Tuesday, February 26, 2008

There's lazy journalism...

Edit on 2/29 to change a comparison to a more "apples to apples" comparison. Change marked by italics.

...and then there's journalism that's so lazy it becomes a hack job...

Generally, I leave serious criticism of the MSM to Greg over at Espress Pundit; he's passionate about the subject, and he's good at it.

Once in a while, however, a story (or, as in this case, a series of stories related to each other only by timing) is aired or published that just screams professional laziness.

On Thursday night, KPNX-TV in Phoenix (Channel 12) ran what appeared to be a local story about a girl who experienced a reaction to Gardasil, the vaccine for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

The video of the story, Mother says HPV vaccine paralyzed her daughter, consisted of Channel 12's Lin Sue Cooney doing a stand-up intro to the piece, followed by footage of the girl, Brittany, and her mom, Christina Bell, with the mom telling the story of her daughter helped along by Cooney's voice-over. A doctor, Guy Benrubi, spoke of how he trusted the vaccine so much that the recommended it for his own daughter.

The interestingly lazy part?

Cooney never appeared on screen with the girl and her mother, nor did the story ever state that they live in Arizona.

Those facts, combined with the story's regular reference of the "moral debate" surrounding Gardasil, made me wonder if the story was a plant from one of the "moral" groups that opposed Gardasil because they think that the immunization encourages promiscuity in adolescent girls.

This called for a little research. Turns out it wasn't such a plant. Well, not by a right-wing, anti-science group, anyway.

The story was generated by First Coast News, a Florida-based subsidiary of Gannett, which also owns KPNX. The written story makes it clear that the family is from Florida; in addition, a quick Google search of the doctor's name (Guy Benrubi) turns up an ob/gyn in Jacksonville, FL.

In short, KPNX in Phoenix, Arizona repackaged a Florida story to make it appear as if they had done a locally-based and locally-produced piece.

It was certainly lazy (and rather cynical in its contempt for the perceptiveness of its audience), but probably nothing more than that. It's also a trend that we must get used to in this environment created by the FCC's loosening of corporate media ownership rules - generic stories that can be packaged for many local markets are cheaper than actual local media market newsgathering.

However, "lazy" is perhaps the best thing that can be said about a story that KNXV-TV (Channel 15 in Phoenix) ran the following night.

That story breathlessly advised of an epidemic of conflicts of interest at the legislature (Conflicts abound in Arizona Legislature), an epidemic that "could shake your trust in the system."

The thrust of the story was that since Arizona's legislators are "citizen legislators" - aka "so underpaid they need 2nd jobs", a number of legislators sit on committees that could influence their fields of expertise. The report objected (in soft terms) the idea of teachers sitting on education committees, human services professionals sitting on human services committees, and ranchers sitting on natural resources committees.

Among those singled out was Democratic State Representative Jackie Thrasher (LD10). In her other job, she is a music teacher at Lookout Mountain Elementary School in Phoenix. The video story criticized her for voting for a $46,000,000 pay raise for teachers, and asked her if she had received some of that money. She answered that she was "sure" that she had and that it wasn't a conflict because the raise affected all 54,000 other teachers in the state.

Next, the story went after Rep. David Bradley (D-LD28) for operating a family services company that receives state contracts. There, the conflict alleged is less direct in that Bradley's committee, House Human Services, doesn't award contracts, just writes laws for the agency that does.

Finally, the story gave voice to Republican Rep. Steve Yarbrough (LD21), who doubles as executive director of a private school tuition organization (STO). An STO exists to funnel money from the state's treasury into private schools by soliciting private contributions to private schools, for which the donors receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit (up to a limit.)

I say "gave voice" because the reporter made it clear that Rep. Yarbrough had been given enough time to prepare for their interview (apparently, Thrasher and Bradley just sat down and talked. Note to all public officials and candidates: in general, TV reporters aren't your enemies, but they aren't your friends either. Always prepare.)

He showed up with a letter from the lege's in-house counsel absolving him of any legal conflicts, and then proudly talked about the three STO bills that he is sponsoring this session.

The story also used some verbal tricks to make the legislators sound sneaky or like criminals thriving within the margins of legal technicalities.

My favorite passage highlighting this tactic -

Arizona legislators seem to hang their hat on a law known as the "rule of ten."

It means that if a bill impacts at least ten people it's not considered a legal conflict, even if the lawmaker is one of the ten.

It also disingenuously ignored things like the fact that while teachers such as Jackie Thrasher may sit on an education committee and propose and/or approve education-related matters, only the Appropriations Committee can approve funding.

She doesn't sit on Appropriations.

There was a little partisan bias in the story, besides allowing the one Republican in the video to prepare for his interview - 2 out of the 3 of the legislators in the video of the story are Democrats, as are 62.5% (10/16) of the legislators cited in the written version of the story.

In the whole legislature, only 40 out of 90 (44%) are Democrats.

The report exhibits also exhibits bias in that most of the Democrats cited in the story are public service types (teachers, counselors) while most of the Republicans cited are businessmen (insurance agents, ranchers).

The fact that it equates an ASU faculty associate like Rep. Ed Ableser with a businessman like Steve Yarbrough illustrates this -

...The organization that Yarbrough works for, the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO), pays him $96,000 per year (per the organization's 2006 Form 990).

...The compensation received by Ableser that Channel 15's reporter was so aghast at because Ableser sits on the House Higher Education Committee? $4000 per year.

In other words, the whole thing was an exercise in "let's pretend that we are investigative journalists...without doing any actual investigating."

The story only served to unjustly smear working legislators, the vast majority of whom are honest public servants.

It should be noted that on Monday, Channel 12 ran a story about how Sheriff Joe Arpaio is having all sorts of financial problems at the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office, causing hit to cut services and staff, yet he has enough money available to send his Chief Deputy Dave Hendershott and a number of other staffers to the Honduras for a vacation...errr..."a goodwill/training trip."

Channel 12 should be applauded for such a hard-hitting report, really, but they lose points because of one small, but very important point -

Stephen Lemons of the New Times has been on this for over a month.

Lemons' most recent piece on this issue here.

It sure looks like that the major corporate-owned KPNX's investigation was actually conducted by the local alternative weekly.

Apparently, a post that I wrote over a year and a half ago concerning the state of investigative journalism in the Phoenix area is still accurate - it's the New Times and a whole big bunch of "not even pretending anymores."


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