Tag Archives: journalism

Q: Should newspapers fact-check candidates? A: Define ‘fact check.’ Or maybe define ‘newspaper.’

16 Jan

A friend sent me the link to a post from the left-leaning Alternet (click here), about a brouhaha over whether the New York Times should be “fact checking” the presidential candidates. The dust-up started because, among other things, the Times reporters never called out GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for falsely claiming in stump speeches that President Obama gives speeches “apologizing for America.” (One of the Times columnists did.)

So Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor” (AKA ombudsman), put it to his readers: Should Times reporters engage is fact checking the candidates’ claims in their stories? You can probably guess what readers said–loudly. (One sample: “Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”) His responses to the criticisms attracted even more scorn.

To be fair, I wonder how Brisbane was defining “fact checking.” He may have in mind a PolitiFact model of publishing “scorecards” and rating the “truthiness” of specific statements. The Times is NOT set up for that kind of blow-by-blow tracking, nor are many news organizations. Even when NPR pointed out Romney’s error on Jan. 10, its report cited Politifact.com as a source.

That’s not to let them off the hook, especially since there’s some uncomfortable prior history of the Times not being thorough in fact checking. (See: Judith Miller and the case for invading Iraq in 2003.) More profoundly, the news media are supposed to be the “Fourth Estate,” the so-called watchdog of those in authority (and those who would be in authority). A healthy, working democracy needs a vibrant, vigilant media: That’s Poli Sci 101. (Exhibit A: The tagline on the Columbia Journalism Review: “Strong Press, Strong Democracy.”)

So this is a matter of priorities and focus. What’s the goal of the Times’ campaign coverage? If I had to guess, I’d say they see their main job as telling people what happened or what was said on the campaign trail, day by day. Cleaning up the statements of candidates is secondary, something to do when or if possible or when there’s such an obvious howler that it can’t be ignored (or maybe if it’s just so easy to catch).

This isn’t the best way to cover a presidential campaign–what with the future of the country at stake and all–and I doubt anyone in the Times newsroom would say it was. I don’t believe many reporters want to give Romney or “the establishment” or even Obama a free pass. Most journalists have more professional integrity than that. (If you can’t believe that, maybe you can believe they’d just love to win a Pulitzer by uncovering the next Watergate.) I think the lapse in “fact checking” is more a matter of microeconomics than macroeconomics or ideology.

This problem is a result of ever-shrinking newsrooms being overwhelmed by an ever-expanding amounts of information and PR, especially coming from well-funded campaigns like Romney’s (and when the time comes, Obama’s). If the Times’ newsroom is like most others in the U.S., as well endowed as it is, it has likely cut its research staff to the bone, if not eliminated it altogether. At the same time, thanks to the handheld technology of iPhones and tablets and the glories of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV news, reporters must file multiple stories or updates each day, sometimes dozens. That simply leaves too much information for too few workers with too little time to sort, analyze and explain. I’m sure campaign managers have figured out that they can avoid a lot of close, timely scrutiny if they simply swamp the newsrooms.

Why is this happening, if it’s damaging the ability of reporters to actually do their jobs? The newsroom is not the boardroom. Corporations that own media outlets have been cutting newsroom staff and resources for more than a decade to increase their bottom lines. (Just a handful of multinational corporations own thousands of newspapers and other news outlets in the U.S.) The financial interests of company stockholders can trump the political interests of citizen stakeholders. Ironically, I’m convinced, this is penny wise and pound foolish, as the old saying goes: As news owners milk short-term profits by slashing reporting resources, they’re damaging their outlets’ long-term value in the process. Why would anyone pay for thin reporting or PR pass-alongs?

There’s one more log to throw on this fire: Thanks to the Citizens United decision, all corporations–including those that own media–can boot up their donations to political campaigns. (Tangential question: If corporations have First Amendment rights like individuals–and therefore can give money to political campaigns–shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? I’m confused. If “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” then the Supreme Court is inconsistent and ignoring reality.) The net effect: Corporate support for journalism (i.e., the public interest) is down. Corporate support for partisan politics (i.e., personal and company benefits) is up.

This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s just one of the results of a social and political culture that has more and more organized itself around self-interest and profit. So we don’t only get the government we deserve. We also get the government watchdogs we deserve.

