Good Journalism: Don’t Know What It Is

Or: Let’s Talk about Me

 

Medium Grind – Analysis and Opinion

 

A recent dustup between a few Alaska news sources could provide Alaskans an opportunity to consider some important questions, like what the heck is “good journalism?” and “Is there really something called journalistic ethics?” The answers to those questions are very important if we’re going to have something like a high-functioning democracy. If we are to elect people to properly represent us, and if we are to adequately assess their performance, a vibrant and responsible press is necessary. So ...

The Dustup

The war of wordsmiths began Feb. 29 when KTVA aired a story with the headline, “Wasilla lawmaker: Fixed-income seniors should consider leaving Alaska.” A shocking statement, to be sure. It induced an eruption of comments from the public and a harsh rebuke to Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) from legislative minority members. It also inspired me to write this satire piece. The Anchorage Dispatch News jumped into the fray with an article on the subject, and a link to the Grinder News piece. The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reacted with an editorial declaring that Gattis had gotten a raw deal at the hands of partisan reporters and/or editors. The Frontiersman piece admonished us other reporters for twisting people’s words to skew the narrative in a political way, thus, apparently, perpetuating the stereotype of a liberal media. Strong words. So, who’s right, and who’s doing “good journalism?”

If you click on the KTVA link above you’ll find that the station has now posted the full Gattis interview with the story. It’s the right thing to do – let readers and viewers decide for themselves. If you watch the interview it’s easy to see how you might come down on either side of the question of what Gattis actually meant. Early in the interview she actually says she’s not suggesting seniors should move away. Later in the interview she says Alaska presents some challenges for old people and there are other places that are less expensive to live. It’s expensive and treacherous to live in Alaska when you have a thin wallet and brittle hips – I’m paraphrasing, of course. But, she does say there are other places that are cheaper and safer for old people on fixed incomes. So, in fairness, Gattis did not say, “Old people need to go.” But the context of the discussion was related to the recent removal of senior benefits from the draft budget. The reason many seniors may no longer be able to afford life in Alaska is through no fault of their own if that cut remains in the budget. Gattis does suggest that seniors may have better luck elsewhere. That’s the part that makes it seem cold. It’s that the legislature might deprioritize senior benefits and force longtime Alaskans to have to rearrange their own priorities, potentially leaving their state, families and friends behind.

The Frontiersman editorial accused KTVA of taking Gattis’ comments out of context. It’s not a strong argument. The headline says a lawmaker said “ ... seniors should consider leaving Alaska,” and that’s true, Gattis did suggest that if you can’t afford to live here there are cheaper places elsewhere. Nothing wrong with that math, of course.

My own satire piece was intended to reveal the absurdity of the entire budget debate in the legislature this year. The amounts of money people are talking about in cuts are tiny compared to the state’s revenue shortfall. So if we’ve come to the place where we’re throwing teaspoons of coins into the Grand Canyon it seems truly absurd that we’d consider putting fixed-income seniors in the position to even have to consider leaving Alaska. If they all leave we’ll still be just as far in the hole as we are now. The piece was not an attack on Gattis, but rather on a public process that seems to have lost all perspective. In the interest of giving credit where it is due, on March 1 while walking home from supper I bumped into Gattis and her chief of staff on the street. They both smiled and walked over. We talked pleasantly for about 10 minutes and had a good laugh about the piece. She was a good sport.

So, What Makes Good Journalism?

There was much irony in the Frontiersman editorial. It’s main point was to shame other news sources for irresponsible, politically-driven hackery. Here’s the paragraph about Grinder News, and the following two paragraphs. The original editorial didn’t include a link to Grinder News, but after an exchange of friendly e-mails Frontiersman added the link. Thanks!

 

Frank Ameduri, a former journalist and ex-Frontiersman editor who went on to a career as a Democratic party operative and blogger, ran a satirical piece on his blog that portrayed Gattis telling children to join their “grandparent refugee” relatives and leave the state, too. The blog’s take on the situation wouldn’t normally merit mention, if not for the fact that Alaska Dispatch News picked up on it and — without naming Ameduri — cited his blog’s anonymous satire in its article about the controversy.

We in the media are frequently criticized for having a left-leaning or “liberal” bias, something many of us find offensive. That’s because most of us work hard to report accurately and without bias in order to give our readers and viewers a clear, unfiltered account of what’s happening in the world around us.

When people’s words are twisted by the media and used to skew the narrative in a political way, it besmirches the reputation of those of us in the majority who believe the facts are more important than an agenda. That’s upsetting, because it goes against the principles of fairness we try to uphold and weakens an already teetering Fourth Estate.

In an editorial nearly shouting for journalistic accuracy and ethics one would expect at least a minimum of homework to be done. I have never been a Democratic Party operative or blogger. Never worked for the Democratic Party. I’m not a registered Democrat, and I have some strong beefs with both major political parties. I have worked for Democratic legislators, first for the House and Senate Dems starting back in ’06, and then for the House Dems from ’07 to, I think ’10. I also worked as staff to Rep. Mike Doogan for two sessions, and then after running the Alaska Budget Report for a few years I worked briefly for the Senate Dems, ending in an infamous flameout.

