Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A comment about fairness, my answer

This morning I posted a comment (too long to repost here but available at the following link) from a reader upset about what they see as unfair and biased coverage.

The commenter doesn't say what township, or even what newspaper, they are upset at, but I'm assuming it's a Booth paper because it mentions MLive. Among the complaints are that the reporter wrote a that was completely wrong about the success of a recall petition drive. When called on it, the newspaper simply removed it from MLive without comment.

(By the way, my rule about identities does not apply to the names of cities and townships, so feel free to let me know what you are talking about?)

Before I start let me just say I can't verify any of this, but will make some general comments about what a person can, could or should do if faced with what they believe is unfair coverage.

As to the complaint about the editorial that vanished off MLive, I can say this. If true, that would be, in my opinion, a violation of journalism ethics. Once something is posted online and people have had a chance to read it, whatever happens to that story, corrections, updates, removal, should definitely require a posting that explained what happened.

If it was a minor misspelling or something trivial, no big deal, but the removal of a story because it was wrong, or based on poor information would definitely need an explanation.

That part was easy.

The complaint is that the beat reporter is favoring one side of a recall controversy over another. One of the assertions is that the reporter came to an important meeting on the issue and sat with the supporters of one side. After the conclusion of the meeting, the commenter complained that nothing was ever written on the meeting.

Not having been at the meeting, I have no idea how or why the reporter selected a place to sit. When I used to go to meetings, I always tried to sit by myself, but frequently the gadflies, would seek you out and sit next to you. A reporter is always a tempting captive audience. Sometimes in a crowded meeting I sat next to people I didn't know, but later found out represented one side or the other.

My seat selection never was an indication of what side I supported, or even if I supported one side.

Every reporter, me included, has been accused at some time during a long career of favoring one side or the other. That goes with the territory. In fact, I used to get nervous if I was getting a lot of kudos from one side and anger from the other.

It was always better, at least for me, to have people on both sides of an issue not completely happy with the coverage. That usually meant both sides were getting their say.

In one case, a group of village officials were upset that after talking to them about an issue, I actually called the folks who were opposed to it. "Why did you talk to them?," the officials said. "Gees, I don't know, maybe to get the other side?," I said.

Sometimes it can be hard not to take sides, but it is important, maybe even vital, that when a reporter starts feeling more sympathy for one side it is probably time to spend more time with the opposing side.

Any reporter worth the ink in their pen should get itchy and nervous if they are writing a story on a controversy and have only talked to one side.

The other problem is that some groups, or individuals, are better at explaining, or spinning their information than others. Reporters need to be on guard not to let slickness or friendliness get in the way of digging into information and getting the whole story. Sometimes the less articulate person may actually be in the right.

One of the Lapeer townships I covered had a woman who came to every meeting and caused long delays with her constant complaints about nit picky, minute details of township procedures, and my favorite, Robert's Rules of Order. She also used to film the meetings.

During one meeting, she extended the meeting for at least 90-minutes longer than it had to be. While those nit-picky issues were important to her, there was no way that I would write a word of it, because my editor would never print such trivial stuff and secondly, no one, other than the gadfly herself, would ever read it.

At one meeting after listening to her complaints on-and-off from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., I finally left. I had already lost three hours of my life I wouldn't get back and wasn't about to lose another one. On the way out, the woman chased me out to the parking lot demanding to know how I could leave the meeting when she was putting up such a fine defense of Robert's Rules of Order.

Trying to be polite, I simply told her that none of what she was talking about was of vital enough interest to Flint Journal readers to warrant a story. She seemed crushed. Later, she called my editor to complain.

OK, so what does a person do when they believe they are receiving biased coverage. That's pretty obvious, but here's what I would try.

First, I would contact the reporter directly and politely (that's a key) express my dissatisfaction with the reporting and coverage. If the reporter dismissed my complaints, I'd take it to the reporter's next boss (editor) in line. If that didn't work, I'd take it to the chief editor and finally the publisher.

In this case, the writer believes or suspects that the editor has some close relationship with some of the actors on the other side. This is another complaint that is not infrequent. People often thought because I wrote something that reflected on them negatively, that therefore I must have some immoral or unhealthy relationship with the other side.

