When the facts don’t fit, change the facts

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I don’t read the Rhino Times any longer because, why would I? But when I was told that I was part of Rhino Editor John Hammer’s defense of his survey on the state bill to revamp Greensboro City Council, I had to see it.

The validity of the survey itself has been found wanting by independent poll experts, and I won’t bother to rehash the skepticism. They’re the experts, not me. Read them here and here.

But I have to give Hammer credit. Bill O’Reilly has nothing on him when it comes to defending himself.

The major question hanging out there is one Hammer won’t address: What is the poll methodology, question order, margin of error, etc. It’s information that helps to explain poll results, for one thing. Most reputable news organizations release that information; it’s an issue of transparency. The Rhino refuses to release the information. Hammer won’t explain why. He won’t even defend the criticism of his survey.

But he does go on the attack; let’s take a look at what he wrote yesterday.

“From a journalistic standpoint, in quoting a professor at Elon University – where former Editor of the News & Record John Robinson was in charge of doing the polling – the N&R might not have used the most unbiased source available.  To the News & Record’s credit, at least they didn’t quote Robinson on his views of the Rhino Times’ poll.”

First error: I’m not in charge of polling. I am communications director for the poll, which means I handle the poll’s social media accounts and discuss with the poll directors which topics might be relevant to the state’s citizens and get media attention. I don’t create poll questions and have no say over what is or isn’t asked or how it is asked.

Regardless, I’m unclear of the relevancy of my relationship with Elon. I haven’t been with the News & Record for more than three years. I have spoken to the current editor there once, three years ago. The paper has new leadership and new ownership. How does my working there make the Elon Poll biased? Only Hammer knows and he doesn’t explain. He just throws the assertion out there as if it were something.

A review of News & Record articles citing polls done by Elon University, which the N&R seems to really like, reveals that the N&R provides about the same amount of information about the polling results as the Rhino Times did.”

Second error: Actually all of the Elon polling data is available for review. The Rhino’s poll data isn’t. In addition, the Elon poll directors are available and open to discussing poll results. (I’d even set it up!) Hammer isn’t.

Hammer goes on to show that he either doesn’t understand what legitimate political polls do or it doesn’t fit his chosen narrative so he leaves it out.

“According to a poll done by Elon University and reported in the News & Record, the majority of voters in North Carolina were in favor of same-sex marriage.”

Third error: The poll did not say the majority of voters in North Carolina were in favor of same-sex marriage. It said the majority of people in North Carolina would oppose an amendment to the state Constitution mandating that marriage is only between a man and a woman. As Hammer certainly knows, there is a difference between voters and people. And in the case of the vote on the marriage amendment, well short of 50 percent of the people actually voted.

Besides, polls do not predict outcomes. Polls measure sentiment of respondents at a moment in time. That’s why poll results on the same issues worded exactly the same way get different results from month to month. The poll Hammer refers to was done in March; the election was in May. Those six weeks between March and May was a significant campaign period in which sentiments can and likely did change.

In the end, it’s classic Rhino reporting. When criticized attack, don’t defend. When the facts get in the way, ignore them, or, in this case, report whatever fits.

A serious journalist would immediately correct his errors. Well, in truth, he would have taken a few minutes to check his facts before he published.

The shame of it is that some people will believe his report. Worse, my guess is that some politicians, who certainly know better, will use the numbers to fit their political agenda. It’s the ultimate in cynical politics.

How state politics works

 

download (2)Sorry, President Nixon, but you’re mistaken, again. The cynical ugliness of today’s political environment is made clear by the efforts from Raleigh to dictate how Greensboro City Council should be elected. A brief recap:

* A Republican senator, Trudy Wade, who represents only a small piece of Greensboro files legislation to reduce the number of City Council representatives and change their terms. She doesn’t consult the city council and doesn’t cite a motivating factor other than that businesses want it. No businesses have come forward to say they want it, and she refuses to identify any. She says it’s not a political move to put more conservatives in power, but it makes no sense otherwise.

* The state Senate votes along party lines to approve the redistricting plan despite hearing tremendous opposition from Greensboro citizens. Republicans apparently forget their animosity toward big government mandating laws that local government have to follow whether or not they want to.

