former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘reporting’

When Did Contraception Become Controversial?

In Blog on January 5, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Tell me, when did the media decide that contraception was controversial?  When I did a search on Google News, I found that the words contraception and controversy occurred together more than 4,000 times, often in broadcast and print news accounts.

Contraception is not some bizarre practice that most Americans avoid.  Yet, ideologues and the Catholic hierarchy have managed to brainwash reporters, most of whom I’ll wager practiced birth control at some point in their lives, and persuaded them to treat the term gingerly.  Contraception used to be called family planning. That term better reflects the well-established concept that people have the right to determine how many children they can love, raise and financially support.

Most sexually experienced  Catholic women of child-bearing age – an estimated 98 percent — have practiced contraception at some point in their lives.  As a reporter colleague of mine once put it, “We’re Catholics, but we’re not idiots.”  The statistics are pretty clear that most Catholics don’t see anything wrong with contraception.  Only 15 percent find it morally wrong.  Even among Catholics who attend weekly mass, two-thirds don’t find contraception objectionable.  Count me among that group.  Heck, I even sing in the choir at my church.

And as a few media outlets have tried to point out, federal regulations long on the books already had made the availability of birth control pills a requirement for most employers that provide health insurance.  Many state laws had imposed similar requirements on Catholic institutions. Catholic institutions that fought these rules were often blocked by the courts.

But by and large  journalists have done a terrible job of making the point that contraceptive use is the norm in this country, and that federal regulations and state laws have been quietly requiring that it be a part of employer-provided health insurance for years.

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Five Things Jeff Bezos Can Do to Upgrade The Post and Win Over Its Readers

In Blog on August 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Since you’ve paid cash ($250 million) to buy The Washington Post, I’m assuming that you can afford to spend a bit more to enhance your property. Think of these suggestions as adding a new wing to your DC pied-à-terre. I believe they will actually make The Post more attractive to its readers, and since you say you are all about pleasing the customer, they might appeal to you.

Restore The Post’s ombudsman. Last  April, The Post discontinued its ombudsman position. That was a short-sighted move.  You can reverse this decision.  The Post needs an independent and wise journalist to look over its shoulder and assess its performance. An ombudsman is the paper’s conscience and its customer service rep, the person who can respond to reader concerns and complaints in a thoughtful, meaningful way. And if you do take this suggestion, hire someone feisty and brave, like The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan.

Hire more copy editors. As a reporter, I always resented editors for getting in my way. They do, and they should.  The good ones ask the right questions, guard the grammar, spot errors, and help shape stories. After waves of buyouts, you can see The Post has suffered from an editor shortage. Stories often are pointlessly long, lack focus, and leave readers frustrated for lack of basic information. Don’t take my word for it.  Read the corrections page each day, and the “reader’s comments page” on Saturday.

Beef up the Health-Science section. The Post Health section used to be plump with solid health journalism. Now it is thinner and a mishmash of health and science news, often snatched from wire services. Surely, an aging population of wealthy readers is pretty obsessed with health news.  Give them better, more comprehensive coverage from health journalists.  If you don’t want to staff up, give more in-depth assignments to free-lancers. Medical Mysteries is one feature that is a winner for the section, but it needs more heft.

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GUEST POST: News Happened in Texas and Everyone Was Watching, No Thanks To The Mainstream Media

In Blog on June 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

I am proud to loan this space to guest blogger Valerie Wexler!

As the Boston bombing suspects led police on what would become a citywide manhunt, word spread first via the internet, but national and cable news quickly caught up.  Tuesday night, a story less violent but equally riveting (and one that could affect the lives of millions of Texan women) unfolded on the floor of the Texas State Senate.  That story also attracted widespread attention on the internet  but it was not picked up by one cable news channel.

Instead more than 180,000 people watched one livestream of state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustering Senate Bill 5, a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks and put strict new regulations on abortion providers, forcing most clinics in Texas to close. The filibuster was briefly mentioned on evening newscasts but it was Twitter and the internet that kept the world informed into the night.

The tweets came not just from citizens or protesters on the ground but also from local reporters who knew the Texas legislature and the people in it. Like the Boston Globe during the manhunt, The Texas Tribune and its reporters consistently provided solid information through Twitter and their liveblog. (It should also be noted that The Texas Tribune was founded by nonprofit sponsors and is cited in Out of the News as an example of strong nonprofit journalism.) As Davis’s filibuster was challenged and points of order and issues of germaneness piled up, local reporters tried to provide explanations while links to the Texas Senate rulebook were passed around on Twitter.

