To err is journalism

July 31, 2012

Except TECHNICALLY AP Style is “No. 1”

As much as journalists hate to admit it, we are not perfect. Granted — no one is. But journalists are particularly fallible in part because we refuse to acknowledge our fallibility.

This blog item comes to you today because I … I made an error in a story last week.

It was a fairly minor story, but that’s not an excuse. The only thing I will say to defend myself is this: I was really busy last week. I had a lot on my plate and a county government meeting with a really small agenda was at the very bottom of my totem pole of priorities.

OK. Enough stalling. Here’s the story.

Like I said, it was a story about a county government meeting, and the agenda released beforehand was an unremarkable one. There were only three items listed under “new business,” and all of them were routine measures, things the county has to pass every year. No ceremony. No discussion. Just housekeeping.

The first of the new items was signing a contract with a company for dead livestock removal. The company removed carcasses of livestock from people’s farms and processed them for a fee. The county enters into this kind of contract so that the decaying carcasses won’t pollute the water supply.

Well reading through the contract and listening to the discussion during the meeting, I made the mistaken assumption that it was not dead livestock removal, but road kill. So I printed road kill.

The next day, the head of the county government called me about it and requested that a correction be printed. And he was very nice and understanding — he said that if he had known that I thought it was road kill, he would have immediately corrected me. He blamed it on himself for not clarifying it.

But here’s the thing: It was my fault. My fault entirely. It’s rule No. 1 in journalism school: Never, ever, ever assume. EVER. As the saying goes: “When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.”

Well I made a gigantic ass of myself and I felt terrible.

My editor didn’t make a big deal about it, I think in part because he could already tell I was beating myself up about it. He just wrote the correction, made me file a correction form. Then the opinion editor gave me a cake pop and said it would make me feel better.

Errors in journalism happen all the time. And it’s not like we’re doctors or cops or anything like that; Lives aren’t on the line we we screw up. Our errors aren’t the difference between life and death.

BUT our errors are the difference between credibility and public distrust.

David Carr, New York Times columnist and media reporter, published a column this morning about high-profile journalistic misdeeds and their contribution to a deteriorating public trust of American news media. He mentioned specifically News Corporation’s phone-hacking scandal and more recent gaffes, such as CNN and Fox News’ misreporting of the Supreme Court Obamacare ruling.

In the column, he says that the Internet fosters a hyper-competitive nature among news outlets, which provides the perfect storm for mistakes, gaffes and breaches of journalistic ethics. And all of these things make the public distrust us even more. Carr says:

“According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in 1985, 34 percent of the respondents thought stories contained inaccuracies. As of 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 66 percent.”

I don’t know about you, but that pisses me off.

And what’s even worse, Carr goes on to say that a great deal of this is our fault. Our fault for hacking phones, jumping to conclusions and making shit up — but also our fault for ignoring it. News Corp. received significantly less media coverage than it deserved. CNN and Fox News just completely glossed over its misreporting of the Obamacare ruling.

It’s almost like we collectively believe that if we ignore all of the things we’ve done wrong, the public will trust us more.

I understand the urge. I wanted to ignore the fact that I made this huge error in a story last week. I wanted to sweep it under the rug and pretend like it never happened. But IT DID. It happened and I felt terrible about it.

And I think that’s another reason the media collectively ignores its errors. Because if we turned around and faced the crossed arms and skeptical looks of the public we have been misguiding for years, we’d finally have to answer questions we don’t want to answer and feel guilt we fight like hell to keep at bay.

Well, I’m not going to be a part of it.

I made a mistake. I made a huge mistake and it was entirely my fault. No one else’s but my own. I failed at my job. I failed to properly inform the public. I failed to ask the follow-up questions, and I failed to understand the subject at hand. I made assumptions that did damage to my credibility and the trust my audience had in me.

I can’t promise that I won’t make another mistake, because I will. I’m human, and that’s what I do. But I do promise to do better. I do promise to better understand the issues I report on and ask better follow-up questions. And I promise to allow my readers to kick my ass if I ever make a mistake like this again.

That made me feel much better than the cake pop.


Sunshine laws vs. Protecting anonymity

July 13, 2012

Sunshine laws are like a journalist’s bread and butter.

They help us preserve democracy. They help us expose corruption. They allow us to examine and inform the American electorate.

I love sunshine laws.

However, there are always, always, ALWAYS exceptions. Some exceptions are just bullshit, but some exceptions are legitimate concerns, and I think it’s all too easy to point the finger at government and immediately conclude that corrupt politicians are hiding something when really, there are more logical and less obvious reasons to withhold information for public consumption.