* The bill moves to the House, where opponents think they may find traction with local GOP representatives. (Democrats already oppose the change.)

* Two GOP representatives — Jon Hardister and John Blust — say they will oppose the bill if it doesn’t require a local referendum on the issue. Both said that comments from constituents has been overwhelmingly negative.

* The third local GOP Republican, John Faircloth, says he is waiting for a public hearing at a House committee meeting. It’s clearly a stalling tactic — he’s either heard enough from both sides or he’s been asleep for the past two months. He should be embarrassed but he is a politician so….

* Blust says he may be punished by the leadership for opposing the bill. “I hate it because that could mean basically the session is over for me in realistic terms.” Think about that for a moment. Because he is voting the interests of his constituents, he thinks he is going to be shoved onto the back bench by his own party.

* No local representative in the legislature with the exception of Wade has defended this bill. And her defense has been primarily dismissive of those who oppose her.

The fact is, the strong position — the true profile in courage — would be if the local Republicans said this bill is a waste of time and money. What’s more, it is a violation of long-held conservative principles that local government governs best. Here is Wade two weeks ago on another issue before the General Assembly: “It just really leaves it up to the local government to decide which is best for their constituents.”

Does she even hear herself?

The bill shouldn’t have gotten out of committee. It should have been killed. There is no need for a local referendum. Holding a referendum gives the impression that this redistricting has support within the city, and there is little evidence that it does. Very few people — make a half dozen — have publicly supported it.

The people in Raleigh who want it don’t represent Greensboro. They simply want to control the elected representatives in town.

It’s how politics works. It’s ugly. It’s not what is taught in middle school civics classes. This would make a great case study.

Sunday sampler

Great journalism from the front pages of N.C. newspapers, and health care seems to be a theme.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times begins a massive and impressive four-part series based on the issues surrounding the regional hospital. The issues likely affect the hospitals in every state in the union.  At Mission Hospital, a sign hanging out front tells us we should have this expectation. You’ll be cared for here, it says, even if you can’t pay. But increasingly at Mission, a behemoth of an organization with 10,000 employees and $1.4 billion in annual revenue, there is fear the model is unsustainable.

Fayetteville: The Observer introduces me to accountable health care, which is says when a practice takes “on the responsibility for providing care to a group of patients with a focus on getting and keeping them as healthy as possible while reducing the costs of care.” These groups of providers – ranging from primary care doctors to entire hospitals – are mostly treating Medicare patients, something encouraged by the Affordable Care Act. And as they reduce the cost of care and hit quality goals, they can, to various degrees, share in the money they save the Medicare program.”

Gaston also has a feature headlined “How to get healthy in the real world” but it’s really three quotes from people about taking care of yourself. Sort of like you’d read in “Redbook.”

Charlotte: The Observer has a fascinating story that make me start thinking that the state is screwing a poor, falsely-imprisoned, low-IQ man only to see how complicated taking care to protect a poor, falsely-imprisoned, low-IQ man is. Sometimes doing right isn’t simple or easy.

Greensboro: The News & Record has an interesting story on how the public schools with the poorest students are facing terrible budget cuts, but I can’t find it on the website.

Sunday sampler

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Asheville — As you can tell by the front page, there is a lot happening in Asheville. The story is fine, but I really include it here because I like the front page treatment. Eye-catching and helpful.

Monroe — The Enquirer Journal showcases the impact that tuition increases at UNC system schools have and will have on students and families. It’s written by a student reporter for the Daily Tar Heel, Sarah Brown, whom I know and admire but, unfortunately, have not taught. “What’s happening right now is that increasingly, policymakers are substituting tuition and fees for state appropriations,” said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life. “That is eroding, in my view, the publicness of a public university.”

Raleigh — Today’s News & Observer has two interesting stories. One describes how the state legislature is trying to figure out how to get more money out of the gas tax without saying they’re going to increase the tax. I love to watch politicians struggle when principle bangs its head against reality. The other story is about UNC-Chapel Hill, a campus alive with bright people exploring fascinating topics. They’re going to have a series of campuswide discussions about the issues that divide us, beginning with race, gender, politics and religion.

