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Media Sloppiness Leads to Guilt by Association

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 23rd, 2010 · On Second Thought

Why associate a homicide with an apparently unrelated business?

A recent Enquirer story said an Over-the-Rhine shooting was “a block south of Findlay Market.” The headline said it was “near Findlay Market.” Nothing in the story said or indicated the victim or shooter had anything to do with Findlay Market except proximity.

And in a follow-up Sunday on the arrest of the accused killer, the story again related the shooting to Findlay Market without any information relating it to the market.

Why not “a block south of Our Daily Bread” or “a block south of New Prospect Baptist Church?” From the story, those places have as little to do with the killing as Findlay Market. In short, nothing.

Would The Enquirer say “a block south of P&G” or “a block north of the Great American Tower” when neither story includes any information tying a homicide to either? Not likely.

This goes beyond journalistic sloth that places events between McMicken and Mitchell avenues in “Clifton.” Given media-driven fears about safety in Over-the-Rhine, tying a homicide to an otherwise uninvolved place of business does unjustifiable harm.

Saying the shooting happened somewhere in the 100 block of Green Street, however, was laudable imprecision. The story didn’t include information linking the shooting to persons or activities at a more specific address.

On another level, this kind of sloppy, unthinking journalism is a personal pain. Some merchants know I worked for The Enquirer or write for citybeat.com, and I often get an earful about “the media” when printed or broadcast stories link crime in nearby OTR to the market. Merchants know that headlines keep some people away in the media-driven mistaken belief that Findlay Market neighborhood is dangerous to visitors. It isn’t unless you drive in to buy sex or drugs on the street.

Our family has shopped at Findlay Market weekdays and weekends for most of our 40 years in Cincinnati. My wife taught around the corner. We haven’t seen even a fight near the market, to say nothing of a robbery, mugging or shooting.

Curmudgeon Notes

• The same Enquirer homicide story says OTR is an “historic” neighborhood. Just about everything in the Basin is historic if that means “old.” An exception is the Ohio riverbank. It was created by modern high dams built by the Corps of Engineers to assure barge traffic of enough water regardless of the season. The historic riverbank is submerged and unlikely to be seen again.

• It’s no disgrace to be scooped by The Business Courier’s Lucy May. She’s one of the best I worked with at The Enquirer. She had good sources then, and she has them now. But it was sad for The Enquirer to lead Saturday’s Page 1 a day after The Business Courier weekly print edition displayed the same story about proposed development on the People People Bridge on its Page 1. Moreover, May’s story was posted on bizjournals.com two days before the Enquirer story appeared. Even with The Enquirer’s leisurely approach to a Page 1 story, it still couldn’t reach Corps of Engineers for comment.

• If anyone reaches the Corps for comment, ask how many tows pass under the Purple People Bridge every year carrying explosive or flammable cargoes? Usually, a tow is 15 barges — five rows of three abreast pushed by the tow (not “tug”) boat. What might happen if a tow collided with a bridge pier and ignited under the Purple People Bridge? It’s not the Ponte Vecchio; flammable and explosive cargoes do not pass under apartments and gold shops on that Florence (Italy) span. A week later, The Enquirer devoted the front page of a Sunday business section to the project without acknowledging the risks. One hopes the developers’ sense of due diligence is keener.

• Rather than wait, I asked Carol J. Labashosky, public affairs specialist at the Corps in Louisville District, about explosion and fire threats to anyone on an Ohio River bridge. “Yes, hazardous cargo moves by barge on the river,” she replied. “Yes, accidents happen, but rarely. ... Chemicals comprise a small amount of what's shipped, approximately 3-4 percent, and petrol and fuels are approximately 7 percent.” She said no spill “comes to mind in the last five or 10 years at Cincinnati.”

Labashosky wouldn’t speak to hazardous cargo rules “because that is something the industry would have to address (and) the towing industry would have to comment on the steps they take to minimize risk of collisions or hitting bridges.” Coal is the No. 1 commodity that ships on the Ohio River, she added.

• A week after following The Business Courier on the bridge project story, The Enquirer did it again, suggesting that the weekly has become a tip sheet for the daily. This latest example involved dramatically higher cost estimates for moving utilities along the proposed streetcar route.

• Local12 TV news wants us to know how to spot a dangerous coworker. Reminds me of a famously grumpy Enquirer editor whose vacations and retirement plan involved sailing off the Florida coast. We gave him a stainless steel high-power revolver (less bothered by salt water) as a retirement gift, but management, ever aware of its relations with employees, didn’t allow us to include ammo with the presentation in the newsroom.