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Postscript, Jan. 18: This pot continues to boil. Go here for a thoughtful discussion of the New York Times’ fact-checking controversy, courtesy of Lucas Graves and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

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Reporting on priestly celibacy in Germany … sort of

2 Mar

All Things Considered,” NPR’s evening news program, ran an interesting segment on Wednesday about how some Roman Catholics in Germany “pray” that the church will rethink its teaching about celibacy for priests. Here’s the start of the text story on NPR.org., which follows the audio closely:

In Germany, calls are going out for the Catholic Church to rethink some of its basic principles, including the rule of celibacy for priests.

Many say the German church is experiencing a period of crisis. It’s been rocked by sex and abuse scandals and no longer even has enough priests to serve its parishes. These days, even more traditional-minded Catholics in Germany have begun calling for far-reaching reform.

That’s fine for a general summary lead. The problem is that the rest of Kyle James’ story doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Aside from hearing the voices of four individuals, we get very little information about what is really going on over there.

There’s no indication of who are the “many” making these calls or who say the church is in crisis, or if there’s been some recent development in this controversy. The story mentions surveys and projections, but doesn’t offer specifics about the surveys, not even percentages.

As it turns out, more than 140 Catholic theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland issued a petition in early February, calling for changes in the church, including celibacy. But we didn’t learn that on NPR.

The  individuals who are quoted apparently represent various segments within the church: a former priest, now married with children and still in the church; a theologian; a Religion News Service correspondent who covers the Vatican; and a “well-known conservative Catholic politician.”

The four are unanimous about how clerical celibacy — among other “rules” — is an albatross around the church’s neck, sure to drag it down.

They may be right about that, but the story would be stronger if there were more evidence that these voices run the gamut of German Catholic opinion, which seems unlikely. No one in Germany, not even a bishop, was available to offer a different view? How about more detail on where these “calls” for change are coming from? How about a little background or explanation?

“Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well,” claims the politician in the story, Hermann Kues.

Really? What’s that about? Is he correct? I thought there was actually some doctrine involved, but we’d never know from this story. A little historical background would have helped — not to mention hearing from a church leader or  theologian who could explain Roman Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s position. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing for or against priestly celibacy right now. I’m just talking about how this story was covered.)

This was an anomaly. NPR usually airs stronger religion stories, especially when Barbara Bradley Hagerty is on the case. (She was busy on Wednesday, reporting on the Supreme Court free-speech decision, providing listeners with a closer-than-usual look at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which was at the enter of the court’s ruling.) But this story from Germany, sorry to say, was an example of how news media — even the Normally Pretty Reliable news media — can get the reporting not … quite … right.

By the way, this gives me a chance for a shout out* to Get Religion, a blog by journalists that looks at how mainstream news media** cover religion and how they can get it right … or not. You might want to check it out.

* Do people still say “shout out”?

** Are there really any “mainstream media” anymore, or is that just an old concept?

Don’t be surprised: An Alabama governor, Irish bishops, and a certain Florida pastor

23 Jan

You remember Gomer Pyle, don't you? "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

From this week’s news, file the following under “Don’t Be Surprised”:

1. The newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself immediately in public-relations hot water after telling a church audience on Martin Luther King Day that only Christians were his brothers and sisters. The new governor, who’s a Southern Baptist, apologized to his constituents two days later. Theologically, he’s very much in line with mainstream evangelical theology — that is, that Christians have been uniquely adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. But any suggestion of being exclusive or of favoring one group of constituents over another is not politically savvy — or even that advisable at the duly elected leader of all the people of Alabama.

2. The Vatican shouldn’t be surprised (and most likely isn’t) that the disclosure of a confidential letter from a Vatican official in 1997 to Irish bishops re-opened wounds, sparked yet more controversy about clerical abuse and was mostly misunderstood if not altogether falsely reported. The letter, obtained by an Irish TV network and released to the Associated Press, warned the bishops of likely consequences if they followed through with their proposed policy of reporting all charges of child abuse to police. Victims groups and at least one American lawyer who is working to sue the Vatican on behalf of a victim, said the letter was a “smoking gun” that proved the Holy See was encouraging a cover-up.

The Vatican said the letter simply alerted Irish clerics that their proposed policies had implications under both civil and church law, but it never advised them not to report abuse. Reading the one-and-a-half page letter, it looks like the Vatican has a point. To judge by the coverage, especially when it first hit the headlines, some of the reporters on this story either didn’t understand “Vaticanspeak” and the workings of Roman Catholic Church machinery — or they didn’t want to. (To read about the problems with the reporting on this story, check out this post, which gives me a chance for a shout-out to friends at the Get Religion blog, a good place to find critique of how the mainstream media covers religion.)

3. Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who drew worldwide attention last fall when he pledged to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, should not be surprised that the British government denied him entry into its country. He planned to speak at a February rally protesting the rise of Islam in the UK as well as visit his daughter who lives there. The British government said he was denied a visa because it “opposes extremism in all its forms” and  thinks his views would “foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”.Jones, of course, protested the decision, calling it “sabotage of the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression” as well as proof of “the effectiveness of the threat of militant Islam in the UK.” About 2.7 percent of the UK’s 62.3 million people are Muslim (compared to 0.6 percent in the US), according to the CIA World Factbook. When I lived in England in the 1980s, we could already say, accurately, that there were more Muslims than Methodists in Britain.

Are there any other threads running through these stories? Maybe, to paraphrase the most famous line from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate … well.

Multimedia gets religion … or vice versa: A Poynter-eye view

14 Feb

Imagine a pair of American teenage girls talking about what to wear on their first day in high school. Nothing unusual there, except they are Muslims and are debating whether to wear traditional head coverings.

 

Or maybe it’s another group of teens from various religious groups who are on the brink of rejecting their family’s faith.

 

Or a middle-aged minister struggling over his disagreement with his denomination’s official stance about abortion. Or a priest who must announce to church members next week that the denomination is closing their small, tight-knit parish.

 

Now imagine watching any of these scenes through a camera lens.

 

Those kinds of stories – high in human interest and rich in meaning – seem tailor-made for the quickly evolving media mix appearing every day on the Internet as text, video, sound, graphics and photographs.

 

So says Kelly McBride, leader of the Ethics Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

 

“I can see kick-ass religion stories using multimedia tools,” McBride told me on Wednesday. “Religion as a topic should fare well if someone leads the way.”

 

I was attending a Poynter seminar designed to help college educators use and teach multimedia journalism more effectively, and that gave me an opportunity to sit down with McBride and talk about the connection of multimedia and religion reporting.

 

McBride, who covered religion for eight years before joining the Poynter faculty, thinks the new technology allows journalists to add layers of understanding to complex issues since it can present both compelling human stories and immense amounts of information and data.

 

“For instance, in a trend story, good storytelling will find people who play out the issues,” she explained. “A journalist could highlight theologies in different denominations or tell the tale of someone who is gay and Christian. A journalist can look for people at varying points of their journeys.”

 

A reporter can then use computer-based tools, she said, to produce dynamic images that illustrate a trend’s regional impact, for example, or create a data map to track, say, changing seminary enrollment.

 

But she rarely sees such in-depth coverage on the religion beat. One reason is money. Reporting is expensive work, and newsrooms around the nation are trimming (sometimes slashing) budgets and reporting staffs, and religion is often first to the chopping block. Even the Dallas Morning News, which produced what many observers considered the nation’s best religion news section, carved its treatment to the bone last year.

 

 “Newspapers can’t even cover the school board,” McBride said, “and religion is the low man on the totem pole.”

 

But tough financial decisions, McBride said, are made easier by readers’ lack of interest in religion as a news topic.

 

“I don’t hear anyone complaining anymore about lack of religion in the news or about the media who don’t understand religion,” she said. “For instance, religion was one of the subtexts of the election, covered badly and sporadically, but very few people complained.”

 

Some specialists keep their eyes on mainstream media’s religion coverage, such as the Get Religion Web site and a new book critiquing religion news, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” (Oxford, 2008). But McBride thinks they are the exception.

 

 “Nobody seems to care anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s because so many newspapers can’t do it, but religion is not clearing the expectation bar.”

 

 Just a decade ago audiences wanted robust religion coverage. What happened?

 

“Clearly an engine in the 1990s was the sense that people of faith felt alienated from the mainstream,” McBride said. “But as a society we got over that. I don’t believe they feel alienated, not more than 30 percent of the population. Now anyone can find a forum and can be heard.”

 

But a more immediate problem, she said, is that religion stories can be … well, boring.

 

“No one reads them,” she said. “Text can allow you to get away with a lame story. Not every story is worth telling.”

 

That’s where multimedia comes in, since it requires telling a real story to work well. Few readers will thrill to policy reports or announcements, but most will attend to the narrative of a person’s life.

 

“Religion lends itself to multimedia,” McBride said. “But you can’t sit at the desk and talk to wonks all day. You have to ask, ‘What does our audience want?’ They have so many choices. It’s a brutal reality for editors to deal with.”

 

First published 14 Feb 2009 in the Johnson City Press.

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