My rule was always if I had some connection to one side or the other of an issue, I wouldn't cover it. I lost the biggest part of my police beat in Pontiac, when I married one of the detectives. In fact, the first time I asked the young lady out on a date, I reported to my editor, who pulled me off the Pontiac police beat.

During teacher union contract negotiations that directly involved my current wife, I also withdrew (in the original post the word withdrew somehow showed up in yellow, I have no idea how that happened, but I just fixed it) myself from covering the issue because even if I could be fair, the appearance would be otherwise.

If, and that's a big if, there is some unholy connection between the editor and the issue this person is writing about, that should be disclosed and explained.

A letter-to-the-editor is also a possibility. But in the end, if you don't get any satisfaction I guess you'll have to buy your own newspaper.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, you've answered my questions very well.

The appearance of impropriety is as important as if it actually existed. Having had some exposure to how stories are written myself, I often hear people in the community with wild conspiracy theories and know what they think is simply not possible.

In Flushing Township, there is a loud dissenter who shares a more uncommon last name with the spouse of an editor. This editor used the name for a while, and then went back to a maiden name. I figured that after years of being known with your maiden name, it might be hard to establish yourself with a new name. I didn't think much of it, really. But a few residents did speak to this editor on the phone, and asked point blank about the relationship. They received very evasive answers, perhaps simply because the editor was offended. But that reaction to the public did nothing to assuage their suspicions.

If you look at the Flushing Observer from Aug. 2, you will see the headline story, but it's not to be found on Mlive. In fact, hardly any of the Observer's stories go up now on Mlive. We have gone a 10 day stretch with no stories, then there were finally a few. Our board meeting was last Thursday.

I don't want to bore you with all the details, but it was definitely not a Roberts Rules of Order kind of meeting. Since taking office, our board has eliminated 4 cops, a park administrator and a building inspector, all in the name of saving money, and now they say we must lay off more officers. The bank accounts are getting fat with their savings (seven total employees gone), and they are not spending on services. It seems a pretty simple check to find out if the financial assertions are true.

The Journal Op Ed mistakenly claimed that it was all over "one laid off officer" and that the people behind the recall were "bent on revenge". It was a horrible Op Ed to begin with, but it is plainly a factual error to say this is over ONE laid off officer. The editor blamed it on the reporter.

In any case, at the high drama meeting, the supervisor of the township volunteered to donate his salary to the police department in order to keep the officers we have left (some are working 17 hour shifts, which is horribly unsafe... no mention of that in any story, either). The rest of the board declined this offer. Wouldn't a reporter wonder why? Ask one of them why? Ask the opponents what they think the motives are?

One more thing, and then I'll shut up. One of our board members is the TEA party president of Genesee County (no mention of that, either)... our Observer reporter spent election night with him and covered his delight at the turndown of the Hurley millage.

Isn't it possible that those of us who reject the Tea party tenets are upset with that, and not bent on vengeance? If you know that Tea party folks are about no taxes and fewer services, doesn't it follow that it may be why our township is going through this?

So again, it appears the reporter made friends with the board and cronies. Whether he did or not, I don't know, but at this point we have: no story, no calls for comments, and no calls back. Yes, we did start with the reporter directly. Understand that this is a kid. I'm not sure he was trained as a journalist, and in fact it occurred to me that he "freaked out" and removed the Mlive story without anyone even knowing it was done.

I am not saying I know what's going on, just saying how it appears to us.

Question: Did you (or your editors) ever simply stop covering an area because they were "too much trouble"?

If you are operating in an area, what is your responsibility, particularly once you are the authority in that area? People still say to each other, "well, that would mean the JOURNAL was wrong... yeah right."

Sorry, I just had to get all this off my chest.

Jim of L-Town said...

Thanks for your comment. Could be you just have an inexperienced reporter. Not to excuse it, but more to explain it.

My first guess was going to be another township that starts with "F" - Forest Township.

Good luck with getting things straightened out.

As to your question, I can't think of an instance where we stopped covering a township because of 'trouble' (and I once had to cover Montrose Township when it was in turmoil). However, I do know of instances where editors have backed off on coverage of individuals or issues because they had tired of dealing with negative fall out.

