We Are 85 Percent Sad 

Do the news media need to be BFFs with the public to serve the public?

click to enlarge nbc.jpg

You know how the police are. Their squad cars say we serve and protect. Officer Friendlies stroll into neighborhood meetings and say, please share your concerns. You'll spot officers idling on the edge of a mellow Jazz Fest crowd, savoring the night as much as you are. But that's all the whipped cream. The police aren't paid to be nice. It's part of their training, but mainly they're trained to be tough customers. To be a cop is to piss off a lot of people.

Journalists get cops better than most people do because the job description of a journalist isn't all that different. As I've heard more than one reporter say over the years, "I didn't get into this business to make friends. I've already got friends." Which might not actually be true. There's always been a place in journalism for the characters no one can stand but their mothers.

The other day I posted an item on the Reader's blog about a groundbreaking story the Tribune published in 2004 on Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan who'd been executed for setting a fatal fire. The story, by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, pretty thoroughly discredited the forensic evidence that had convicted him. The point to my post was that Willingham is back in the news, thanks to a new report that tears the case against him completely to shreds, but the recent coverage has pretty consistently failed to acknowledge Mills and Possley's work. Their story was crucial, but it's forgotten.

In response, Lauren Fitzpatrick, a reporter at the SouthtownStar, posted an intriguing comment. "One of my stories just got 'borrowed' too," she wrote. "My paper's credited, so I guess we get credit for all the mistakes hastily rewritten in, too. So guess who the poor family called to yell at? Not the guy bylined in the link below." The link was to a version of Fitzpatrick's story that had showed up on nbcchicago.com.

I called Fitzpatrick to find out more. She'd written a story about a Midlothian GI whose family was driving to Colorado to meet him as he returned from a year in Iraq. But his mother lost control of their van on a Colorado interstate, the van rolled over, and the GI's father was thrown from the vehicle and killed. The mother was injured, and so was an infant boy.

Fitzpatrick's story, which originated with a call from a friend of the family, ran on August 28 in the SouthtownStar and was promptly rewritten for NBC's Chicago news site. But in the process NBC introduced errors, reporting that the baby was the GI's son—it was his nephew—and that he'd been airlifted to a hospital, which, unlike the mother, he hadn't. Members of the family read the NBC account online from Colorado and felt such distress they picked up the phone. But they called Fitzpatrick.

She told me, "They were upset at what they read and they said, 'That's not what happened—we don't know what you're talking about.' They said, 'How can you do this to us? We don't want to talk to you anymore.' They thought I was making things worse—making the wife feel worse than she already did."

Fitzpatrick explained to them that the mistakes weren't hers, but she apologized for them anyway. She understood that who made them was, in a way, beside the point. Fitzpatrick had expected the family to call to complain about the story even as she'd written it, because she'd realized it would add to their distress—they'd suffered a tragedy, and here she was calling the public's attention to it. That's the nature of news: it often throws a spotlight at the worst possible time on people who aren't accustomed to the spotlight. The mistakes in the NBC version, Fitzpatrick believed, were a focus for anger the family would have felt regardless.

If that was the inevitable reaction, why write the story? She said, "These people back home loved this man [the father]. They would want to know. People knew his son was overseas. They knew his son was coming home. And this mom is going to need compassion for a long time." Putting herself in the mother's place, Fitzpatrick said she wouldn't have wanted to come home and have to tell everyone what happened because no one knew. Thanks to the SouthtownStar, everyone already knows.

And of course, the story was also written because that's what we do.

Fitzpatrick, 33, has been a professional reporter for five years, long enough to learn that journalists do a lot of things that upset people—good people, many of them, the salt of the earth. Journalists don't win popularity polls. (The most recent one I saw, from Gallup last November, ranked us in public esteem well behind police, funeral directors, and accountants, and barely ahead of bankers.) And in this terrible time, when the first principle of anyone worth listening to is that newspapers need to reinvent themselves, I worry about what they might throw out with the bathwater.

