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Separation Between News Reporting and Opinion Is Like Church and State

By Ben L. Kaufman · January 19th, 2010 · On Second Thought
The Enquirer is reporting a local woman’s ability to foretell the future as a fact. If that weren’t enough, the paper is providing contact information for anyone who wants a private “reading.”

What were Enquirer editors thinking? Were they thinking?

Here’s what The Enquirer states as fact: “She's always known she's had the gift, ever since she was a little girl and saw her dead grandmother at the foot of her bed. Even then she was just able to do little things, like predict when the phone would ring. Later, she began to be able to tell people what would happen in the future. That's what she still does to this day. Psychic Jill, of Fort Thomas, has been telling people their futures for more than 20 years.”

This latest exercise in credulity recalls The Enquirer’s willful blindness to evolution during its coverage of the Creation Museum opening.

Believe what you want, there is a difference between news and advocacy. Forget that and it’s editorializing, a corrosive mixture of news and opinion in the guise of news.

(Leave aside, for the moment, the skeptic’s questions: If these people can foretell the future, why aren’t they rich? Why do they need The Enquirer to shill for them?) I’m grateful to Jason Haap at cincinnatibeacon.com for alerting me to this offense against journalism.

Had The Enquirer attributed the psychic’s claims to her, my complaint would be about news judgment. But it didn’t. It stated her ability to tell people’s fortunes as fact.

The irony is that attribution strengthens a story. You know who told us. You can judge their credibility.

Identifying our sources is Journalism 101. It’s not something to be left behind like a rented cap and gown. Clear, consistent attribution lends authority to our reporting. Its absence asks us to trust the reporter and paper.

You’d pay more attention to a statement attributed to President Obama than the same statement without attribution, offered on the authority of the reporter. We draw our credibility not from your (mad) belief in our omniscience but our access to knowledgeable sources who are accountable for what they say.

That’s why police stories quote authorities as to what apparently happened, even when it seems redundant, as in, “He left the road and hit a tree, the sheriff said.” Yes, that’s probably what he did before he hit the tree, even on Teakwood in College Hill. Or “the victim died of a bullet wound, the deputy said.” Or “We bombed the shit out of them and they won’t try to make milk in that factory again, the Pentagon official added.”

When reporters don’t know or can’t remember that basic bit of tradecraft and ethical journalism, editors are supposed to enforce it. This Enquirer mess ends as badly as it starts: “Want to set up a reading with Psychic Jill? E-mail her at...”

Curmudgeon Notes

• I’m sorry Haitians had to die to prove me right. In my column earlier this month, I predicted, “Network anchors will parachute in when marketing calls for a stunt to boost viewer numbers. They can’t be taken seriously; you don’t get local smarts in foreign countries sitting in New York. Exceptions continue to include NPR, BBC, The New York Times and Washington Post. It’s scary to think how few sources set our nation’s news agenda.”

I should have included CNN, which has its mojo back. Fox as a major news source on a world-class story remains a joke. Only a true believer would prefer it even to Brian or Katie.

Meanwhile, the blow-dried legions tell us how tough it is to report once they land in Haiti. How about doing what BBC World Service’s development reporter did: instead of interviewing officials in the capital, he went to the actual epicenter and interviewed people there. His impression: He’s seen the Apocalypse. And not for the first time, one has to ask, if a reporter and recording crew can reach people, why can’t aid? The irony: It took this disaster to dent most people’s denial of Haiti as a failed state, a bottomless hole for aid and an unending object of pity.

• BBC World Service is a unique source. Sure, it has its quirks and biases. I listen on WVXU-FM; it’s an important ingredient in our annual giving. BBC is there every night until NPR or WVXU local news comes on.

• It took The New York Times to raise the question to which other news media, including our do-gooding local TV stations, are willfully blind: Do you really want to give money to the American Red Cross in hopes it will reach Haiti? In a Page 1 story, The Times recalled that “After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, representatives from the British, German, Colombian, Dutch and other international Red Cross organizations criticized their American counterpart for inadequate planning, poor management of supplies and faulty record-keeping and logistics.

