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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/18/09

How Not to Report the News

By       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   1 comment
Message Patrick Mattimore

A good news article should have a headline that accurately represents the facts of the story and presents news in context, if possible. It should also avoid "gotcha" journalism.
Regarding headlines and context, there is a particularly egregious example of news reporting failure in a front-page story in this past Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. The story, "Frequent-flier S.F. mayor draws fire on ground," is a relatively light weight hit piece about Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is expected to run for the position of California governor in 2010.

The headline suggests discontent with Newsom's "frequent" out-of-state forays and titillates the reader with a lead paragraph that includes in part the news that "Newsom has spent the equivalent of more than nine months traveling outside California since he became mayor in 2004."

However, near the end of the story readers learn that most of Newsom's critics would only speak privately to the reporter and the only official apparently willing to publicly criticize Newsom, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, suggested that Newsom's out-of-state trips are actually "useful" and that the mayor needs to be "more communicative and clear about how these efforts benefit us all."

Apart from the unsupported headline, the story lacks context which would allow readers to make informed judgments as to whether the Mayor's travel is excessive and/or unnecessary.

While mentioning that some of the Mayor's trips have been vacation travel, the reporter does not clarify how much or whether the "nine months" total out-of-state travel was partially derived from vacations. Although the report includes a general quote from the Mayor that his "trips are very much in line with the job description," the reporter apparently failed to ask, or does not refer to, specific examples of how the Mayor's travel may have benefited San Franciscans.

Readers are informed that like other big-city mayors and Newsom's predecessors, the people of the city expect the mayor to travel, so it is particularly frustrating that readers have no basis for comparing how Newsom's travel compares with either of those two groups. It is like reporting how much rainfall a given area had during the course of a year without providing overall annual area rainfall information so that people know whether the rain was excessive, light, or normal in that given year.

Looking at the comments generally on the Chronicle's news website, it is apparent how readers have been misled by the tone of the story. While it's to be expected that readers who post anonymously in such a forum are often negative, for example, in this instance calling for Newsom's recall, the more specific comments make clear that the reaction to Newsom's "frequent" out-of-town forays is negative. The problem is that there is no way of knowing whether Newsom's travel is excessive or not since no context is provided.

Finally, the whole Get Gavin, Chronicle Crusade is encapsulated nicely on the newspaper's website in a forum column written Monday by former SF Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein. Bronstein calls Newsom "Waldo" and criticizes the Mayor for NOT attending a weekend lobbying bash in Washington D.C. If only the technology were already available for cloning, eh, Mr. Mayor? It's too bad Bronstein didn't think to ask all those anonymous S.F. public officials who are quoted in his column, and who were in D.C., to go public with their criticisms.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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