Features Archive - Respond to this Article

Jan/Feb 1999 - Volume 31 Issues 1 & 2

Special 30th Anniversary Section - JUST THE FACTS
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Scott Shuger:

writes the "Today's Papers" column for Slate.

It's progress that most of us no longer view journalism as simply the gathering of facts. Some facts are more important than others. We know that what readers should get isn't the facts but the story. A newspaper should help us decide what events mean, and to do this, writers and editors have to interpret, opine, explain, disregard, and emphasize. In short, they have to write and edit. But what's wrong is when newspapers try to hide this aspect of what they do. When they cloak themselves in the myth of objectivity. The reader, in his quest to get the story, is entitled to know what particular point of view the particular story in his hands is told from. Only then can he be an informed news consumer, able to get out of this particular tale what's in it and well advised about what else he still needs to know.

So it's not the point of view, but the smuggled-in point of view that's got to go. Last fall, a front-page Los Angeles Times story reported that as part of the last-minute budget deal, then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato won approval of a provision requiring health insurance companies to cover post-mastectomy reconstructive surgery. The paper then immediately explained that D'Amato did this to undercut the strong support among women enjoyed by his election opponent, Charles Schumer. It was just assumed without comment that D'Amato had only this motivation. No consideration was given to the idea that D'Amato might be actually concerned about women not being able to afford reconstructions. If D'Amato was indeed so coldly single-minded, that at least is something the paper needed to support with some facts, such as his past voting record on women's health issues. But to flatly ascribe the basest motive to him in passing is precisely smuggling opinion in. As this episode shows, this journalistic offense cuts across ideological lines - liberals are just as guilty as conservatives.

Financial reporting often keeps its agenda hidden. Last October, when a computer problem halted trading at the New York Stock Exchange for about an hour, all the papers gave precise accounts of the standstill with one glaring exception: not one mentioned the brand of computer that failed. This is like reporting a plane crash without mentioning the type of plane, an extraordinary level of incuriosity, helping to protect that company's stock price, but not helping anybody understand what went wrong or what other computer systems are likewise vulnerable. Also, when around the same time, the yield on 30-year Treasury bonds dipped below 5 percent for the first time ever, most of the reporting came wrapped in the alarm the development prompted among stockholders and bond buyers, but generally did not explain that this was very good news for a much larger group of Americans - those trying to secure a home mortgage.

And sometimes it's public sentiment that cows newspapers out of raising questions. For instance, the coverage of John Glenn's space mission (with the notable exception of The New York Times editorial page) was positively boosterish. News stories gave no meaningful space to the idea that Glenn's involvement was pure PR. And even though the shuttle suffered the potentially dangerous loss of a protective panel during launch, none of the papers the next day mentioned NASA's previous "special" astronaut, Christa McAuliffe.

Perhaps the height of illicit editorializing in newspapers is the news photo. With all the pictures available of the likes of Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, is it ever really necessary to run a picture of them with a dopey expression or a finger in the ear? In a recent New York Times "Week in Review" section, alongside a story about politicians speaking their minds about other countries, was a looming picture of Al Gore, cropped so close that none of his hair is visible and you can see the sweat that's bubbling out of every giant pore in his face. The verbal equivalent of the picture - "Gore, looking like a crazed criminal with something to hide, said," - would never pass muster. Therefore, the picture shouldn't either.

What to do about smuggled-in point of view? Well, readers should ask themselves, "Whose interests are being served by this story told this way and whose are being left out? And they should communicate what they find out to the papers via letters to the editor and via the papers' on-line sites. When editors learn that readers are becoming more sophisticated about what's missing, their stories are more apt to include it. For instance, now that the big papers know that readers are aware of the political role of spin and counterspin, they more often tend to include in their political stories a discussion of the possible spins. (An excellent example was The New York Times piece last August breaking the news that President Clinton was considering using as a defense against perjury his claim to be wielding a certain definition of sex. The story was not only a White House trial balloon, but it explained that it was.)

And the beat system in force at most papers should be modified. Much of a story's hidden point of view comes not from some sort of grand conspiracy but from when reporters have too much familiarity with the culture of the institution(s) being covered, so much so that assumptions held by participants in the culture creep seamlessly into the journalists' reporting and writing. Correspondingly, an able reporter who is less familiar with the cultural assumptions is more apt to question them and look at them in a fresh way. A reporter coming off a Pentagon tour might ask great questions at City Hall, and vice versa. To maintain a paper's institutional memory, you still need reporters with lots of experience on a beat, but they should generally be paired with another reporter with commensurate experience but in another area. In other words, half of a papers' reporters should be kept cycling through.


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