No cable news cameras were there when, in protest to the halting of the filibuster, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (who had rushed back from her father’s funeral) did the parliamentary equivalent of dropping the mic, asking, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?” And no national news anchors were present to witness how that moment triggered 10 minutes of sustained yells and screams from the protesters filling the building- long enough to delay the vote on the bill.

But that statement, and those yells, made their way across the internet in seconds, as local reporters and citizens tweeted, posted on Facebook, and clipped and shared on YouTube. News was happening whether the “mainstream media” acknowledged it or not.  Once again we were depending on those on the ground for accurate information.

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Plagiarism of the Spirit: Reporters are Stuck in the DC Bubble

In Blog on June 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

Recently, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote a lengthy story on DC couples who work in media and politics.  The story revealed one of this city’s not-so-well-kept secrets: In this town, the media literally are in bed with the government.  Farhi’s piece outed some of those government-media duos – NPR’s Ari Shapiro is the spouse of Michael Gottlieb, on the staff of the White House Counsel.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is married to ABC News’s Claire Shipman.  Washington Post reporter Sari Horowitz is the wife of Health and Human Services General Counsel William B. Schultz. Vice President Biden’s communications director Shailagh Murray is married to Wall Street Journal political reporter Neil King.

Farhi himself also coyly confesses, without naming names or specifying the nature of the relationship, that he sometimes writes about CBS news and is related to an employee at the network.

Farhi’s critique focuses on how well these couples manage conflicts of interest.  But that’s not really the problem.  Reporters by and large do pretty well avoiding favoritism covering the news. They adjust assignments, and are pretty scrupulous about not covering any issue on which their loved ones have direct responsibility.

The problem goes much deeper.  It is the inbred Washington culture where big media and big government mingle in a seamless minuet that creates a plagiarism of the spirit. No, I don’t mean the plagiarism that happens when one reporter literally copies the words and opinions of others.  This appropriation is much larger and more fundamental.  The journalists who live and work together in the tight little cocoon of DC politics are seeing the world in the same way, chasing down the same fragments of news, and no one is challenging anybody’s assumptions.

Think of it.  The elite who comprise the Washington press corps — those reporters for major media outlets who cover the White House, the federal government and Congress and who are regular contributors to the weekly news shows — by and large are well paid and comfortable.  High-profile reporters send their kids to the same private schools that also are attended by the children of senior government officials. They run into each other at the same parties.  They live in the same neighborhoods.  They dine at the same restaurants.

None of this is wrong.  But it is severely limiting.  Journalists used to be working class stiffs, outsiders whose press passes would only get them pressed against the window of power, not inside the halls.  They had empathy for the “little guy” because they emerged from the same class.  Journalism was one of the few jobs around that required no formal college degree. To those who lacked the right pedigree or social skills, journalism rewarded hard work and cleverness with decent-paying jobs that were enjoyable and stimulating.

As much as journalism might be in financial distress nationwide, the DC press corps still contains many reporters who’ve never taken a Greyhound bus or entered a Walmart.  They don’t understand what it means to earn only the minimum wage.

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Washington Post Ombudsman Lowers the Bar for “Great” Journalism

In Blog on February 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I often agree with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton. But not this week.

He begins his column with a question: “You know what makes The Post great, on its best days?”

The answer? “Reporters reporting.”

Uh, right. Presumably, however, reporters also report for The Post on its worst days and on all the mediocre days in between. So perhaps Pexton had in mind some extraordinary examples of great reporting.

No such luck. “It is reporters” he points out, who sit “through hours of a city or county council session or a congressional hearing,” to get the quote or fact that prompts a surprising news story. “It is reporters” who wait until (egads!) “after midnight” to witness a controversial zoning decision vote. “It is reporters” with “ringing ears” no less, who make phone calls to talk to sources to get the information they need to write a story they were assigned to that morning. “It is reporters” who have to go to “bloody crime scenes” and encounter “people who are upset, stressed and crying.”

This is what supposedly “separates” the work of Post reporters from the “…thin reporting that passes for journalism in media land.”

I agree there’s a lot of “thin reporting” out there. But the work Pexton describes is so basic to plain vanilla journalism that it should not be cast as heroic. It should be the floor for the profession, not the ceiling.

Pexton could as easily have written, “It is dentists” who “bravely attack tooth decay, put their hands into dirty mouths, and who have to extract dead, bloody teeth from people who are upset and stressed.”

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