Not Written By Robots, Not Read By Robots

“I admire their (CNN) commitment to cover all sides of the story just in case one of them happens to be accurate.”
                   Barack Obama, White House Correspondents Dinner, April 27, 2013

This zinger is a hoot. After I laughed, it made me think.

Accuracy. One of the holy of holies. Let’s add two more: Balance. Fairness.

It’s in the bones of most journalists to strive for those objectives. Yet that their absence is a commonplace criticism of journalism these days.

How is it possible that journalists striving to achieve accurate, fair and balanced reporting manage to create journalism that is said to be neither accurate, fair nor balanced?

Let’s dismiss out of hand reporters who don’t seek these journalistic virtues. They tarnish us all, but they are a dead end, in so many ways.

Let’s start the investigation with those factual errors in reporting that can bite even good reporters in the ass.These errors multiply in this fast and furious news environment, and certainly do serious damage to our credibility.

This damage has far-reaching consequences, since it fuels complaints about accuracy and fairness, even when those complaints are unfounded. It gives credence to all the complainers since if journalists clearly got these facts wrong, they might not have other things right either.

Back in the day when Walter Cronkite gave us the news, there weren’t many accusations of this sort. In fact, he was seen to be the national arbiter of what was true. Even when, in hindsight, we can see that he was not as accurate, fair or balanced as viewers believed.

In those halcyon days, journalistic lack of accuracy or fairness or balance wasn’t the all-too-common excuse – especially of politicians – for information made public that made them uncomfortable.

In fact, it wasn’t until the media began its relentless pursuit of the elusive truth about our involvement in Viet Nam that politicians began to resort to what has now become a well-practiced evasion. A modern day equivalent of shooting the messenger: That the story is inaccurate, that the reporter is biased.

As reporters reported what they saw, the people whose interests were not served by that reporting realized that the best defense is a good offense and rather than attempt to counter those reports, they just ran an end run around them and claimed the reports weren’t true.

And it widened beyond pols. As reporters reported stories that didn’t sit right with folks of one political/religious persuasion or another, those who felt that their “side” was not respected in the story — for example, that the reporting was insufficiently patriotic — could also take refuge in the charge that the reporting was unbalanced or unfair or inaccurate.

Now, everybody’s doing it.

And while I acknowledge that a completely unbiased reporter might be hard to come by, it is true that reporters are generally trained to aim for a lack of bias. Do they always achieve it? Certainly not. But I’m thinking that they achieve it a lot more often than they are given credit for these days. The truth is, there are lots of stories that are a routine part of the job for most reporters and they just don’t have a dog in the fight. That’s good.

How about we shift our focus away from the accuracy of the announcer/writer, and focus a minute on the reader/watcher?

Have we neglected to investigate the accuracy of the reader/watcher’s perception? In other words: Does the complainer have a dog in the fight? If s/he does, can they be trusted to be unbiased? So, is the president the best judge of the accuracy of a story?

Perception is a quagmire. Just look at most trial proceedings. Some of those witnesses may be lying, of course, but some really believe in what they’re saying. Many of the people imprisoned for a crime they did not commit are found guilty on the basis of the perception of the eyewitness/es. Then DNA testing finds them not guilty.

We trust ourselves. We know (we think) what we saw/heard.

In other words, we, the perceivers, judge some story as accurate or inaccurate, but that judgment is suspect. We are trapped inside the world that we know.

That’s as much true for me, a journalist, as for the layman or woman. If I — a diehard liberal — sit down to watch a debate between two candidates, it’s pretty obvious to me that my opinion of the outcome is biased. As would the opinion of my fellow watcher on the other side of the political fence.

If I were to write something about that debate, I would have to decide: Am I writing this as a journalist or as a partisan? In fact, that decision is made by a reporter working with an editor well before I watch the debate. Part of my preparation for the debate would be research into each side’s hopes for the debate and a whole lot more. When I watch it, I watch it differently.

The foundation of modern journalism is NOT that journalists don’t have an opinion, but it is that they don’t indulge in that opinion when they are reporting on a story. This is the attempt, not always successful, to be unbiased. (As an aside, I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had in the past few years watching debates. Away from my responsibilities in the newsroom I can root for whomever I wish!)

And even though I’m trained to find the neutral ground, it’s fair to question if I could accurately cover a real hot-button issue for me, like an anti-abortion demonstration.