And after the Sept. 11 attacks the organization struggled to deploy some $1 billion in donations.” Each time, the Red Cross has promised to do better. Now, with the help of TV networks and the NFL, the Red Cross is again collecting millions … for Haiti.

• Haiti needs direct foreign investment. Instead, donors are sending clothes to earthquake victims. Haitians know how to make clothes. They even stitch baseballs. They need money water, food, medicine and to recreate small industries that make clothes and other necessities. Elsewhere, that kind of investment is called micro-financing. Even a treadle-operated sewing machine can support a family. It does elsewhere.

Once the emergency is over, we need to help Haitians work. We need to provide means and markets. That will be a revolution in a corruptly run country where pre-quake unemployment was so high it was difficult to count. The trick is to find nongovernmental organizations to disburse donations in smart, honest ways.

• A recent Sunday Enquirer served us well with Eileen Kelley’s look at black-on-black homicides in Cincinnati, Janelle Gelfand’s dissection of tensions afflicting plans to rehab Music Hall and John Kiesewetter’s recap of the Nick Clooney biography he helped WCET produce. As Kelley makes clear, if it comes to killing, Cincinnati police are not the enemy. Still, the number of unsolved killings indicates that the black community silence continues to treat police as the greater danger. Kelley’s enterprise provides further evidence of our need to treat the killing of young black men as a public health problem, especially since they’ve joined such acceptable risks as death from traffic, obesity, AIDS, alcohol, tobacco and abuse of legal/illegal drugs. In addition to excerpts from the TV five-part special, Kiese did a marvelous interview that same weekend on WVXU; he’s a natural storyteller — knowledgeable and enthusiastic for his subject and TV — and WVXU interviewer Mark Perzel let him talk. Given the way Cincinnati’s rich like to move quietly and loathe hanging dirty laundry for the hoi polloi to see, Gelfand’s detailed update on Music Hall was the kind of journalism that only beat reporters who know the turf can produce. In all three cases, editors dedicated the space needed to do it right.

• Major broadcast networks continue to present retired generals as military analysts without alerting viewers to their extensive ties to defense contractors and the Pentagon. It’s a practice identified by The New York Times and updated by Laura Bassett on Huffington Post. “The media are not legally obligated to disclose their connections,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It's obviously a little misleading, though.”

• A new Pew nonpartisan study of the news finds that the exponential increase in Internet sources doesn’t mean there is more news. Rather, in the many online and other media studied there were very few sources, and most were newspapers. The others amplified or simplified what the papers reported. Pew also found fewer papers in the areas studied, which translates into fewer originators of news stories for others to pick up. This is no surprise and the underlying worry about the future of dailies: No one else has so many reporters originating news stories. Even today’s depleted newspaper staffs provide most of what everyone offers.

Christianity Today carries a jeremiad about the misuse of survey polling statistics. It ought to be forwarded to every reporter and editor. Although generally applicable, the specifics involve evangelical Christians’ abuse of data to frighten the faithful and advance their agendas (and fundraising). Author Ed Stetzer is an insider, and CT is the nation’s leading evangelical Protestant periodical; the sinners and their victims are CT constituency. He begins by recalling a session with the international secular Religion Newswriters Association, to which I have belonged for decades and am a former president. We treat our guests with respect but rarely gently. His RNA appearance was typical. He recalls a member asking: “Why do you evangelicals love to make up and say such bad things about yourselves?”

That sparked his CT j’accuse. Too often, he said, evangelicals grab a statistic that suits them best: proof of vice or virtue or evidence of decline or growth. The distortion is deliberate. Other data are ignored to make the point. Journalists, often pressed for time and innocent of sociological or polling techniques, then amplify whatever eye-catching “fact” the subsequent press release emphasizes.

None of this is peculiar to any religion or denomination, although it’s most common among religious and secular true believers for whom ends justify means and integrity is subordinated to XXX. Stetzer identifies obvious, useful antidotes to minimize the likelihood of stenographic reporting of partisan distortions: know whose ax is being ground and ox is being gored; read all of the questions and answers and compare new data to decades of similar studies.

