Statehouse reporting is dead; long live statehouse reporting

A lot of pixels have already been spilled in the past week about the closing of the Lee Enterprises state bureau in Helena and the departure of longtime reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, but I’m going to chip in too, mostly because I feel that their apotheosis has gone far enough.

Were Johnson and Dennison veterans with lots of institutional knowledge? Absolutely. Were they good reporters? Likely they were; but, to be honest, any reporter who has spent long enough on a single beat will appear to be a goodish reporter simply by dint of getting to know sources and topics. I don’t know; maybe that’s enough to be “good.”

Subjectivity aside, bloggers across Montana are heralding their departures as the end of competent government watchdog reporting, whining that Montanans will be poorly informed by the cub reporters paid a pittance to cover the next Legislature. Journalism is dying, alack!

I call bullshit.

Lee Enterprises was not the only news company covering the Legislature. And though Lee was one of only a handful that still sent reporters physically to Helena for the session, they were not the only watchers, not by a long shot.

The Chronicle churned out legislative coverage relevant to our readers on a daily basis throughout the session, covering bill after bill and, I may say, beating Lee on a scoop more than once.

Television, though I am not exactly a huge fan, had reporters in Helena throughout the session too, as did public radio. The University of Montana sends a team of eager student journalists to cover each session as well, providing daily coverage that appeared in newspapers around the state — newspapers, I would note, that were not owned by Lee Enterprises and did not have access to the prose of Johnson and Dennison. And let’s not forget the Associated Press, which also does a fine job of covering the Legislature for readers, spreading news far wider than Lee, which, lest we forget, shares with Lee papers first (and then throws a few scraps to the AP later).

The notion that young reporters won’t be able to cover the Legislature as effectively as the vets would hold more water if the session hadn’t been so well covered by young reporters already. To say that the vets’ B.S. meters are worn in as well as a pair of old cowboy boots while these young cubs can’t yet find the bathrooms (“Ha! Young people are dumb!”) insults the young reporters and their ability to quickly adapt, learn and grow as professionals.

Look, Johnson and Dennison are gone. Instead of pining for the bygone past, we need to decide what we expect from statehouse journalism in 2017 and beyond.

 

A missed reporting opportunity

non-newsIt must be sweeps week or close to it because the news stations in town are kicking it into high gear with special assignments and more reporting than normal.*

My favorites:

  1. Who ends up paying for the county’s search and rescue operations? The answer, unsurprisingly: county taxpayers.)
  2. A local church speaks out about a handwritten letter it received over the holidays containing “a hateful message towards church establishments.” (The police even circulated a surveillance image of the person who… dropped off the letter. No breaking in, mind you. Just dropping off a letter.)
  3. A story by Judy Slate on KBZK talks about a van that has been parked outside the Law and Justice Center in Bozeman for some time. The van is covered in signs criticizing one of the judges over his handling of parenting plans and a man’s divorce. The man tells the TV station that no one has criticized him for the sign-festooned vehicle. The sheriff’s office told them he hasn’t broken the law. Nor has the sheriff received any complaints about the van.

So… if no one if complaining and no laws are being broken, is the story really about the van?

I’m picking on KBZK a little bit tonight because I don’t pick on them often. They usually don’t deserve the ribbing. And I understand: the TV station picked a visual topic, something that would be easy to film. That’s natural, but the reason for the van, the man’s court woes, are given short shrift in the article, and I think that’s a shame.

Journalists are supposed to speak for people who are struggling against unfairness. We might not always accomplish it, but it’s still a good goal to have. If this man really is fighting an unfair situation (and we only have his word to go on), his story should have been told, not just his van’s.

*Don’t forget, we’re due an undercover bus investigation soon too.

Rachel Maddow urges Americans to subscribe to their local newspapers

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow recently urged Americans to subscribe to their local newspapers so that they can have the staff and time to send reporters to cover the boring, hours-long local government meetings.

Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

Boring reality aside, sometimes really important stuff happens at those meetings, as it did in Watauga County, North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled elections board is trying to redistrict the area, combining several largely Democratic-leaning districts into a single mega-district which would become one of the largest voting precincts in the state.

The premise is that this move would save money by consolidating polling places, but the local elections administrator told the board on Aug. 12 that that wasn’t the case. In fact, she told them that because the budget already included all the polling places, closing some before the next election would save no money at all.