Wilmington — Simply because a person’s dead doesn’t mean they are disposable. Or maybe it does. The Star News has an excellent package of stories about the dead. One is a piece about an abandoned cemetery, and the other is about the number of unclaimed bodies that the county has to deal with. (Thirteen so far this year.) “I think it’s also people move here and they want to be at the beach – it’s warmer – and they lose contact with their extended family,” Marino said. “Sometimes it’s not that people are just not kind or not being considerate. They really don’t have the resources to take care of their loved one.”

Beautiful journalism: Speaking truth to power

How often do you see a traditional news outlet — not “The Daily Show” — call bullshit on the things politicians do? Better yet, how often do you see a traditional news outlet call bullshit on what local politicians do?

And on the front page of the newspaper, no less!

Let me answer for you: Not often-damn-enough.

I’ll get to that in a moment. Follow the link above. Susan Ladd of the News & Record cites in clear, damning language the hypocrisy, misstatements of fact and outright lies told by politicians who are trying to ram through legislation over the objections of a sizable number of citizens. That’s not particularly new. What is new is that the paper is stating quite clearly on the front page who said what when. One of the things I’ve said to my children when they were growing up was this: If you’re going to be embarrassed that your words or deeds are on the front page of the paper, then don’t say or do them.

Hoisted on his/her own petard comes to mind, in this case

More news organizations should practice this kind of journalism — calling out public officials in a prominent place. I’m talking the front page of the newspaper, not the editorial page. I’m talking a segment on local television newscasts (yes, I know that’s not going to happen.)

But when public servants purposely misrepresent facts, ignore constituents and serve their own vested interests, they should be — must be — called out for it, loudly and publicly.

Let me quote from the Principles of Journalism by Kovach and Rosenthial Rosenthiel.

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” “Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can–and must–pursue it in a practical sense. This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation.” 

It’s tough to do that these days when newspapers are losing subscribers and local stations lose viewers at the click of the remote. It’s a strange business model: report news and opinions that anger your customers and expect them to pay for it. But that’s what a good independent news media does.

Sadly, though, it’s not as common as it should be, and so, as a citizen of Greensboro, I thank you, News & Record.

This kind of journalism will not bring back print or appointment news viewing. But it will do two things:

* Alert readers and viewers that their elected officials are not behaving the way that most of us try to behave.

* Fulfill the news media role of speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable and giving voice to the voiceless. If you’re going to go down, at least go down fighting.

Sunday sampler

 

(Courtesy of the Newseum)

(Courtesy of the Newseum)

This is the start of Sunshine Week, which celebrates and promotes efforts to keep the public’s business open. (It’s under attack, actually, by small-minded bureaucrats and politicians who think they know better than you what you should know.)

Asheville: Publishing an investigation done by Carolina Public Press, the Citizen Times reports that last year in the 15 Western North Carolina “counties where closed session numbers were made available, boards of commissioners held a total of 294 closed sessions.”  With a strong editorial.

Burlington: The Times-News publishes an AP story that supports my small-minded comment above.  It tells of an effort in September 2013 to get emails sent to and received by the governor’s public safety secretary. “Nearly 19 months later, AP is still waiting.”

Charlotte: The Observer publishes a story done by McClatchy’s Washington staff about the Freedom of Information Act.

Raleigh: The News & Observer has a local story about the access of data, but I can’t find it online.

Now, on to the rest of the show:

Fayetteville: Get ready for the Civil War 150th anniversary stories. The Observer has a good one on the battles of Averasboro and Bentonville, which I was unaware of. 

Greensboro: If you want to be impressed by the hypocrisy and cynicism in state government, this is the story to read. The News & Record examines how it is that the state legislature is meddling in local affairs in areas where they don’t like the local citizens’ decisions. There’s no consistency in their methods, except that it punishes locally elected officials to the benefit of aggrieved Republicans. I suspect George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be ashamed.

Cutting the copy desk

I was at the beach when I saw the notice on Romenesko that eight more people would lose their jobs in the consolidated copy desk operation of the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer.

Show me a reporter or editor who says they haven’t had their ass saved by an alert copy editor, and I’ll show you a liar.

I was reading the N&O at the time — $1 a copy, which is pretty stiff — so I started paying more attention to the section I read the closest: sports. (It’s ACC Tournament time, after all.) As it turns out, I didn’t have to pay that close of attention.