The Enquirer headline said “Cancer treatment shows promise.” That’s sort of like “Italian government falls.” Don’t they all? The story was the major effort on a Sunday page 1. Inside, it took up much of a page. Why? What did I miss?

A local researcher and drug company are involved.

It’s experimental and tested only in tumor samples and lab animals. It’s years from being a treatment. And the story relies to some degree on one local physician who “reviewed the pre-clinical data on the compound.” That’s a long way from the kinds of results required for testing on humans.

• Kentucky’s Rural Blog reports how Corbin Times-Tribune reporting led to a recent 18-count indictment of Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge and probably his election loss earlier this month. Times-Tribune's editor at the time, Samantha Swindler, told The Rural Blog: “It was a lot of work and, honestly, sometimes it was a little scary. But it is by far the most important work I've done in my career. I know resources in a newsroom can be scarce, but investigative work is essential in small towns, where the good ol' boy system still thrives. ... And I'm not talking about important for circulation or ad sales. It's important for society. God help me if I see a wrong in my community and think I don't have the time to right it. If I get to that point, it's time to quit the business.” Swindler is now general manager of Oregon’s Tillamook Headlight-Herald.

Corbin’s 6,000-circulation Times-Tribune is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Chain Vice President for News Bill Ketter told The Rural Blog that the indictment "illustrates what a small, rural paper can do when it holds public officials accountable and doesn't get scared off by the big, powerful sheriff."

Hodge was charged with abuse of public trust and tampering with physical evidence, according to the paper. Rural Blog is produced by Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

• Couldn’t Happen Here Department? San Francisco adopted its don’t sit/don’t lie sidewalk ban with overwhelming support from the city’s daily paper, The Chronicle. Bay area columnist Scott James says opponents struggled to be heard and Chronicle coverage favored don’t sit/don’t lie. In a New York Times op-ed piece, James quotes Proposition L opponent Bob Offer-Westort saying, “The campaign for Prop L got free media coverage we could never get.”

James added that “in the six months leading up to Election Day, C.W. Nevius, the paper’s columnist and a self-described backer of sit/lie, wrote about the ordinance or related issues in 20 of 71 columns and in two blog posts on SFGate.com, The Chronicle’s Web site. During the same period ... the paper published five editorial-page endorsements in favor of sit/lie and two columns by Andrew S. Ross, the paper’s business page columnist, supporting the ordinance. Combined with the coverage by Mr. Nevius, a total of 29 articles covered the measure favorably. In the same six months, the newspaper mentioned sit/lie in 27 non-opinion news articles. (Letters to the editor were evenly divided.)”

Ward Bushee, editor of The Chronicle (and former Enquirer editor) told James that an internal review showed that the paper ran a greater number of news articles on sit/lie and homelessness compared to advocacy articles. “The news dictated the number of stories we did.”

• John Boehner’s GOP and its leaders at Fox News aren’t after NPR because it fired commentator Juan Williams for racist anti-Muslim remarks on Fox. They fear the nonpartisan network because it’s not conservative Fox News. In an interview with Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz, Fox chairman Roger Ailes said NPR execs "are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism." Later, Ailes sort of apologized, saying “nasty, inflexible bigot(s)” would have been more appropriate. “I was angry at the time because of NPR's willingness to censor Juan Williams for not being liberal enough."

NPR did not censor Williams. No one did. He was not fired for what he said on NPR. He remains free to say whatever Fox will accept in his longstanding role also as a Fox commentator.

• A GOP effort to eliminate federal funding for NPR failed last week, but House Minority Leader Eric Cantor invoked Williams’ firing, saying, "To be clear, it is not the government's job to tell a news organization how to do its job. But what's equally certain is it should not be the taxpayers' responsibility to fund news organizations with a partisan point of view."

• Did you read or hear this in any U.S. news media? Britain’s new defense chief, Gen. Sir David Richards, says war against al-Qaeda could last up to 30 years and we’ll never defeat them militarily. "Make no mistake," he told London’s Sunday Telegraph, "The global threat from al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates is an enduring one and one which, if we let it, will rear its head in states, particularly those that are unstable. The national security of the UK and our allies is, in my judgement, at stake — that is why we are engaged in a global struggle against a pernicious form of ideologically distorted form of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Although this won’t be a traditional war in which the winner marches into the enemy’s capital, Sir David continued, “We must ask, ‘do we need to defeat it (Islamist militancy)’ in the sense of a clear cut victory, and I would argue that it is unnecessary and would never be achieved." Rather, the question is “can we contain it to the point that our lives and our children's lives are led securely? I think we can."