The Republican members of the board then, in subsequent meetings, attempted to remove those comments from the official minutes, saying they weren’t germane. Maddow labels it a case of trying to remove something critical of their plans from history in the hopes no one will notice.

The Winston-Salem Journal noticed, though, and has all the details here.

Maddow, obviously and notably left leaning, jumped on the story and retold it on her broadcast on Aug. 21, sparking general outrage of the type generally created by cable news stories. I’m not going to jump in on the politics here other than to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Maddow’s message about local newspapers.

Watch it here:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The message

NBC Montana reporter becomes involved in her own story

Our reporter Whitney Bermes passed this link on to me this morning. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to talk for a few minutes about journalism ethics.

[NBC Montana reporter helps locate missing rafter](http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/NBC-Montana-reporter-helps-locate-missing-rafter/-/14594602/15683184/-/hffn0n/-/index.html)

Emily Adamson, a reporter at KECI in Missoula writes in a story that a rafter went missing after being swept away in the Bitterroot River on Tuesday night.

Adamson writes:

> “…crews were getting ready to put in search and rescue boats, when I spotted the missing man walking along Highway 93 toward Lolo.”

She goes on:

>”I called 911 and members of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office quickly showed up and confirmed it was the missing rafter”

Traditionally, journalists do not report on stories they are involved in. It is frowned upon in the “conflict of interest” sections of numerous journalism ethics guidelines, including SPJ’s and the [ethics guidelines of the Radio Television Digital News Association](http://www.rtnda.org/pages/media_items/code-of-ethics-and-professional-conduct48.php):

>Professional electronic journalists should present the news with integrity and decency, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest, and respect the dignity and intelligence of the audience as well as the subjects of news.

When a reporter must report on something he or she was involved in personally, it’s a big deal. It should be discussed with editors before it ever sees the light of day. Consider the case of Claire Hoffman.

Back in 2006, Hoffman was working for the Los Angeles Times on a profile of Joe Francis, honcho of the “Girls Gone Wild” empire. After following Francis around for some time doing her reporting, Francis turned on Hoffman. One night, outside a club, Francis grabbed her, twisting her arms behind her back and pinning her against a car.

Hoffman became part of the story in a big way. She later talked with the American Journalism Review how she dealt with that:

> I had already spent quite a lot of time with him and done quite a lot of reporting before the incident in the parking lot. I felt like I had a really good story. And then in the parking lot it was an absolute shock what happened … The next morning I called my editors and laid it all out for them and told them, “This is what happened, and I don’t know what to do. I hate the idea of letting go of this story, but obviously this will be seen as me being biased.” Originally it was going to be something that would run in the business section. After we talked about it, we decided it would be first-person. It was not originally a magazine piece. We also decided to put it right at the beginning and say, this is what happened, put that card on the table and not wait until the end.

Hoffman didn’t have a choice in becoming part of the story. Some reporters do have a choice, and it seems that more and more of them are choosing to report on stories they are involved in or become involved in the stories they are already reporting. One reason for this trend, [writes Luther Turmelle](http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/region1/?p=103) is that journalists are constantly urged these days to develop personal brands — making themselves into minor celebrities with loyal fans. Becoming a part of the story can often make the reporter out to be a heroic figure — a style of reporting some have called “emo-journalism.”

He writes:

>As long a journalism remains a business driven by advertising, attracting the largest audience possible will always be a primary consideration for journalists. But at the same time, we can not forget that once reporters become part of a story, it changes forever and does not reflect reality.

Elsewhere on the SPJ network, the organization’s president Kevin Smith [wrote in 2010](http://www.spj.org/news.asp?REF=948), just after the Haiti earthquake, “SPJ cautions journalists to avoid making themselves part of the stories they are reporting. Even in crises, journalists have a responsibility to their audiences to gather news objectively and to report facts.”

There are numerous other examples and debacles to be found out there on the Internet. The point is this: I can see no compelling reason for Adamson writing this story herself. Even on a small search and rescue story like this one, Adamson should have handed the story off to another reporter. There were no extraordinary circumstances here, no reasons to violate the ethics that our profession is supposed to hold dear.

Even on the small stories, we can’t let be lax on our ethics or be lazy. It’s a slippery slope, and the public doesn’t deserve that.