Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Shooting the Messenger, Over and Over Again

The press is far from perfect, but the former reporter in me still bristles when I hear people randomly attack it. Especially if they get all their news from talk radio or local TV. You don't get to be a media critic if you can't bother to read at least one daily newspaper (print or online) a day. That would be like me saying Manga sucks when I haven't really read any.

I snapped over the Christmas holidays when my cousin's husband claimed that the media were merely puppets of powerful overlords who wanted to keep Americans ignorant of what's really happening. I said, "Really? Because in 14 years of working at three different newspapers, I don't remember an editor ever telling me what to say. Not even once." He did some awkward backpedaling, but it's hardly the first time I've heard that statement. More recently, I went into "defend the press" mode when a guy I work with said, "The media doesn't report the good news out of Iraq." Deep breaths were required.

That got me thinking about the top bogus accusations hurled at print journalists. I'm no longer interested in the "fair and balanced" debate, which is to blame for the scourge of "Mallard Fillmore" on the comics page. But here are the others that come to mind:

1. You don't report the good news!
A lot of news is simply neutral: Annual holiday parade takes different route; Local author to appear on Maury Povich; Pancake house opens second location. In the case of "negative" news, the assumption is that things are supposed to work — that a state university will meet its payroll or that elected officials in Florida will meet only during public, advertised meetings. So when that stuff doesn't happen, it's called news. Besides, the standard for "bad" news is different in every market. If shots are fired somewhere in L.A. but no one gets hit, you're probably not gonna see that on the front page of the Times. If it happens in Hahira, Ga., you sure as hell will see it on that city's local front.

2. You're writing this a certain way to influence the outcome!
Back in the day, I wrote a lot of stories about zoning changes and noise ordinances — things that tend to matter an awful lot to the people involved. But I never lived in the towns I covered. My personal investment was nil; all I cared about was getting the story reported accurately, clearly and not being scooped by the competition. But inevitably, some angry citizen would call and accuse me of either not wanting people to know something or even spinning a story a certain way because I was dating an interested party. And each time, I wanted to tell Angry Citizen that I didn't give one tenth of a shit about the jet ski noise on the lake or whether Club EXXXstasy got a variance to open a topless coffee bar. That would have been unprofessional. But just to clarify: I didn't.

3. You failed to report the evidence cited in a November study published in the (insert obscure journal here)!
Look, most reporters try to flesh out information to the best of their ability while on deadline. Some have more time and resources than others. Believe me, I've read plenty of stories with holes you could drive a bus through. But unless the writer is a seasoned investigative reporter who writes about topics of expertise, s/he is required to write about a lot of different things on the fly. That thing (vaccinations/boll weevils/handwriting/Swedish drinking games) might be your pet issue, but it's silly to expect that other readers want that level of detail. Remember, a daily newspaper is written for a general audience, not the 1,300 subscribers to "Christian Techno Artists Quarterly."

4. Your column/editorial was biased!
Imagine that! A biased column or editorial! The editorial section of the newspaper usually contains the word "opinion" in a prominent location. That means that you have now entered the zone where naked bias is allowed. That is the nature of an opinion. Honestly, the notion of complete objectivity is silly. While the reporter may not care about the outcome of something, s/he is paid to put it in context — which requires making certain judgment calls. Good reporting comes from a skeptical, informed point of view, which is what makes it different from stenography. Asking tough questions or pointing out that people in power don't always act selflessly isn't "anti" anything — except maybe anti-stupidity.

I'm sure I'll think of others.


Christina said...

This is a bit of a variation on the themes you've already outlined, but what burns me these days are people who believe that only blogs have the "real" truth. I hear them all the time, when they call into NPR and earnestly talk about how the media is failing to write about [some ridiculous topic here.] What I don't hear someone say often enough is, okay caller, how did YOU hear about this? A blog? And where do think the blog got it from? 99 percent of the time, it was from some reporter somewhere. Reporters do the work, news bloggers aggregate and take the credit. I wish that people could be more honest and just say, "you're not reporting on [ridiculous topic] as much as I think you should."

EDP said...

Oh my God, you're right. I mean, for all I know, my son has a blog. That doesn't make it a good source of accurate information. How much easier would our reporting jobs have been if we could have just typed some shit on the fly? Anonymously? In our pajamas?