Wednesday — Two stories, two different ways of spelling Codi Miller-McIntyre’s name. In addition, one story said that a sick Kennedy Meeks would not play, another story said the decision hadn’t been made. (At many papers, when more than one story is being produced out of an event the stories would be read by the same copy editor to make sure the stories are consistent.

Friday — The Duke-N.C. State score in a box on the front page was transposed indicating that State won, rather than Duke. (In fairness, the front page is pretty clear who won: the correct score is at the top of the page above a headline that reads “Duke’s revenge tour continues.”)  Update 1: Madison Taylor, editor of the Times-News in Burlington, quipped on Facebook: “State fans just bought subscriptions.”

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Saturday — The lead story in the section said that UNC beat Virginia 69-67. The actual score was 71-67. (Online, it’s now correct, but I have a photo in case you doubt me.)

Maybe these aren’t big deals…but they’re mistakes. And a journalist who doesn’t feel a mistake in his or her gut isn’t worthy of the word journalist. There may be other errors — probably are, given the amount of space the staff is filling under tremendous time constraints. I was alos also (I need a copy editor!) reading the early edition of the paper so I’m guessing that these mistakes may have been corrected by the time the paper was delivered within Wake County.

Caveat: I don’t mean to pick on the N&O, which is, in my opinion, the best newspaper in the state. And I know a lot of people there and I’m sure they hate these errors more than I do.

No, this point is to tell the overseers at McClatchy that what they continue to do to their editing staffs is killing the greatness of two of their better publications. I’ve worked for business people who have looked at org charts, pointed at copy editors and asked, “Why do we have these people? They don’t produce stories, right?” And copy editors get axed, perhaps more than any other part of a newsroom.

But readers can tell the difference when names are misspelled, when scores are transposed — how embarrassing for both Duke and State — and scores are simply wrong. Readers laugh at the paper’s errors, and they shake their heads and wonder what else in the paper’s report is wrong. It not only makes the paper look stupid, but it hurts their credibility — and a paper’s credibility is its primary — perhaps only — asset.

Perhaps the people at McClatchy are OK with that. Perhaps they have seen the savings they were looking for when they combined the two papers’ copy desks in 2011 and figure they can get a bit more.

But you know why there is no report above for Thursday? We decided we didn’t need the paper that morning. Picking up a copy was too much trouble. (I would have had to get four quarters from somewhere.)

I know how errors happen — they aren’t on purpose, there’s no conspiracy, and editors aren’t stupid. They happen because there aren’t enough people to check a story or chart or headline that was written on deadline while 18 other things are happening all at the same time.

I’m a newspaper lover. If I were a McClatchy shareholder, I’d be thinking that it’s about time to sell because when you start to lose newspaper lovers, you’re in serious trouble.

By the way, here is a fine list of what happens when you pare a copy desk down beyond its limits.

Update 2: In the comments, Andy Bechtel points out this link on the value of copy editing.

Headless body in topless bar

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Skip Foster, publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat, wrote on Facebook of that cover:  “Oh my gosh — politics aside, this is the best headline in the history of everything.”

It struck me that newspapers have missed an opportunity to make their headlines leap off the page, to make headlines alone worth the price of the paper.

I asked Skip about whether he would use such a headline in his newspaper. “I could see this on an op-ed page. I guess my faith that people could divorce the politics from the exquisite intersection of word play and story content is not very high. That is, can Dems appreciate this and would Republicans appreciate the equivalent on their side? Maybe.”

front-cover-02-26-2015But probably not. I understand his reluctance. Many readers see conspiracies everywhere. Publish a photo of a historic Selma anniversary without President Bush and people think he was purposely cropped out. My own newspaper has been bombarded with complaining letters to the editor because a columnist has the audacity of voicing an opinion on the front page.

But using provocative headlines to attract readers to the paper would be ballsy. It would make the newspaper more interesting. It would make the newspaper more fun to read.

Would a newspaper other than a tabloid take up the challenge — or opportunity — even if it’s just one headline a day? Even if they avoided political stories? It would take three things:

* A good writer: Most newspapers have clever wordsmiths. In my experience, copy desks have the most clever, droll writers at papers. They could pull off the requisite attitude.