The truth of the coverage depends a lot on where you stand. The closer to your passions an event or issue is, the more likely you are to see neutral coverage as unfair to your side.

Let’s get local.

If there’s a school board that’s handling a very tight budget and facing cuts, the open forum comments of the public will be viewed differently if you’re a teacher in the school district who might lose his job, or if you’re a parent of a third grader facing a long commute if a school is closed, or if you’re on a fixed income and you’re afraid that school taxes could be one of the things that might force you out of the home that you’ve lived in for 40 years.

In this case, the reporter following the story is not likely to be involved in the story. S/he is likely to be too young to have kids in the school district, and too poor to own a home. She does her due diligence, sums up the debate as best she can in whatever space is allocated to this story.

The next day (or that evening if the story is posted to the web) there’s a strong backlash. Many of those folks are angry, and their response leaves the hard-working reporter mystified.

Many people comment that the story is inaccurate.

Of course it could be, or it could just be that the readers/watchers have their own passionately held viewpoints and are looking to read about the meeting that they attended. The meeting where the “other” side said stupid things, and where “their” side said smart things.

I suggest that some of the less-than-flattering opinions that many folks have about journalists/journalism is fed by these perceptions. With the growth of the “reporting” universe, it’s possible to view the world solely from your own vantage point. Dearly held perceptions are now so ingrained in the culture that civil discourse has almost disappeared, replaced by talking-head inanities, infotainment on the evening news and the screaming vitriol of genuinely partisan faux-journalists.

It’s not just the financial woes of journalism institutions that endanger the craft, it’s this seeping perception that unless you report my world my way, you’re neither accurate, fair nor balanced. When, really, it’s the essential job of journalists to report the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.

Silence of the Lambs

Newsrooms, especially the ones I know best  — newspaper newsrooms — are a lot quieter these days.

Outside them, we have a sea of talking heads, like me, wagging fingers and pontificating about the news biz. But we hear little from the workaday folk who inhabit newsrooms, which are at very center of this wordstorm. Like the eye of a hurricane, they are eerily quiet.

There could be lots of reasons for that, such as, they’re too busy DOING the work to talk about it all that much. Or maybe it’s simply that most newsrooms have fewer bodies in them and all those ghost desks cast a pall, a grim reminder that you might be next on the layoff list. Or if you’re lucky (?) maybe another buyout.

A newsroom I used to work in, in fact several that I have worked in or knew, used to be full of piss ‘n’ vinegar folks who were hard to manage, smart, feisty and happy to deal in ground truths, whether it was about the local public officials or the editor they weren’t especially fond of.

Now? While there’s still, remarkably, a dedication to readers, to telling truth to power outside the newsroom, you don’t see much of the piss or the vinegar INSIDE those newsrooms.

Can you blame them?

No one in charge seems to be listening.

Once the lead editor in a newsroom was hired — by the publisher — to be the champion of that newsroom to other managers — including that very same publisher — and to the world at large. It was a commonplace of newspapers that the relationship between publisher and editor was respectful, but often contentious.

Over the past 10 years a subtle but profound shift in that role has taken place. Now editors are routinely expected to be the enforcers and representatives of the newspaper’s management or even the newspaper’s corporate owners, to the newsroom as well as to the world at large.

Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions prove the rule. And most of those exceptions survive by flying under the radar.

To be blunt, senior newsroom managers are rewarded for talking budget, not story.

Yes, I know the blunt facts of circulation decline, and more importantly for the bottom line, the decline in advertising. I know when business is bad, you’ve got to tighten your belt.

But while these problems are real enough, they are recent. Go back even a decade and you’ll see profit figures for many newspapers in the double digits. Topping 20 and even 30 percent.

We already knew about the web back then. We already suspected it had the power to bring legacy news organizations to their knees.

But there was no money invested to fund the battle ahead.

From the very first time I had to handle a newsroom budget, I saw a line item for training. For the first few years it was repeatedly cut in one round or other of budget preparations. Then it was zeroed out.

The budget line lingered — like those ghostly desks — a reminder of opportunities lost.

Where once there were conference calls among editors to share bright ideas, now the conference call is likely to be a stultifying lecture from one of the corporate overlords  explaining in horrific detail how to process payments to a new vendor.

Corporate overlords are not turning to newsrooms to explore better ways of telling the news. They are turning to newsrooms only to find more bodies to cut, more desks to empty.

