When journalism falls between the cracks

November 14, 2013 01:30

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNF Chairman

We’ve been hearing the warnings for years now. At journalism conferences, in the trades, and amongst ourselves we’ve heard some variation of this: “If newsrooms keep cutting reporters, while demanding higher story counts, and measuring story success by web-hits, important news is going to start falling through the cracks.” Admittedly when we say it, it sounds more like, “With fewer people and more to produce, when are we supposed to cover the news?”

The election results last week in Flint, Michigan provide a perfect example of what can happen when “the media” doesn’t do their job well. On election day, voters in Flint’s fifth ward elected Wantwaz Davis to be their representative on city council. Davis beat the incumbent by 71 votes.

The day after the election, the Flint Journal reported, for the first time, that Davis was a “convicted killer” who served 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in 1991.

Yes, you read that correctly, a convicted murderer was on the ballot for city council, and the local newspaper/website, and the local ABC and FOX affiliates, never reported his past until the day after Davis won. (Full disclosure – as a nearly statewide radio station, Flint is also in my station’s listening area. We do not have a reporter there and have been trying unsuccessfully to raise money to create that position.)

Newly elected Councilman Davis makes no effort to hide his criminal past. In fact, helping felons who served their time find employment was one of his campaign issues. All a reporter had to do to discover his past was Google his name and scan the items that came up on the first page. Davis also told one of my reporters that he told voters about his past when he canvassed door-to-door, and it came up during a debate sponsored by the NAACP.

But it never came to the attention of the newspaper or its political reporter. It wasn’t even mentioned in a now comical looking story by Dominic Adams that the newspaper published under the headline: Everything you need to know about the Fifth Ward Flint City Council race. In that interview/story, candidate Davis says crime is the most important issue facing the residents in his ward, and also says “murder has played a big part in the 5th ward.” But no mention is made that murder played a big part in Davis’ background as well. Voters may think that’s something they need to know.

In Davis’ defense, he paid his debt to society, he has every right to run for office, he campaigned hard, he did not lie about his past when asked, and he won the election fair and square. It’s possible he would have been elected even if the local news media had reported about his past. (Other victorious council members included a person convicted of assault and two people who have declared bankruptcy – none of that was reported by local media until after the election either.)

There’s been debate in the Michigan journalism community about whether this is the fault of a single editor or reporter, or if it is representative of a larger problem in our industry. I say it’s both.

The editor of the Flint Journal, Marjory Raymer, has publicly taken responsibility and wrote an apology to readers in which she wrote, “We didn’t do good enough.” (sic) She assures readers that the paper is developing a process to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

But our changing media structure and the requirements placed on what few reporters are left is also to blame. The companies that own media outlets often seem more concerned about web hits and traffic than community service and solid reporting. The Flint Journal is owned by Advance Publications, which laid off more than a third of the reporting staff at the paper four years ago. Like many companies, they cut home delivery so the paper isn’t a daily, and as part of the statewide website Mlive, I’m told by former staffers that reporters have a quota of four stories (on the web) each day.

This type of workload leads to a heavy emphasis on aggregation, and stories or series that can be produced and written quickly, such as the new “Blueberry Moments” series the Flint Journal has created to highlight positive things happening in the community. The series is named after a billboard bought by a Flint businessman that simply said, “I’m concerned about the blueberries.”

Well that’s fine, positive stories are important too, but frankly, I’m concerned about the journalism. While the local media in Flint successfully tweeted out who won the elections, and had links to the ballot and pictures of victorious candidates hugging people on their Facebook pages… there was a lack of serious journalism.

As I said earlier, I’m kind of in a glass house here. My own station is working to find a way to fill that void in Flint, and I hope the Flint Journal makes good on its pledge to do better.

We never heard an apology or an excuse from the television newsrooms. Perhaps their only argument would be, “How were we supposed to know about that, it wasn’t in the newspaper.”