July 26, 2008

News coverage, continued

Bill Fosher wrote a terrific comment, reprinted below, in response to this post. My comment on his comment after the blockquote:

I don't think your criticism of journalism is exactly fair. It certainly doesn't reflect the reality of newsrooms. I'm a former reporter and assignment editor for local newspapers, so I can assure you that one of the last things that any editor is doing is sitting around deciding which of his several reporters he will ask to stop doing the crossword puzzles and send out on a story about a dog attack. More likely, it's a matter of triage -- whose work can I drop while doing the least amount of damage to today's local news effort?

And I was working back when newsrooms weren't the focus of the MBAs who are now running news operations with an eye exclusively on the bottom line. Big city newsrooms are losing hundreds of reporters -- not collectively, but individually. Local newsrooms, where the motto has always been "do more with less," are trimmed back half of the staffing levels that were present in my day. And staffing in my day was inadequate.

In all likelihood, if the reporter didn't go out to the scene, it's not because of fear or reluctance, but because there simply aren't enough hours in the day. Sometimes the best you can do is cover a breaking news story by telephone.

Add to that the focus on getting stuff onto the web and the 24-hour news cycle, and you really can't begin to pick and chose who covers a breaking news story based on who might have some level of expertise in the subject area.

And, even if they did have a staff that included experts on dog behavior and training, sending the expert opens the organization up to criticism that the reporter was too close to the subject matter.

Now, having said all that, I will also say that I am noticing a trend in local reporting toward credulity that makes me want to hurl. Particularly in small markets and local newspapers, it seems that the approach is to do one-source, non-critical stories. If anything, the approach to blunting this seems to be to do a follow up story that provides the same level of credulity and obsequiousness to the opposing view a day or two later.

Efforts at synthesizing information, critical analysis, and good old fashioned truth squadding are down the toilet at most local newspapers and small-market broadcasters these days. As are editing, proofreading, and headline writing.

Could this be due to the fact that most local reporters are now of the generation that thinks "doing research" means "going on line and finding people who agree with me?" That treats all information as equally valid? That accepts the culture of assertion?
The last three paragraphs? Big, giant amen.

If more of my synapses had been working, I would have mentioned in Donny meets Hector that the Washington Post flew a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer around the country to to take photos of the Vick pit bulls in their foster homes, but the accompanying article was penned by a "pit bull-shy reporter" who never met any of the dogs. This was what I had in mind when I wrote about journalists who are "too afraid of pit bulls to actually leave the office and meet one." Excusable for a small local paper, maybe, but the Washington Post...?

Pit bull people deal with this on a regular basis: the reporter and photographer who won't exit their vehicle at the home of an AmStaff breeder; reporters who say, "We'll be there if you can promise us a dog fight"; editors who end discussions with a curt, "Everyone knows Labs don't bite." Reporters aren't immune to mob-think. From an editorial in the Cranston, RI Herald:
If you think it’s difficult to get your kids to clean their rooms, try finding a reporter willing to cover a story about pit bull enthusiasts.

When the founder and president of the Little Rhodie Bully Breed Club sent the paper an announcement for its upcoming trained pit bull graduation, the announcement was sent out to Herald staff as a story in need of coverage. With stunning speed, the responses came back – “heck no, I don’t want to get eaten,” or something to that effect.

Lisa DiMaio, our regular schools reporter, finally agreed to take the story, albeit with a postscript: “pit bulls scare the crap out of me.”
Bill writes:
And, even if they did have a staff that included experts on dog behavior and training, sending the expert opens the organization up to criticism that the reporter was too close to the subject matter.
Here I disagree. After consumer electronics, Americans spend most on pet products and services in the retail market, and editors know this -- hence blogs like Unleashed at the L.A. Times. But compare the coverage. Every large paper worth its salt has at least one reporter knowledgeable about technology, because you'd be nuts to cover tech without a reporter who knows his or her way around an iPhone and can tell the difference between Linux and Unix. Most papers don't have anyone comparable to write about animals. Hence the idea that if you buy a "safe breed" your child will never suffer a dog bite. Hence Jon Katz. It's unreal to remember that Vicki Hearne once wrote a regular column on animals for the L.A. Times.

Which brings me to another important point Bill mentioned, and it's one for pit bull lovers like me to keep in mind: as revenues fall and the MBAs take over, newspapers across the country are disappearing. The reality of U.S. newsrooms is that no matter how much an editor might like to have a knowledgeable reporter on staff to cover animal stories, these days an editor is lucky to have any reporters at all. It's scary and heartbreaking to watch the decline [maybe evisceration is a better word] of once-excellent newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times.

Bill, thanks for the thoughtful comment and fuel for a blog post.

Edited to add: Just ran across this — The survival of journalism: 10 simple facts. [H/T swissmiss.]


Caveat said...

Great post. It's a matter of concern that there are few independent newspapers/TV stations/radio stations anymore.

Maybe if the papers allowed more citizen op-eds and looked for some good bloggers, such as you, who they could count on for aaccurate information and advice, they wouldn't need to hire dedicated specialists who also know how to write.

Anonymous said...

I mourn Vicki Hearne. Such a lovely voice and she offered such sage advice.

It seems profane to put her name and Katz' in the same paragraph.