The Party and the Dem legislators are not the same thing, and I’ve never collected a paycheck from any political party – never intend to. I don’t like party politics much. Grinder News is the first blog I’ve ever run, and it’s a sole proprietorship business and is not affiliated with anyone but me. It’s certainly not a Democratic Party or “left wing” publication. I am progressive in most of my own beliefs, and when I identify something as “opinion” my beliefs are on full display. But, I’ve also done journalism for some time, and even got some college learnin’ on the subject. My first gig was back in 1982 at a funky little weekly in northern New Mexico. I was sports editor, staff photographer and circulation manager ... we had a smallish staff. It was a great education.

The second error is in suggesting my satire was “anonymous.” My name appears boldly in the flag at the top of the page; my writing is so darned funny I wouldn’t want anyone else to claim credit for it. In truth, I’m no friend to anonymous journalism of any kind. This profession is the only one specifically mentioned in the US Constitution. The First Amendment bestows great power upon anyone who claims to be a member of the press. I’ve always believed that with that power comes great responsibility, and the least exercise of that responsibility requires standing behind your words. So. Not anonymous. I’m Frank Ameduri. Always have been.

As for reporting without bias, I say poppycock, but more on that in just a moment. As for twisting people’s words, again, I plead innocent. My piece was satire. I didn’t twist anybody’s words. I completely fabricated them. That’s kind of what satire is about. You can look it up.

Back when I wore three hats and two-and-a-half shirts at The Los Alamos Chronicle, the news was different, and I think better in a lot of ways. Admittedly, the Chronicle was not a paragon of journalistic excellence, but I mean journalism in general. There is a circular current that drives a news business. Where that current originates is critically important to the quality of the news. In those days the flow started in the newsroom, passed to the readers and ended in the newspaper’s advertising department. The idea was that we weren’t just selling blank space to advertisers. The blank space had value because we generated integrity and credibility by producing accurate news and relevant commentary. Back then advertising reps were not allowed in the newsroom, and if one wandered in the editor would chase them out with shouts and derision. There was no such thing as “advertorials” and reporters were never asked to write copy for anything associated with an ad. These days the current is mixed, but largely comes from the advertising department, and the corporate model for news is driven by the bottom line.

During my own time at Frontiersman, and management was different at that time, the lines between news and advertising were somewhat blurred, and the newsroom was viewed as a cost, rather than as the entire point for the business. We operated under story quotas, short staffing and other challenges in order to keep costs down. That model diminishes the ability to produce a high volume of quality news, and it’s a common problem in newsrooms all over the country these days. Low wages also make it difficult to keep seasoned reporters on staff.

I was once asked to publish a fluff article as an appeasement to a state legislator with bruised feelings, partly because campaign ads were a big part of our revenue. I was also asked to publicly apologize to the Wasilla mayor about an accurate story she didn’t like (it wasn’t Palin). She’d threatened to pull the city’s legal ads, a significant and steady source of income for many local papers. That’s what happens when profits drive news decisions, and that’s the most dangerous kind of bias of all. Rep. Mike Hawker (R-Anchorage) has a bill that would provide a free online place for legal ads. I don’t know what Hawker’s motivations are for the bill, but I strongly support it as a way to diminish local government influence over small papers. I would also point out that several years ago I was confronted with a similar situation with a city official threatening to pull legal ads. My publisher called me in and asked if the story was accurate. I said it was. He called the official and asked him to spell his name. The official asked why. My publisher said, “Because when we write the article saying you tried to influence our news coverage with money I want to make sure we spell your name correctly.” Times have changed, at least as many papers.

On the subject of bias, journalists like to say they have none. There’s a name for someone who has no principles, values or opinions – it’s sociopath. Sane people live their lives according to a set of guiding principles, some basic philosophy and probably some strong opinions about certain things. Having those things doesn’t mean you can’t be a good journalist. As long as you don’t omit important facts and data as a function of your biases, and as long as you keep your opinions firmly under the heading of “Opinion” you’re just a professional doing his/her job. The trick isn’t in being apolitical or amoral, it’s in being honest and professional.

So, here’s what good journalism is. Good journalism is news stories that present factual information without bias and without intentional omissions. Good journalism is analysis that makes sense of the facts and data in those hard news stories – by its very nature analysis will have some biases, because economists can’t agree about math, educators can’t agree about schools, and sports writers can’t agree about LeBron. Good journalism is powerful and pointed opinion that gets the blood pumping. Good journalism is pointed satire that provokes thought, discussion and debate. Good journalism can’t be found in one place, and it’s a dialogue between reporters and their audiences. Good journalism is dependent upon readers, listeners and viewers using multiple sources for information and applying some brain power to sort through the information. If you only seek out news that confirms your own biases you’re going to be uninformed or misinformed, and that applies across the entire sociopolitical spectrum. Being informed is not a passive process; you have to work at it constantly – we’re just here to help.

So, who was “right” in the flap recounted above? Well, we all were, at least in some ways. It’s a great example of how to use multiple sources to help form your own opinion about what happened and what it means to you. I can’t tell you what to think about Lynn Gattis, the Legislature or old people. My satire was one part of the public discourse. The most important part of that discourse is what Alaskans think about cutting senior benefits, irrespective of what Lynn Gattis, KTVA, the ADN, Grinder or The Frontiersman think. The story isn’t that Lynn Gattis doesn’t like old people; she probably does like them, in fairness, she’s going to be one soon – so am I. The story is that some of Alaska’s seniors will have to make life-altering choices if that program is cut, and Alaskans have to decide whether or not we think that’s OK. Read on Constant Reader, and be sure you get your news from as many places as you can; that’s what makes it good.