Case in point: There’s a huge fuss in my state over the department of family services withholding case files for a young girl in foster care who died as a result of severe abuse. There is evidence to suggest that the department had received multiple alerts from teachers and other adults who suspected what had gone on, but the department had done nothing to protect the child. The department is also fighting like hell to keep the public from viewing the records of the case.

So here’s the deal: What happened to that girl was absolutely horrible. I detest child abuse just as much as the next person, if not more. And if the coverage is to be believed, the department should be held responsible for not doing its job.

BUT (and bear with me) there is a logical explanation for why they refuse to turn over the girl’s records.

Some background. Before I got this job, I worked as a reporter in a neighboring state, and one of my pet projects was foster care. I learned everything there was to to learn about the system and the laws of that state short of becoming a foster parent myself. I hung out with foster parents for 12 hours a day. I talked to kids both in and out of the system. I listened to more terrible stories than I care to remember. I became somewhat of an expert on all of the laws and issues regarding childcare in that state, and I came to have a healthy respect for those laws. Mostly, the laws sought to protect the privacy of the children in the system. I couldn’t publish photos of a foster kid. I couldn’t even take a photo of a foster kid. I also couldn’t print their names. Here’s an example of why.

Imagine you’re a foster kid. You’ve been with your foster parents for three weeks and it’s been a huge adjustment. You’re living with strangers. You’re dealing with household rules for the first time in your life. You’re at a completely new school where the kids bully you and make fun of you all the time because you’re new and you’re also a little weird because your mom was a meth addict who died before you were six, and your dad used to beat you with a broomstick for fun. He also failed to feed you properly, so you’re skinny, and your joints are all knobby. Your clothes don’t help much with your popularity—your shirt is 10 sizes too big for you because the state doesn’t give your new parents enough to take care of you, so all they can afford to dress you in is your older foster siblings hand-me-downs. And the local paper just printed your photo and name on the front page, identifying you as a foster kid. That’s going to go over really well with the bullies on the playground. Not to mention, your father’s out on bail and now he can find where you live and take you back. What do you do now?

It’s a very real concern, keeping foster children anonymous. It’s not just because the state likes to keep secrets: It’s for the children’s protection.

Now, you may be thinking, “But Carla! That poor girl’s already dead because of state secrets! There’s no use protecting her anonymity any more!” And you’d be right.

But releasing her records sets a dangerous precedent. After it happens once, who’s to say that they shouldn’t do it every time, regardless of whether or not the foster child is alive or dead? It would snowball into a huge clusterfuck. The department has to draw the line somewhere.

In conclusion, sunshine laws are important for holding government accountable. But exceptions are also important for keeping children safe.

I’m probably the only journalist who likes “The Newsroom”

July 4, 2012

This is how I feel about John Gallagher Jr. as Jim Harper.

I’m a bit late to “The Newsroom” review party, but whatever. I’m throwing my two cents into the fountain that is the Internet.

For a long time (read: past four years) I’ve wondered to myself why there haven’t been more television drama series based on journalists. I mean, there are practically a billion cop dramas and hospital dramas and way too many stupid shows about high schools and supernatural crap. I mean, seriously, if I see one more vampire-themed television show, I will lose it.

Television needs revamping, you know? And what job lends itself better to artificial drama and scandal than journalism? I ask you! The newsroom is the perfect environment in which to deliver the kind of gut-wrenching, edge-of-your-seat, tear-jerking drama: You have deadlines, breaking news, angry politicians, cops with axes to grind, everything. It’s also the perfect environment to deliver moments of hilarity: Stressed out editors and reporters (most equipped with razor-sharp sarcasm), crazy sources with conspiracy theories, and and endless supply of double entendres.

So when Aaron Sorkin came along with “The Newsroom” based on a fictional news network and a charismatic, disconnected anchor, a stressed out, quick-witted staff with an idealistic executive producer, I thought to myself, “FINALLY. Something new!” Additionally, when I found out that the series would air on HBO, I knew it was going to be incredibly well-produced overall.

Part of the reason this review is so late in coming is because I just recently got around to watching it. As a journalist too broke to pay for cable much less a TV, I was incredibly grateful to Sorkin for putting it up on YouTube. (Seriously, Sorkin, you get me like nobody else does. Marry me.)

I watched the pilot before I read the reviews, and let me tell you: I LOVED IT. Granted, Emily Mortimer probably wouldn’t have been my first choice as Mackenzie McHale. Her energy was a bit too slow and exaggerated when compared to her fellow cast mates, but it was a minor irritant compared to the incredible chemistry among the rest of the cast. Alison Pill as Margaret Jordan and John Gallagher Jr. as Jim Harper was BRILLIANT casting. Absolutely phenomenal. And Jeff Daniels as the gruff, testy boss and anchor Will McAvoy was simply amazing. He breathed incredible life into his character. He delivered his lines with passion and conviction and for the first time in a long time, I was able to watch a television show and completely suspend my disbelief, which my journalistic spidey-senses rarely allow me to do.