The Tweets that came this past week from a handful of Tribune employees all re-tweeted the story that Tribune, just emerged from bankruptcy, is handing over the sale of its properties to bankers.

Each one of those Tweets was unaccompanied by any comment. As if no comment were necessary, as if it had all been said.

That silence from such passionate folk seemed the saddest of all.

As though they are lost, and they know no one is looking out for them. They are  floating, as an editor I know said, “like bits of seaweed on a sea of mergers and acquisitions.”

“Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

Nor dreamers.

Over the past 10+ grim years in journalism — the traditional world of newspapers, TV and radio — there has been LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of bad news. Sometimes I get the feeling that journalists get the blame for the problems of traditional journalism. That if journalism  — and journalists — were better, there would be no problem.

Not true.


Creativity and yearning for connection lies dormant in most newsrooms, just anesthetized — or drowned — by the financial mess that has engulfed the world of most journalists still lucky (?) enough to have a job.

The first quote comes at the end of a short interview that Joe Sexton, the former New York Times sports editor had with New York magazine. He left with a raft of other editors in the NYT’s January downsizing.  Don’t even ask how many there have been. Either editors or downsizings. There or elsewhere.

A good way to keep track is to check in at, which is where I found out about the item that sparked my second sentence at the top of this entry.

The Record, one of New Jersey’s largest newspapers, is also offering buyouts and closing a special section – called Signature – it had bravely started as a way to showcase its best.

This is a quote from the paper’s editor, from his memo on the subject featured on the Romenesko site.

“Signature allowed so many of us to think about what we would do if we went a step further in our reporting, design, photographs and graphics,” writes Martin Gottlieb… “It makes sense to me to take the best of Signature… and feature them in the regular sections of the daily paper. As we do, there will be a measurable savings in newsprint costs.”

Hear that dreaming? Ain’t it just lovely? Hear the creak-crack-thud of the failing bottom line?

There has always been a passion to connect with readers and to create vivid stories about our world in the best journalists from Mark Twain to Edward R. Murrow to Joe Sexton (who was the guiding genius behind the NYT’s great multi-media effort “Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”) to the many brave souls in New Jersey who brought Signature to life.

Sexton brought the whole new-media toolbox into play to create the multi-layered story of one avalanche. He showed, as many have already done, that the will to use the host of new story-telling devices is alive in “traditional” newsrooms, as is the skill to use them well.

The sad truth is that folks doing these brave, smart things aren’t being rewarded by the companies that employ them.

And yes, I know, there are lots of smart folks working hard who aren’t being rewarded in these difficult days the way they should be. But very few of them are being blamed for those difficulties.

We need to frame our discussions of journalism differently, so that the desperately needed art and craft of journalism survives and thrives in the new universe.

A big first step would be to acknowledge the bravery of the crazy people who still populate our newsrooms and applaud those who struggle in colleges to earn the designation of journalist, despite all the bad news.

“If you are not asking yourself every couple of years how to once more scare yourself to death, then you are living something of the coward’s life,” Sexton says. “Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

Journalists and the messy search for truth

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT., we have plenty of evidence that many reports of that day’s events were wrong.

First of all, let me say how proud I am that news organizations — some of them, anyway — will attempt to investigate the hows and whys of the mis-reporting. Let me also note that our collective hand-wringing helps to fuel the commonly held belief that we get “everything” wrong and are not to be trusted.

Sigh. It seems the more transparent we attempt to be, the more fuel it is for those who wish to paint what I might call the traditional media as bias-driven, and blind to any facts that don’t support the bias du jour.

Yet it is mostly in that traditional media — especially in newspapers — that the public corrections are made, and ownership taken. More on this later…

On Friday Dec. 21st, the WNYC media program On the Media carried a thoughtful and thought-provoking segment “How Myths Form After a School Shooting.”

The opening line of the link to the report by Bob Garfield reads “The press has misreported a lot about the Newtown shooting, and if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event.”

Two elements can be unpacked from that sentence. First the “misreporting,” and second how our memories of the day’s events solidify before all the facts are known.

