Monday, May 13, 2013

#RedSox #RIpolitics #journalisticstandardsstillapply

The Sox are showing early signs of a “June swoon” that I refer as “May decay.” I’m reminding myself that the season is young and it’s only a game, but I still shriek at the TV and curse the score.

On the bright side, Lester and Buchholz have been unbelievable and Big Papi had a stellar batting average to start the season.  In fact, Ortiz was hitting so well that Dan Shaughnessy from the Boston Globe suggested that he may be using performance-enhancing drugs.  Hmm.  No evidence was offered – just accusations like “You are from the Dominican Republic.  You are an older player” and “they were chanting ‘steroids’ in Toronto.”  I don’t have enough space to conquer the racist angle here, but the Ortiz-Shaughnessy dustup and recent observations of other news media have made me realize that journalism as a career has either evolved or we have our fair share of irresponsible journalists around here.  It wasn’t always this way.

My first “real” job after college was in Governor Sundlun’s press office.  To say that times have changed is a gross understatement.  While we had computers, there was no e-mail, no Twitter and just one very large mobile phone.  If we wanted to share something with a colleague, we’d have to print it out and walk it over to them.  We had a heck of a fax machine and we very carefully programmed it with the fax numbers of all the relevant news media.  We’d hit the P2 button and magically send our news around Rhode Island over a blaring fax line that took at least an hour to communicate with all the newsrooms. The members of the State House press corps were well known to us as they would pop into the office for a real paper copy of our news releases, get comments for pieces they were working on and pick up Governor Sundlun’s schedule.  Despite the fact that Governor Sundlun had a tendency to generate some “off message” news, our office had a good relationship with the media.  There were some reporters we were more wary of than others, but we were careful – in that position reporters are never your friends – and they were professional, so a delicate balance existed. 

Shaughnessy’s hijinks show that today it’s no longer enough to sniff out a good story, report the facts, and get it out there first.  For some media, creating the controversy, inserting themselves in the story and drumming up attention has become part of the job.  Some call themselves columnists – I suppose to protect themselves and their employers from being sued -- but with the exception of a few Hollywood actors, no one bothers to go after the media anymore.  The line between commenting and reporting is blurry – Shaughnessy’s byline sometimes reads “columnist” and sometimes reads “staff writer” – so what he has a “right” to write is subject to broad interpretation.

Talk show hosts apparently have no standards whatsoever.  Last week I listened to one (who has no background in security or academia) berate a representative from URI for moving their graduation indoors and heard another one (with no expertise in finance) critiquing the state’s investment portfolio.  Apparently having a mike in front on your face can make you an expert in any field and gives you license to tell other people how to do their jobs.  Even worse, they get away with it because many spokespeople and public officials don’t want to appear and have to defend themselves against questions on par with “how often do you beat your wife?”

The 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame for the warping of journalistic standards.  Breaking news is often driven by Twitter and the demand for new information is insatiable.  Sometimes the truth – and even the real desire to report it – seems to get lost in the feeding frenzy of a news cycle and there’s more value placed on who’s “following” you than what you have to report.  It seems that members of the media have to tweet constantly to be relevant and for those that have nothing good to say, this means retweeting old pieces, putting out half-baked stories – or worse, reporting gossip and assumptions as fact.  I’m not the only one noticing some of the guano on Twitter.  During a particularly snarky day in the local political Twitterverse, rising star Ethan Shorey from the Valley Breeze tweeted, “Many "news" tweets by RI press lately bordering on open mocking. #journalisticstandardsstillapply” 

So what’s a news consumer to do?  I’m hoping that the recent spate of bad reporting is like a slump and we can shake it off and move on.  Perhaps as the political season heats up, we should ask reporters to imagine (or remember) what it’s like to go to work with just a fax, a brick phone and a copy of their J-school ethics textbook.  Dan Shaughnessy should also pack a jacket if he’s heading for Red Sox locker room – I think he’s going to find it’s mighty cold in there.


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