Seeing poor journalism — and trying to do better ourselves

BY BILL HORNER III, Publisher
Posted 7/12/19

Exactly what constitutes “good journalism” these days?

I thought about this over the holiday weekend while reading — and not in this newspaper — the story about the Chatham County …

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Seeing poor journalism — and trying to do better ourselves

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Posted

Exactly what constitutes “good journalism” these days?

I thought about this over the holiday weekend while reading — and not in this newspaper — the story about the Chatham County firefighter who got axed (I’m surprised “axed” wasn’t used as a pun in the headline on WRAL’s website) after a Facebook comment he penned suggesting that migrants in U.S. custody along the border with Mexico should be exterminated.

The firefighter was responding to a post about the U.S. government’s housing of would-be immigrants along the border. Someone dutifully reported his words to WRAL, the Raleigh TV station, which broadcast the post far and wide on the airwaves and online. Somewhere along the line the firefighter was separated from his position, which WRAL also reported.

Make no mistake: the comment, and the sentiment behind it, were patently ridiculous. To suggest illegals in U.S. custody be summarily executed, and on live TV, isn’t something that even merits a millisecond of consideration. I’d expect anyone who publicly said something like that to lose a job. (And the separation would likely have happened even if WRAL hadn’t stepped into the story.)

But in the Trump era, when the character of online dialogue and public discourse has reached a sad all-time low, it’s disappointing that a statewide TV station decided to play a relatively minor, local story so prominently. It was done so in a way guaranteed to generate traffic and viral re-posts, allowing WRAL to boast to advertisers about its heavy web traffic and social media presence.

In other words, it was classic clickbait. Metrics, and with it money, was the motivation.

So is it news when a person placed in a visible position of public trust, like a fireman, gets canned? It sure can be. And it can rise to a different level of news when said person makes the kind of statement he did. But to me, how WRAL played the story — and how much attention and feedback it got on various social media platforms, which seemed to be the goal — is a sad reflection on the way more and more of the media capitalizes on an unfortunate event (in this case, a thoughtless and careless comment on social media I’d bet the person who made it now regrets). It’s all in order to maximize “views” and eyeballs.

For me, it begs this question: Why not devote those resources and that energy instead to more substantive — but less sensational — news? But in my 30-plus years in journalism, I’ve learned the answer over and over: it doesn’t sell as well.

Speaking of calling out the media, the News + Record got some of that last week. Someone wrote a comment on a forum suggesting that this newspaper’s recent coverage of a Pittsboro commissioners’ meeting was “slanted” and said that the paper’s ownership — developers Kirk Bradley, Chris Ehrenfeld and myself — would, for reasons the writer didn’t fully specify, never allow for fair coverage of Chatham Park.

“So, do we really think this newspaper will be objective about Chatham Park and the way they are steamrolling this development right over the questions and concerns of the people of PBO (and Chatham County) — and the folks that PBO has elected to represent them?” the person wrote. “Do we? Really? As always — follow the money people, follow the money. It’s the same old Record, again and again.”

I emailed the person who wrote the message (someone who claims to be in the know told me the email address attached to the post was the anonymous “handle” of a local elected official) to request a meeting so we could discuss “objective” coverage and what that means, and so I could better understand his or her concerns.

So far, no response.

I understand confirmation bias and skepticism. The writer in question has a particular view and makes an assumption about coverage and looks for evidence to back that up. They found none, but they raised a red flag with an ad hominem attack — which is why I hope to talk to him or her to get specifics. I’ll let you know if that conversation happens.

(By the way, for what it’s worth, neither Kirk nor Chris are investors in Chatham Park. Kirk is developing Mosaic, the initial commercial piece of Chatham Park, but none of us are involved in a direct way in the overall development of the project that Pittsboro officials have been debating. And I will add that no one — not Kirk, nor Chris, not CP officials — has given our news staff direction about how to cover that story, other than my usual admonition about accuracy and balance.)

And finally, speaking of journalism…I love it when it’s good, but when it’s sloppy, it can be bad. Real bad.

Case in point: while I was very proud of last week’s edition, a few readers kindly pointed out a couple of errors and embarrassing typos. The worst was that in the production process a not-fully-edited version of our “ch@t” feature with Goldston Mayor Tim Cunnup was published instead of a fully-edited one. We’re re-publishing it in its entirety this week (last week’s part one, and the promised part two this week). And, I hope, doing a better job editing our own work.

As always, we hope you enjoy your newspaper — and our commitment to the principles and practice of good journalism.

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