Tag Archives: reporting

A Civic Help-Wanted Ad

For those unfamiliar with the term, copy editors are the people hired by newspapers and magazines to make the copy “clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.”  According to the Free Dictionary, copy editors should ensure that a story “says what it means, and means what it says.”

Typically, copy editing involves correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, terminology, jargon, and semantics.

A number of us who inexplicably continue to subscribe to the Indianapolis Star have remarked on the increased number of spelling and grammar errors that have escaped a copy editor’s notice over the past couple of years. (As a former High School English teacher, these errors affect me like nails on a blackboard.)

However annoying the obvious reduction in, or absence of, copy editing, that problem pales in importance beside the much more consequential reduction in the reporting of actual news,and especially the absence of government oversight. Coverage of City Hall and the Statehouse are virtually non-existent; the absence of reporters with institutional memory, investigative instincts and the time to do more than superficial reports on such issues as do surface leaves citizens without any reliable way to evaluate the performance of our government officials and agencies.

The most recent example (and by no means the worst) has been the coverage of Secretary of State Connie Lawson’s attribution of mistakes found on multiple voter registration forms to fraud, ostensibly by an organization focused upon registering African-American voters.

I have no idea whether Lawson’s claims are well-founded or politically motivated.(She was, after all, a co-sponsor of Indiana’s Voter ID law, which aimed to solve a nonexistent problem.) What’s worse, however, is the fact that until the third or fourth story about the controversy, I had no idea what she was alleging. The articles were so badly written that I couldn’t make heads or tails of what the issue was–nor could several friends who’d also read it. And when a follow-up story did clarify the nature of the controversy, it was presented as “she said”/”he said.” There was no indication that reporters had made any effort to independently assess the validity of the competing assertions.

If you are wondering what triggered this particular post, it was the Star’s recent announcement that it is once again trimming its editorial staff (i.e. reporters), and moving what is left of its pitifully inadequate copyediting out-of-state. (I wonder how an out-of-state copy editor would make the Lawson story, which depends upon a basic understanding of Indiana law and practice “clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.”)

Ever since Gannett acquired the Star, the quality–and more importantly, the scope– of its reporting has declined. The paper was never a shining beacon of journalism, but it did employ actual reporters, it did cover state and local government, it did report on something other than sports, entertainment and the opening of new bars.

If there’s an entrepreneur out there who wants to find a currently unserved market, Indianapolis could really use a credible newspaper. (Online is fine.)

The Rest of the Story

A few days ago, I noted that Fox News had actually had kind words to say about a piece run by NPR. I should have known that there was something wrong with that picture–and there was. In the wake of the NPR report, which addressed perceived overuse of the Social Security Disability program, there have been serious criticisms of its accuracy and conclusions.

I should have known that a Fox endorsement calls for a closer look….

The Planet Money report portrayed the disability program as a “hidden, increasingly expensive safety net,” and implied strongly that it was over-used and out of control. Those conclusions were rebutted in at least two subsequent stories, one in U.S. News and World Report, and the other in the L.A. Times.

U.S. News called the NPR report “overwrought and unbalanced.” The typical beneficiary is in his or her late 50s, suffering from severe mental, musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory or other debilitating condition. Studies have concluded that most beneficiaries are unable to work at all, and virtually none can do anything substantial. It is true, as NPR reported, that the number of people collecting disability has grown, but this is a function of demographics; as U.S. News notes, “It is completely predictable that claims would go up as the baby boomers aged into the period in their lives when disability claims become more likely, and increasing numbers of women were acquiring the work experience necessary to qualify.”

About those qualifications: getting disability is far from easy. To be eligible, you must have worked for at least one-fourth of your adult life, and have been employed in at least five of the ten years prior to application. (Children qualify under SSI, a companion program, and workers younger than 31 have to have been employed in half the years since they turned 22.) Only a quarter of all applications are approved initially, and another 13% on appeal. Only 41% of those who apply ever see a check.

Disability rates are closely tied to work conditions–as the L.A. Times reports, in West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest disability rate, 150 out of every 1000 jobs involves transportation, hauling, construction or mining.  NPR reported on a county in Alabama, where a large percentage of the population is on disability. Despite NPR’s insinuation that residents of the County were a bunch of malingerers, a Center for Budget Policy and Priorities analysis places it among a group of Southern and Appalachian states with a distinct set of demographic indicators: low rates of high-school completion, an older workforce, fewer immigrants and an industrial mix that consists mainly of manufacturing, forestry and mining. Older, less educated workers in physically demanding jobs are less likely to be able to continue working if they become disabled.

So–as Paul Harvey would have said–that’s “the rest of the story.”

You’d think the exponents of “fair and balanced” reporting might have noted the existence of a conflicting narrative.


A Tale of Newspapers Past

It has become a commonplace for those of us who live in Indianapolis to complain about the lack of substance in the Star. I was recently rude enough–and it was rude and I shouldn’t have said it–to complain to Matt Tully about the lack of coverage of city hall. His defense was that the paper had covered the Litebox and Duke Energy scandals. True–but what about the multiple issues that haven’t been covered (or uncovered). After all, when a major daily paper has exactly four investigative reporters, there’s a limit to what they can do.

As I often (too often??) remind people, when I was in city hall, there were three full-time reporters and a couple of stringers covering city government. The Hudnut Administration would never have gotten the “pass” that Ballard (and Peterson) have. When I edited a book about the Goldsmith Administration, contributors got most of their information from contemporaneous newspaper accounts.

I thought about this again this morning, because our daughter Kelly told me she’d been going through some memorabilia–old newspapers she’d kept as reminders of important events–and was shocked by the difference between those old issues and the current, pale imitation that Gannett puts out. Not only was the paper physically larger, it was packed with information about city and county government, news of the state and nation.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

As Kelly pointed out, it isn’t so bad with respect to national news, because we can access the New York Times and many other sources of national news online. But there is no local substitute for credible, fact-checked reporting. We have some thoughtful local bloggers who bring issues to our attention, but they aren’t reporters, and don’t pretend to be. So there’s a lot going on in our city that we don’t know about; there are details about the things we do know that would change our opinion of them (cases in point: the Broad Ripple garage evident boondoggle, the parking meter giveaway). Mentioning something is not the same as reporting on it. Reprinting or rephrasing a press release isn’t reporting.

I’m glad the Star reported on the Litebox fiasco and Duke Energy’s ethical lapses. But patting the paper on the back for two good stories is like giving your teenager a pass for five F’s because he got one A.