That's not an excuse, just a fact. Some editors are tough enough to face off against angry readers, but not so much anymore.

But, if I were you, I wouldn't give up hope that you can educate a young reporter or get some kind of help from an editor. But it may take some persistance.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I really hate it when recalls are used like this. That board was voted in to do exactly what they are are doing in Flushing Township. If you are against what they are doing then get them voted out next election.

As for the Journal... Most the people there not only don't care, but will tell you they don't care to your face.

It's sad. What used to be a vibrant place, full of great people is now for the most part full of the walking dead. They are beat down and hate being there.

Anonymous said...

I most definitely think it's our inexperienced reporter. I actually requested that we get someone a little more seasoned and a little more removed from our situation to cover it. No reply on that, either.

The most frustrating thing is the lack of communication. I didn't ask for a follow up. Don't volunteer it unless you can deliver, you know?

Thanks for addressing this. I feel better already, because I thought it was just beneath an organization to make a story vanish.

I do think the editors are tired of us and maybe directed attention elsewhere. But I also thought, and maybe you could answer this, what if the reporter just decided it's easier to churn out five stories of little import with 200 words rather than deal with something complicated and unlikely to please anyone? How much say do you get over your own beat?

Jim of L-Town said...

I've been out of the FJ newsroom for 20 months so it's difficult for me to address what is going on there today.

I can tell you that the reporters I knew and 'grew up' with would not have avoided a good story because it would be difficult or involve difficult issues.

Fishing at the trout farm is much easier than putting on the waders and trying to catch a fish in a stream. But for someone who loves to fish, the stream would be far more challenging and fun, even if not as productive.

Difficult stories take time and they keep reporters from doing multiple stories, at least during the time they are working on the difficult one.

So that was a long "I don't know" answer to your question.

Anonymous said...

Flushing Township has never had a recall before.

These folks were not elected to deny us services while collecting taxes, that's the crux of the matter.

How else does one use a recall, if not to save a community from inept management?

Anonymous said...

"Flushing Township has never had a recall before.

These folks were not elected to deny us services while collecting taxes, that's the crux of the matter.

How else does one use a recall, if not to save a community from inept management?"

They are not inept. They are doing what they said they would do before being elected.

I hate most recalls because they are almost always started by the sore losers from the previous election looking to get back in office any way they can. Just like what is happening out in Flushing Township right now.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with any sore losers in Flushing Township. You can keep parroting your own point, but they were elected to manage a township. Everyone knew that cutbacks were going to happen, and it was no surprise that they did. It was a surprise, however, to learn that they have no idea how much they are spending (or saving)and they still want to cut more.

No, sir, no one elected to run a township is expected to dismantle its services.

Guess you've been reading those Journal stories, eh?

This is exactly what I'm talking about... no information, but full of opinions about how recalls "are used that way." I suppose the recall of The Don was a mistake, too?

Anonymous said...

"No, sir, no one elected to run a township is expected to dismantle its services.

Guess you've been reading those Journal stories, eh?

This is exactly what I'm talking about... no information, but full of opinions about how recalls "are used that way." I suppose the recall of The Don was a mistake, too?"

The recall of Don Williamson was not a mistake at all but there were past recall efforts against him that were total BS. One of them was because a former employee of the car dealership had a company car taken away from him.

The Flushing Township board laid off one full time police officer, and because of this the police union will not allow the township to use the three part time officers they were using. These part timers filled in on vacations and odd hours etc. The board offered a part time position to the laid off officer and he declined to take it. So now the full timers have to work the odd hours and they don't like it.

So you have six police officers and eight former losing candidates from Flushing Township behind this recall.

If this isn't about "one laid off officer" why did the people behind the recall offer to stop it if that police officer was given his job back?

Anonymous said...

Update -- we finally got our story. Strangely, we got one on-line, and two in print. The online story is pretty well balanced and well written, without too much hyperbole.

The two printed articles, well, one gets the feeling that stories bearing the Journal name get different oversight than those in the weeklies.

But anyway, I do applaud this writer's attempt to bounce back and do it right (though I still want my retraction).