And the SCORE. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I was the biggest band nerd ever from 4th grade to my senior year of high school. I played flute and euphonium (for those of you who know what that is, I salute you), so I developed a deep passion and appreciation for classical music and any and all music scores. Music is a huge part of any cinematic or television experience, and a good score will significantly enhance your enjoyment and effectively add drama to the storyline. Oftentimes, the music for any scene can drive the plot more than the actors ever could.

The score for “The Newsroom” is nothing short of beautiful. The track for the opening sequence almost brought tears to my eyes. The simple, opening piano melody starts off at a mezzo-forte, with soft violins weaving in and out behind it. Then, with the help of those same violins, it builds until it cuts off with a roll of the timpanis and lets the strings take over the melody. And as the sequence continues, the music keeps building and building until the whole orchestra is a part of it. It ends with one haunting flute note hanging in the air, echoing with a sound reminiscent of discovery and an unknown future. Just amazing. Simply beautiful.

The story for the pilot itself was hooking. The opening scene where Will McAvoy lays into an unsuspecting, if not stupid, college student to bash her ethnocentrism was pretty awe-inspiring, and it had some of the most brilliant and clever rhetoric I had heard in a long time. After the opening scene, the rest of the show starts en media res, with Don Keefer, played by Thomas Sadoski, arguing with his girlfriend, Maggie. It’s a great tactic for drawing the audience in immediately and making them pay attention — we have to infer what’s going on from the argument until it all becomes clear later on in the show.

And setting the opening episode against the drama of the BP oil spill was a genius idea. It was the biggest news story of 2010, so the audience already knows about it. It also highlights how a news show is put together with a breaking news story from start to finish, so the audience worries less about the actual information they’re reporting on and more on the process.

All-in-all, I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction about the pilot, knowing that there was now a well-produced, well-written show about news out there; One that put journalists in the center of the conversation instead of making them the butt of the joke.

So imagine my surprise when my fellow journalists wrote about how much they hated it.

OK, so I kind of get how TV reporters would be pissed. I’m not in broadcasting myself, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of the process. I’m sure if I was in broadcasting, I’d be less inclined to suspend my belief, but whatever. If every drama series was based on accuracy, there would be no Grey’s Anatomy or Law & Order.

But when columnists and reporters complained that Sorkin used his new television show as a platform to preach about journalistic integrity, about not pandering to the audience, about giving the people what they need instead of what they want — I was baffled.

I mean, COME ON. I guarantee you every single newsroom across the country every single day has the same exact conversation. When our web masters bug us about SEO in our web headlines because we didn’t get enough hits on a story we thought would bring in major traffic, or when our ratings analyst says the people want more celebrity news, or when our editor wants to dedicate thirty whole inches to the little miss beauty pageant at the state fair (that’s a bit more recent, but another story for another time), we all throw our pens down on our desks, wave our fists at our superiors and threaten very loudly and in no uncertain terms to quit. Or we may do something far more passive aggressive. Whatever.

The point is, it happens. And we talk about it. And we worry about it all the dang time. And we should worry about it. It’s a very fine line between entertainment and news and there’s no rulebook. We are the final arbiters. We worry about ratings, we worry about web traffic, we worry about advertisers, but we also worry if we’re informing the public to the best of our abilities. That’s the nature of the business. That’s the state of journalism today. THAT’S WHERE WE’RE AT.

Sorkin pointed it out. He shoved it right in our faces, and the industry detested him for that. He made it apparent to civilians what goes on in newsrooms and the conversation we have about content, and journalists hated it.

So it’s bullshit and hypocritical to say that Sorkin was being “preachy.” The truth of the matter is, every journalist feels the same way as Mackenzie McHale. We got into the news business because we wanted to affect change. We wanted to make a difference. We wanted to inform people before they walked into the voting booth. And I do not care who you are: You could be the most cynical, jaded veteran journalist on the planet, but deep down, you feel the same way. That’s why you’re still here. That’s why you haven’t quit yet, even though a dying industry, an all-too-loud Internet platform, a disheartening and disinterested public and an overbearing, greedy publisher and/or network regularly force you to reconsider early retirement. You’re in it because you still care.

“The Newsroom” portrays that. We’re still an industry that cares. So stop trying to say that you don’t.