Yes. There was misreporting. Was some of that irresponsible? Yes. Um .. maybe? Look at some examples pointed out by The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan:

  …on the first day, The Times reported on its Web site that the gunman was Ryan Lanza, attributing that information to other news organizations. It was actually his brother, Adam Lanza. Mistakes don’t get much worse.The next day, in its lead front-page article, The Times got several major facts wrong, stating without attribution that Mr. Lanza was “buzzed in” to the Sandy Hook Elementary  School building by its principal, who “recognized him as the son of a colleague.”
Not so. He forced his way into the school, dressed in combat gear and carrying guns. There is still no confirmation that his mother, Nancy Lanza, ever worked at the school.

There are scores of other examples, but this will surely suffice. The Times, bless ‘em, will be in the forefront of the public mea culpas offered.  Many other news and what I might call near-news organizations are not so forthcoming.

But my point here is not further excoriation, but simply to ask: What do you expect?

In the tumult of a breaking-news nightmare, many things are mis-reported because many things are misunderstood. Many of the sources for these mis-reportings are police officials, who will, also, of course, get many things wrong as they figure out what happened.

Why is that a surprise?

Many folks blame the 24-hour news cycle and the voracious appetite of the web for these errors, the rush to be first since many think that being first IS being credible.

But if you look back, you’ll find that these sorts of errors have plagued the “live” news coverage of many major news events.

Jack Shafer has kindly written up many of the most significant ones in his Reuters column  from 12.17.12: “Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports.”

    It’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong,” Dan Rather warned viewers on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his colleagues at CBS covered terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in real time.

Rather was prescient in his prediction, and CBS and others proved his point that day. But Shafer’s important point in resurrecting these examples is to show us that errors in reporting have been with us as long as we’ve had “live” coverage of breaking news. He proves it’s a canard to blame all these problems on the demands of the web. We, as journalists of varied media, are only now being introduced to the nightmares that TV and radio journalists have been living for some 50 years, and more.

If the event is big enough — JFK’s assassination; the attack on President Ronald Reagan;  the Mumbai bombings — we want to know NOW. We turn to any site that can tell us NOW.

And they will all, in varying degrees, be wrong. At first.

I applaud all efforts to get the story right the first time, though I don’t think the “Be first” is a good rule to follow. Conversely, striving to be as “right” as possible can also be putting a huge drag on timeliness of the report, as one of the comments on the Times’ Public Editor’s column noted:  (from Robert Garrett of Napanoch, NY)

    My understanding is that the Times, in reporting details about the shooting, relied on many statements made by police and other investigative officials, albeit anonymously.  Yes, some of those official assertions turned out to be inaccurate. But what was the choice? A story saying “Something terrible happened at a school, but we don’t know for absolutely sure exactly what it was”? Should the Times not report there were dead children all over the place, unless a Times reporter independently witnessed the carnage? It seems to me the Times did a dramatically better job than almost any other news  organization, in impossible circumstances, all while being kept completely away from the scene itself.

Where there has been much less inquiry into is the second half of On the Media’s report that I quoted earlier: “.. if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event.”

In a nutshell, what Garfield was getting at is that our knowledge of a significant event is shaped by the immediate coverage of it. We know it intimately for a few days, then other things happen in our lives, or in the news cycle and we move on. Yet the story is still unfolding.

Garfield interviewed Dave Cullen, who spent 10 years researching the Columbine shootings and is the author of a definitive book (Columbine) on the shootings there. Cullen speaks of many misconceptions we hold as the “truth” of that event, which is simply a residue from the reporting of that day.

The work of verification and untangling goes on and on. Often crimes result in trials where much of the information that has been verified is brought to light. But there are these other tragedies, like Sandy Hook and Columbine, where there are no trials to publicize the truths that take days, weeks and years to uncover.

And look at some of the time when we do have a trial — like the OJ Simpson case — which leaves us all wondering what the “other” side saw that “we” didn’t. The not-guilty verdict there made most of the African-American community rejoice. The white community was predominately dunderstruck.

What I’m getting at is that truth is squirrelly. And we need to look a  little more closely at ourselves and our assumptions rather than use the media as a fig leaf for our prejudices. After most significant news events we start off with a shared pile of information, some right and some wrong. Over time, we each start to cherry pick our way through the coverage. Some will be drawn to stories that “prove” some point they want to make: about gun rights or mental health issues. Others will be drawn to the human interest stories that focus on one family’s truth.

In this way, without being criminal or evil, we see the world through well-earned biases. Events unfold against the context supplied by our own predispositions. It’s why it’s important to have a sturdy press (in whatever form its news is delivered) that actively seeks unbiased truths, despite sometimes tripping over facts.