official sources
The Steel Curtain (more on this later)
Shortage of journalists
Lack of experience on a beat

One panelist, citing a well-respected study, noted that journalism is
"chronically wrong," with, on average, every other story containing
three errors. The focus was still on countable errors, and didn't yet
get to the rotten underbelly part -- those core reasons why many
people (some would say rightly) do not trust what the news presents
these days.

As the audience and panelists warmed up to the subject, a dialog
(multilog?) began to take hold. Personal reasons for not adequately
pursuing a story began to emerge. The quotes below are paraphrases --
why feign accuracy when I have no recording and only hand notes and
memory to draw from.

Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #2
Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #2

Personal reasons emerge:

"I can't be rude, or force error checking." "I'm at the mercy of the
PIO." "There's noting I can do if the PIO doesn't get back to me."
"I could get fired if I went that far." "No one will do that."
"There is a culture of fear." "Reporters come to the task without
understanding of the basics, civics, or the subject."

About that "culture of fear" (a verbatim quote), it takes several
forms. There is fear of management disapproval of verbiage, handling,
decorum in the field. Also expressed was the editorial distaste for
non-official sources. A statement from an official spokesdog is
desirable, statements from anyone else is suspect, especially if it is
a plain vanilla citizen. That's because the citizen's background and
veracity are unknown. It's not clear how to contrast that against the
PIO's veracity, whose background as a front for an organization is not
only known, but shines in flashing neon.

Don't get me wrong, PIOs are a valuable resource, serve a purpose, and
the man from Peoria PD seemed and was received as an exemplary example
of how the role should be filled. Reporter reliance however, and an
outfit's hiding behind its PIO, are at issue.

There was broad recognition of PIO stonewalling, and deep-rooted
reporter fear of going around the PIO. Fear is also instilled in the
hearts of an organization's people, by its leadership, to avoid the
dangerous media. And it's getting worse, the crowd agreed. "I used to
go through my Rolodex, call a contact, and get an answer. Now, it's,
'I'll have our PIO get back to you at some point.'"

How does a breathing and conscious journalist or editor take that for
a reliable source? What you get there is a sanitized, dandified
massage from the outfit you're supposed to be reporting on. Taking
that, or standing there begging for it as many reporters apparently
do, defines a lapdog, not a watchdog. And what's bad for the media is
that the public can see this. When a story begins, "The White House
announced today ...", well, that's why they're called stories. Would
transparency help? "We have no information beside what the outfit
handed us." Or maybe, "We have in no way checked this wire service
story before running it. If you find an error, just contact them."

Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #3
Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #3

Deeper problems revealed through frank discussion

- Journalists need more curiosity, because they often seem to lack any.

- You can't cover a subject accurately if you haven't learned it first.

- Journalists lack courage. They will piss off people if they report
properly, and are unwilling to do so, so pabulum appears where the
news is supposed to be.

- What used to be thought of as normal reporting is now the special
and narrow category of investigative reporting. It turns out that
investigative work is hard and has special requirements. You need
more than one person and a non-deadlined period of time, to identify
an issue, research it, dig, and report on what you find. These
stories that really report (instead of "disseminating information")
have to go through the anxiety-ridden lawyercoaster, often more than
once, at huge cost.


Time ran out as the room really got into it, looking at fundamental
issues like the lapdog-watchdog thing, the impossible constraints of
business that must affect reporting (but which are routinely ignored
so the objectivity flag can be waved with abandon).

With a little more time we seemed on track to reach the largest and
deepest sources of error in the news these days, the part people are
most responsive to, and that harms the profession's reputation more
than anything.

Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #4
Reasons Journalists Get It Wrong, List #4

The rotten underbelly of the beast:

Categorical omissions
Tactical omissions
Slant, spin and bias
He-said she-said instead of research
Pretense of objectivity in inherently subjective matters
Position on the left-right continuum
Government coziness
Personal laziness
Political correctness
Advertising pressure and etiquette
The rare reporter cheat who gets all the attention
Personal hatred of some subjects

We've got a long way to go. This was sure a good start.

Alan Korwin
The Uninvited Ombudsman


Alan Korwin
"We publish the gun laws."
4718 E. Cactus #440
Phoenix, AZ 85032
602-996-4020 Phone
602-494-0679 FAX
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Encourage politicians to pass more laws... with expiration dates.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Some very good discussions. In my own
experience in years past, the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune
were unwilling to listen to me describe what was wrong with the train
in an Illinois Central train which crashed. Why? I was not an employee
of the railroad, therefore could not possibly know anything. _Chicago
Today_ (newspaper defunct since 1974) and Chicago Daily News
(newspaper defunct since 1976) were perfectly willing to at least
listen to alternative points of view but not the Tribune ... oh no ...
the Tribune was the newspaper which, during the 1950-60's era always
took such pride in its detailed reporting _using only the police files,
[but of course]_ of the numerous morals raids the Chicago Police would
conduct in gay bars and theatres around town, reports which included
the entire name, home address and home phone number of each person
caught up in a 'raid' along with the name of the company the person
worked for. And the news this past week, where the hunting companion
of Dick Cheney was almost killed by the VP. They (White House staff)
reported the incident to the local newspaper, and everyone it seems
was angry because it was reported to the Corpus Christi Times rather
than the New York Times. Reporters are a funny bunch; generally I do
not trust any of them. The reporters for NPR are okay and trustworthy,
and by and large they are okay at the Monitor also, but mostly they
just cannot be trusted. PAT]

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