Last week in this space I wrote about the American Press Institute's attempt to chart a new course for the industry, its Newspaper Next project. I noted this about the most recent Newspaper Next report: It tells newspaper companies to forget they're newspaper companies because they need to become "a new kind of local information and connection utility" that seizes the "big new opportunity" of the Internet to make themselves "everyone's first choice to 'help me know or do whatever it takes to live here.'"

Newspaper companies can forget whatever they need to forget—but in the process will their reporters be encouraged to forget they're reporters? Will they start thinking of themselves more along the lines of the utility crews that repair downed power lines? When those folks show up promptly and do the job right, people cheer as the lights go on and they depart as heroes.

I could easily be reading too much into the Newspaper Next report, which contains a lot of common sense. But I suggest that any newspaper urgently advised to think of itself as an indispensable information utility, as a big brother or sister with its arm around everyone trying to cope with daily life, is implicitly being advised to lighten up and relax its contrarian, often irritating role as gadfly, yenta, and bearer of bad news. It's not that newspapers haven't always tried to sell themselves to the public as BFFs; but their reporters, like cops in the field, didn't go out of their way to be everyone's buddy. Geniality was optional and situational.

Lauren Fitzpatrick can't bring herself to refer to any story as "cheap"—a dismissive judgment she heard constantly at the criminal courts when she covered them—because she knows it's not cheap to the people it happened to. Also: "When I get yelled at I feel an inch big." But she doesn't feel a need to be likable. "Isn't that what a publisher's for?" she asks. "To make nice with people? Isn't the publisher the diplomat of the paper, smoothing things over, keeping in touch with the chamber of commerce and people like that, extending the olive branch if he or she thinks it needs to be extended?"

"Getting yelled at is just part of the deal," she says, "and I only feel really crummy when I know they're right, when I screwed something up. Otherwise, they're hired to be yelling at me—it's a flack and it's his job. Or other times it's someone suffering. They're angry, someone's been taken from them, and now they've got a face and a name, someone who's easy to yell at, and as long as I know I've been fair with them I take it. If it makes it better for them to yell and scream a bit, so be it."

Catching it the way Fitzpatrick caught it—and catching it far worse than she did—is part of the business. The Associated Press recently distributed to its client papers a series of photographs of a young marine just before and then after he was mortally wounded by a rocket-fired grenade in Afghanistan. Defense secretary Robert Gates wrote Thomas Curley, the AP's president, all but begging him to suppress the photos. "Why your organization would purposefully defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling."

But the AP declined. This was the reality of the war, it explained, and its job was to report it.

The family Fitzpatrick wrote about also posted a complaint on NBC's Web site. Managing editor Steve Bryant apologized there for the errors, which the station corrected, and also for illustrating its story with a stock photo of a military funeral that had nothing to do with it. (It wasn't the GI who died, and there hadn't been a funeral yet.) The station replaced the image with another stock photo, this one of some sort of emergency vehicle rushing through the night, its lights blazing.

Bryant also apologized to Fitzpatrick in a comment on the Reader blog. He got a little prickly defending his station against any suggestion that it had stolen her story: "As for attribution, our policy here is to always credit the original reporting source. Our intent is to collate and synthesize the news, not unscrupulously borrow it." True, his station did credit the source.

But the worst part of the NBC performance wasn't the mistakes or the photo. It was the preposterous way it wrapped its arm around anyone who read its story and said, tell us how you're feeling. The story about the fatal accident was accompanied by a poll that asked readers if it made them "furious," "sad," "bored," "thrilled," "intrigued," or "laughing."

"We are . . . " reads a column alongside the story, announcing the running results in large type, "85% sad, 5% bored, 5% furious, 5% intrigued, 0% thrilled, 0% laughing."

Stunts like this pander to the public in order to attract the elusive online advertiser. NBCchicago.com boasts: "Our users have a distinct relationship with their city that goes well beyond just calling it their residence. The city is part of their identity. . . . NBC Local Media uncovers and connects our users to all that the city has to offer so they can be true city insiders. . . . We help our passionate local user base know more so they can do more."

That's the voice of a utility, not a news medium. When every news medium sounds like this, who will we count on for serious journalism?

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