Working in media relations means often hearing from reporters working on trend pieces. It’s nice when it’s a positive piece following established data, like on Friday when I put a local TV news outlet in touch with a blogger/women’s hockey player for a great story on transfers from private to public colleges.
While that story was a good example of a reporter putting a face on a verifiable economy-related trend (we’ve seen a nearly 27 percent increase in transfer apps, many from privates), sometimes reporters are not looking for examples as much as they are validation of a dubious theory.
I had a front-row view of a predetermined piece a few years back. A reporter from the Times-Herald-Record, a downstate paper, called in the wake of 9/11, trying to confirm the conventional wisdom that students were staying closer to home that year. Except … they weren’t. She asked for measure after measure, and in all of them the number of applicants from New York City, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley were up. Finally she found one measure involving one geographic group that was down 0.1 percent. The resulting story said that applications to our college were down from downstate, and cherry-picked one quote of mine several miles out of context. Sadly I’ve dealt with such lazy reporting more times than I can count, so who knows how many other false stories banked on conventional wisdom have warped views of reality?
We are all cheated when, instead of approaching a story with an open mind — wondering if conventional wisdom is right or wrong — reporters, perhaps feeling pressed for time, only confirm dubious thinking. Maybe they’re handed an angle they feel compelled to reinforce — instead of question, which is the true job of a journalist.
We can wring our hands over the state of journalism from an economic or technological model, but we can’t forget qualitative issues. We need to remember that integrity and open-mindedness are two tenets that define the field … and better serve society. If we don’t care about the quality of journalism, then maybe it’s not worth saving.