of truths and trends.

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.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “of truths and trends.

  1. You raise a lot of good points.

    In my experience, the kind of reporting you describe can happen even with outlets with reputations for quality reporting. I recall one instance where a major daily with a prominent Sunday magazine interviewed one of our researchers, who gave very, sound compelling reasons for wanting to do some research that was controversial. His quotes were juxtaposed with those from a biotech CEO who said his company would *never* consider doing those types of experiments (although they pretty much already had). Made our guy look like a mad scientist.

    And don’t get me started on editors who write headlines that make you wonder if they even read the story.

    With the decimation of news rooms, with buyouts being taken by the most seasoned reporters, I worry that we may have to increasingly deal with younger, less experienced reporters, where the type of reporting you describe will become more and more common.

  2. Well, gee, Tim, .1 percent is statistically significant and therefore worth drawing conclusions about for my story! Oh wait… no it’s not.

  3. Chris

    I gave an interview for the CBC a while ago. It was about open sewer systems in eastern Canada (yes, we still have open sewers in many communities, viva la revolucion). I knew my small amount of media training had paid off when a) the reporter got bored with me within 2 minutes and b) ended up using a ten second clip that said exactly what I meant to say- because that was ALL I had said, repeatedly, for the entire two minute interview. It’s boring, but then, an interview isn’t supposed to be a conversation, is it?

  4. Open minded-ness is counter to the right-wing propaganda machine, however. After all, it’s no surprise Rush, Cheney, Rove, and their narrow clan coopted the word “liberal” into a hate word, considering it’s definition in Websters is “one who thinks for themselves,” parish the thought of a society that did that, it’d ruin all the hopes of the future GOP’s Taliban-esque totalitarian wet dreams for the US.

    But I digress, sadly the news cycles more and more kowtow to the lowest common denominator. It’s no surprise that reality TV skewed towards making fun of other people in an almost shaddenfreud way, which gets high ratings, has been coopted by editors who use negativity and making light of sad situations in order to boost their ratings and profits. Stir in the degree of sensationalist, and vacuously empty journalism, welcome to 2009 ladies and gentleman, keep your hands and feet inside the ride, it’s mostly likely all downhill from here.

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