* Boundaries: Taste is important, as is an understanding of how far to go.

* Editors and publishers who have the ability to take their publications with a little less seriousness. Editors and publishers who understand that they must do things differently to remain relevant. Editors and publishers who can explain to readers what they’re doing. Editors and publishers who have courage.

front-cover-312-copy It’s a challenge, I know. Newspapers are still trying to learn the lessons of digital headline writing.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute wrote a piece last year on the strategies of how the viral Upworthy headlines work. His lessons could well apply to effective newspaper headlines — and tabloid heads.

Most newspapers are boring. It’s a big challenge to make City Council, school board and Washington stories interesting. Writing fun, outrageous, pun-filled headlines won’t fix that.

But they’d be a start.

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If it bleeds, it leads

downloadAs I write this three of the five stories on the rotating billboard leading the website for WFMY are about accidental death or criminal death.

The top 5 stories on the website for WGHP are death or crime-related.

The lead story on JournalNow.com, the site of the Winston-Salem Journal, is about a boy hit and killed by an SUV.

Only one of the five stories on the rotating billboard of the News & Record’s site is about a murder, but three of the first five stories under “latest news” are about death or injury.

Why is this relevant? Because it tells people that the world is more dangerous than it is.

One result of the Elon University Poll is that 56.5% of N.C. respondents think there is more crime in the U.S. than a year ago.** The majority opinion, however, doesn’t reflect the reality. In fact, most research indicates there is less crime — or at least serious crime.

The news media bear a great deal of responsibility for this perception. By reporting crime with such prominence, it distorts the actual problem. And distorting reality is not part of the journalist’s job. (It actually contradicts the journalist’s job.)

Websites emphasize crime for two primary reasons:

* Crime stories draw traffic. People want to know where a homicide occurred. It’s possible they know the person, but more likely it’s for prurient interests.

* Crime stories are easy to produce. Many law enforcement agencies send the information directly to the media outlet. Rewrite them in the proper style and you’ve got new information for the site.

I headlined this post with a cliches of the TV news business. It seems it has taken over the news web business, too. I understand the importance of drawing traffic. It’s a metric of most sites. But civic service should be a metric, too, as should journalistic principles.

And as such, here is the operational journalistic principle, according to “The Elements of Journalism:” “It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.”

“Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map.” (Italics mine).

** Full disclosure: I work with the Elon University Poll.

Sunday sampler

A lot of Selma coverage – mostly wires – on the front pages of N.C. newspapers today, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not going to be the focus here.

Charlotte — The Observer profiles in a way Samir Khan, an al-Qaida blogger killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Khan, who lived in Charlotte until he disappeared in 2009, was under intense FBI surveillance. The FBI has refused to answer questions about what happened between January 2009, when Charlotte FBI agents contacted the Hostage Rescue Team, and Khan’s subsequent disappearance. But hundreds of pages of heavily redacted investigation files document the FBI’s dogged pursuit of Khan, talk of turning him into an informant, and apparent frustration that they couldn’t find enough evidence to justify an arrest.

Raleigh — The state’s new tax structure is coming home to roost. The N&O describes some of the reaction to people who are seeing the changes. Brandon Britt, who owns three Liberty Tax Service franchises in Johnston County, said many of his lower-income customers have just one question about their income taxes: “How much am I getting back?” But this year many, of those customers are experiencing what Britt describes as “sticker shock” when it comes to their state taxes.

Monroe — When you’re 16, the world is a wonderful place full of adventure and possibility. It’s also a place where terrible things can happen and you can react in terrible ways. The Enquirer-Journal tells one such compelling story of a 16-year-old who killed herself, possibly over bullying.  Around the eighth grade, Ash started to express her sexual identity more, Quick said. While Ash did not come out to her directly, Quick knew that she had started a new relationship with a girl and told Ash she knew. “I will not love you any differently,” Quick said she told her child. “I will not look at you any differently.” 

Fayetteville — The Observer tells the story of a 15-year-old sentenced to life without parole for murder. It’s a sympathetic story of a man who has apparently turned his life around, and it’s likely to get the Observer criticism for making the murderer appear, well, human. But it’s a good, interesting story centered around the conflict of whether anyone should get life without chance of parole.