Stetzer’s been a victim of willful distortion. He said news stories trumpeted researcher George Barna’s discovery that 195 million Americans are “unchurched.” Talk about a hot button finding for evangelical Christians: They’ve failed to bring almost two-thirds of Americans to Jesus and have a wonderful, wide open challenge for evangelism. Google “195 million unchurched” and you’ll see what I mean. However, Stetzer, not Barna, did the survey and Stetzer studied “unbelievers,” not the “unchurched.” As he noted in CT, “someone somewhere changed the language and thus the meaning.” Meanwhile, the non-fact fact is embedded in evangelical anxieties and prayers.

• Veteran newsman Alan D. Mutter, blogging as Newsosaur, says major newspaper companies told investors at a UBS media conference that things were looking up because their ad sales would be down “only” 20 percent to 25 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 after tumbling as low as 30 percent in prior periods. “Newspapers are on track this year to produce their lowest advertising sales since 1986, representing a 43 percent drop from their all-time peak of $49.4 billion in 2005. Based on the historic sales slide in the first nine months of the year, newspapers are likely to generate no more than $28 billion in advertising revenues in 2009, thus shedding more than $21 billion in sales since 2005.

“In other words, newspapers appear to have gotten mighty close to losing almost half of their revenue base in a mere four years — a decline that began well before the economy began unraveling. Advertising sales traditionally have generated 80 percent of the revenues at most newspapers, with circulation fees providing the balance. The profound contraction of the advertising market has caused some publishers to begin ratcheting up subscription and single-copy prices, but the industry at the moment will live, or not, by advertising. …

“Many of the traditional advertisers have moved on. An alarming number of the staunchest newspaper advertisers — including thousands of retailers and auto dealers — succumbed during the worst economic calamity since the 1930s, so there literally is no hope of regaining their business. Many of the surviving advertisers — including retailers, employers, real estate agents and car dealers — are shifting ever-larger portions of their advertising spend away from newspapers to the web, where the costs are lower, audiences are highly targetable and response can be meticulously measured.”

• Public broadcasters face grave risks of losing credibility and trust through increasing commercialism of their work, says David Fanning, founding executive producer of the award-winning series Frontline. In an online report, Fanning is quoted as saying it is “shameful” how some public stations use pledge drives to market products for local sponsors. “This is our deepest embarrassment as public broadcasters. … We spend more of our energy and promotional time pushing programs that have nothing to do with our mission.”

Fanning added, “I am particularly concerned about a threat to our essential public identity. This is already happening. They’re called ‘sponsorships,’ but they are essentially commercials all over public broadcasting web sites, local and national, radio and television. I’ve argued strenuously that we are threatening our special status as non-commercial media. …

“We all swim in a sea of commercialism, and that’s precisely why we need to keep ourselves clean of it. … One day, I’m afraid, when most of our work is experienced on the web, we will wake up and the public will say we’re no different from the rest of them. Why should we give you our membership money? And why should the government give you our tax dollars?”

• Columbia Journalism Review interviews the New York Times reporter who pursued the effects of concussions among football players. It’s an example of what reporters can do when editors let them follow the facts for however long it requires. Here’s the introduction to that online interview by Brent Cunningham:

“In 2007 The New York Times hired Alan Schwarz largely on the basis of his initial freelance reporting for the paper on the problem of head injuries in professional football. Since then, Schwarz’s persistent coverage has helped make the issue — which had been kicking around the edges of sports journalism for twenty years — part of the national conversation, prompting two congressional hearings and a sea change within the National Football League on how it deals with head injuries.

“After years of denying that concussions can produce long-term health consequences, including dementia, the league did an about-face in December and agreed to financially support research into concussions by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, one of its harshest critics. That came on top of rule changes announced in November that prevent players exhibiting any signs of a concussion from returning to either a game or practice on the same day as the injury occurred, and then not without clearance from an independent brain-injury expert.”


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

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