Education, prosperity, understanding and democracy, he said, are the weapons that would ultimately turn people away from terrorism.

• Are you ready for a year of unrelenting “Wills and Kate” media attention now that the Prince and his girlfriend of eight years are to be married? Are you prepared for drooling attention to everything she wears and its impact on fashion in this country? It will be her job to produce an heir and a spare, so are you ready for the obsessive baby bump watch after nuptials? Are you ready for the next architectural offense atop a Cincinnati building to be a vision of whatever tiara Kate Middleton (the future Mrs. Wales ... or is it Windsor) wears?

• Britain’s national papers often set up stings that lead to humiliation or prosecution of public figures and officials. The latest by The Sunday Times might also invoke the Law of Unintended Effects. Reporters pretended to be lobbyists for Americans bidding to host world soccer’s 2022 quadrennial championships. The paper alleged — and FIFA (which governs the sport) accepted — that a Nigerian member of FIFA’s executive committee offered to sell his vote for host to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. FIFA banned the Nigerian from those votes. England wants the 2018 tournament, too. Whether remaining FIFA executive committee members will retaliate against England will become clear when the vote is taken Dec. 2. (And it is England, not Great Britain; Wales and Scotland field their own soccer sides.)

• One of my favorite recent stories involves Sarah Palin’s attack on Obama efforts to boost the national economy and the “lamestream” media. A Columbia Journalism Review blog, The Audit, said Palin misled her audience at an industrial convention, saying, “Everyone who ever goes out shopping for groceries knows that prices have risen significantly over the past year or so.”

Sudeep Reddy challenged her “hyperbole” in The Wall Street Journal, saying “The consumer price index’s measure of food and beverages for the first nine months of this year showed average annual inflation of less than 0.6 percent, the slowest pace on record.”

Responding with a gotcha on her blog, Palin quoted a Reddy story to prove she was right. It said “an inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America’s supermarkets and restaurants. ... Prices of staples including milk, beef, coffee, cocoa and sugar have risen sharply in recent months.”

Notice that Reddy said inflation is “beginning” and how Palin again misled this audience on prices. The ellipsis in her quote from The Wall Street Journal could not have been an accident. She deleted these words: “threatening to end the tamest year of food pricing in nearly two decades.”

Reddy 2, Palin 0 — but pointing this out will reinforce Palinistas conviction that the news media are biased. It won’t matter to her fan that, as The Audit notes, “Palin has a journalism degree, so I’m guessing she knows what an ethical no-no it is to misquote somebody like that.”

• London’s Daily Mail tipped me to a British Institute of Economic Affairs study, “Fair Trade Without the Froth.” A good headline always appeals to me, and I never believed that “Fair Trade” is the panacea for poor farmers abroad. Here are some highlights of the study findings:

Fair Trade is part of the market economy, is not opposed to free trade and its sales have grown enormously. It benefits producers with guaranteed prices, a social premium and the enforcement of particular labor conditions, but if the market price falls below the guarantee the quantity to be purchased is not guaranteed.

Fair Trade incurs costs. The certification charge for producers starts at 1,570 (about $2,500) in the first year – a huge sum of money for producers in the poorest countries. Fair Trade penetration is greater in middle-income than in poor countries.

Criticisms are exaggerated. Current penetration is likely to do little harm in terms of distorting markets but claimed benefits can be obtained from the normal business relationships that exist between primary product producers and buyers. Attempts by proponents to denigrate free trade and normal market practices distort realities.

Primary product producers will often gain much more by selling speciality brands of their product than they will from adopting the Fair Trade label. Many other social labeling initiatives exist with objectives that are different from and often more transparent than those of Fair Trade.

• When a Wellington, New Zealand, judge applied print law to the Internet, a young man landed in prison for posting his former girlfriend’s nude photo on her Facebook site. London’s Daily Mail called it a “legal ‘first’ for a crime committed on the Internet under morality and decency laws designed to cover printed media.” The jilted boyfriend made the image available to all 500 million Facebook users and changed the young woman’s password to stop her from taking the photo down. The Mail said police and Facebook techies shut down the account 12 hours later and took down the photo.

• Closer to home, The New Haven Advocate says finance journalist Teri Buhl is accused of getting rough enough with someone on Facebook to be arrested on second-degree harassment and breach of peace charges by the New Canaan Police Department. The alleged target was the 17-year-old daughter of Buhl’s former boyfriend. According to the paper, Buhl photocopied and posted the potentially embarrassing diary-like notes written by the teen and identified her by name. The writings talk of sex, drinking and puking. Buhl denies any wrongdoing and says it's a power play by affluent, influential parents to silence her reporting.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com



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