Reporters sometimes give up on sources too readily
The cable guy visited a few days ago, and when he asked what the problem was, I said, “You’re going to laugh.”
By Jim Stasiowski, writing coach for the Dolan Media Co., welcomes your questions or comments. Call him at 775 354-2872 or write to 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev. 89436.
(He didn’t seem the laughing type, but I thought a little humor might soften his brick face.)
“Sometimes,” I said, “when I’m flipping through the channels, the screen will turn green, and it’ll stay green unless I turn off the TV. Then, when I turn it back on, it’s not green anymore. Unless, of course, it’s Kermit the Frog.”
Jackie Gleason wouldn’t have been able to coax so much as an elevated lip from this guy.
Eschewing eye contact, he near-whispered some incomprehensible cable-guy talk, but he said he’d change the DVR (and no, I don’t know what a “DVR” is), and he added, “Tell you what, I’ll leave these cables. If changing the DVR doesn’t work, try changing the cables.”
Note that ominous word: “try.”
He was doing what newspapers too often do: Saying something in a voice so meek, it was more like a parakeet’s cheep than a bulldog’s bark.
I was reading a story by a reporter who was covering a dispute between environmentalists and a developer. For about a dozen or so paragraphs, each side had its (predictable) say.
Then the spokeswoman for the environmentalists asserted, in what I imagined to be a firm, loud voice, that the law prevented development on the land in question.
Aha, I thought: The developer is going to lose.
But two paragraphs later, the developer said the spokeswoman was wrong, that the law, in fact, left room for an exception that would allow his project.
So in the middle of the story, I found out that one of the sides was right, the other wrong.
The reporter, however, never checked to find out what the law actually said. As a result, the story was a typical PROPS ‘N’ OPPS piece, with the proponents saying, “White,” and the opponents saying, “Black.”
Just as my cable guy was afraid to promise he had fixed the problem, the reporter feared interpreting a law.
In another story with environmental overtones, a county wanted to make more strict a development code in an industrial area. The companies already there insisted that toughening the code would drive them out of business.
Again, it was PROPS ‘N’ OPPS.
But the reporter failed on two counts. First, he didn’t challenge the county. If, in county officials’ eyes, a development code is too lenient, someone with the county should be able to say, “Here are the problems caused by the inadequate existing code.”
Second, the reporter didn’t read the proposed stricter code. Instead, he quoted a company owner as saying it would prevent certain changes in the company’s building.
Businesspeople reflexively oppose new restrictions. The reporter should read the proposed code, then take the company owner’s gripe to the county development officials and ask: “The owner of the XYZ Company says the new code would prevent his changing of his building. Is he right or wrong?”
I read a third story about a proposal floated by a powerful state legislator. He had a plan to solve a problem, but before I had gotten two sentences into his plan, I could see it was illogical, based on a flawed premise.
But the reporter let the legislator spell out his entire flawed plan. The reporter gave him too much respect, too much credibility. It was as if the reporter were afraid to challenge a person so powerful.
That reporter was like the cable guy. He accepted a bad explanation, just as the cable guy accepted his company’s method of solving green screen by (1) changing the DVR, then (2) handing new cables to the customer.
The new DVR solved the problem … for approximately three days. When the green screen returned, I changed the cables, and the green screen now is as much a part of my evening’s entertainment as the GEICO gecko.
I don’t blame the cable guy for his equivocating; he doesn’t make the equipment his company gives him to distribute to disgruntled customers.
But journalists have extraordinary freedom, as well as extraordinary responsibility. As reporters and editors, we are the creators of our stories. We cannot point to others as the cause of our weakness. We have to require direct answers from sources, study every clause of every document, explain the technicalities, wipe out as many ambiguities as we can.
To ensure we all do that, I’m going to install a foolproof feature in every reporter’s computer: When we equivocate, the screen will turn green.
And believe me, I have the cables to make that happen.
THE FINAL WORD: The phrase is “all right,” two words, both spelled properly, with a space between them.
I suppose some people justify “alright” because of a vaguely related word, “altogether.” Say both terms. You’ll instinctively add a space, although a short one, between “all” and “right,” but you’ll pronounce “altogether” altogether.