Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Faux balance unbalances news stories

Without realizing it, reporter Patrick Maloney made a confession in the daily newspaper. Without grasping the true importance of his words, he admitted that The Free Press committed the common media blunder of faux balance.

It seems that some years ago, feeling the need to balance its coverage of Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best's state of the city address, the daily paper chased down Joe Fontana vacationing out of town in the sunny south. According to Maloney, "Fontana ripped his old rival with unexpected vigour."

Unexpected vigour? Really? Fontana's vitriol-laced words were unexpected? I humbly suggest the newspaper sought out Fontana hoping to get some good quotes, and Fontana delivered.

It is interesting to note that the original story, as posted to the Web, makes no mention that Fontana was chased down by the paper, that he was not even at the event but was instead on vacation. The omission was not for lack of space. Fontana dominates from 40 to 50 percent of the first story, depending upon how one approaches the calculation.

Journalists have forgotten how to report straight-news straight. Faux balance does not add accuracy or objectivity. What it does add is risk, and one of those risks is the risk of being used by the person chosen as a counter-balance. Fontana welcomed the opportunity to grab some front page attention. He criticized his former opponent and took full advantage of the moment to further his own political ambitions.

Personal Twitter attack by the reporter who wrote both stories mentioned in the above post.
Interesting response to my post. What makes it interesting, at least to me, is that it is but another in a long list of rude reactions from a reporter at The London Free Press, the newspaper at which I worked for thirty some years. While working at the paper I was mainly a staff photographer but I also wrote two weekly columns -- one on photography and another, Celebrating the Thames, on the river that flowing through London.

I have kept the letters and e-mails from these journalists but I don't publish them as the writers usually request that I not publish their thoughts on my blog. I respect their wishes. I have attacked financial advisers and others but the only rude responses I have received are from reporters. Other than reporters, I don't recall anyone else attacking me on a personal level. Some of the reporter e-mails have not only been rude in content but rude in form -- written in screaming solid caps in very large, bold fonts.

I have been disappointed by the responses from professional reporters. When I worked at newspapers I believed journalists had thick skins. And they did back in the '70s when I got into the profession. Not so today.

No one working at the paper should be surprised at the tone of my posts. When I saw stuff with which I didn't agree while working at the paper, I was known to walk into the publisher's office or the editor-in-chief's office and voice my disapproval. I vented, they listened and that was it. I was never able to spur anyone into taking any action. (I believe, if asked, Paul Berton, a former editor-in-chief at the Free Press, would confirm this statement.)

Writing a blog is far more satisfying that making futile noises as an employee at a paper. I have had more than 164,000 hits and the number keeps growing. I vent and someone listens and another and then still another. Right now my most popular post has been hit more than 12,500 times.

If you are a journalism junkie, please read the story that inspired my post: London mayor hints at re-election platform with promise to keep taxes at 1% a year and then read the "balanced" story done at the time of Anne Marie DeCicco-Best's state of the city address: Mayor's race replay?

A writer for The Economist's Democracy in America blog wrote:
"Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine."

Seeing the anger my posts generate, I try to be careful when discussing errors made by local journalists. Still, newspapers are too important to be above criticism. I've decided to be careful but at the same time to be true to myself and to continue to openly discuss my unease with some aspects of how the media operates. An open, free media is a pillar of our way of life.

Discussion is called for, not personal insults.

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