Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sloppy Reporting in the World-Herald

by Kyle Michaelis
I've come to expect certain journalistic sins of omission when I read Nebraska newspapers. In general, they seem fundamentally incapable, if not opposed on principle, to the idea of connecting-the-dots and drawing together the news in a way that actually reflects reality.

Instead, they report on some minute sliver of the truth - often relying on sound bytes that are little more than talking points - obscuring the real story and leaving it to the reader (or the New Nebraska Network) to actually put things together and to grasp what's really going on. Case in point (from my previous post), note that reporting on Sen. Mike Foley's dishonest and deceitful manipulation of the state's women's health funding conspicuously failed to mention his campaign to be Nebraska's next auditor, a campaign in which Foley does not even have a challenger.

The Omaha World-Herald did not include this information (here or here). The Lincoln Journal-Star did not include this information (here or here). Even failed to draw readers' attention to this incredibly troubling fact. Frankly, it's pathetic. Journalists have a responsibility to their readers to put this sort of news into context, making clear exactly what's at stake...and, yes, what the future holds for one of the state's constitutional offices.

A man who abuses the faith of his voters and the trust of his colleagues to advance his own vindictive agenda as a state senator will do the same as state auditor. That the Nebraska media don't recognize this (or simply don't want readers to recognize it) is curious and disturbing. But, again, this type of journalistic neglect is not at all surprising. It seems to almost be the norm.

Still, there are worse journalistic sins than this sort of omission (assuming it is born of imcompetence rather than intent). There is also just plain getting the facts wrong, as the World-Herald's Harold W. Andersen did in today's column.

Now, Andersen's faulty reporting isn't over an issue of any great importance. It is, in fact, quite insignificant but for what it says about the standards of the World-Herald and the low priority they put on getting the facts right.

Writing of Sen. Barack Obama, Andersen mistakenly stated:
Obama, of course, clearly is a fast-rising star in the Democratic political firmament. He is described in his Internet biography as the first AfricanAmerican to hold the prestigious position of editor of the Harvard Law Review. (In fact, Obama's lineage is white on his mother's side and African on his father's side.)

After seven years in the Illinois State Senate, Obama took office as a U.S. senator a little more than 14 months ago at age 43. After serving only a few months in the Senate, he was named keynote speaker for the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Attentive readers will note the contradiction that Obama could not have possibly been sworn-in 14 months ago and still have been a U.S. Senator during the national convention in the summer of 2004. In fact, Obama was still a candidate for office at that point, well on his way to an over-whelming victory that November.

Not a big deal, admittedly. Indeed, Andersen's apparent nit-picking about Obama's racial classification is probably far more troubling just because his motives are so unclear. Also, far, far, far more troubling was the instance this summer when Andersen flat-out lied about civil rights leader Malcolm X's relationship to Omaha.

No, Andersen's confusion about the timeline of Obama's rise to prominence is significant only because such an obvious factual error shouldn't make it to press. Whether this is a matter of Andersen's decline in old age or just a lack of focus in reporting, it's clear he's not the only one letting readers down.

I say this not to beat up on an old World-Herald war horse but simply to speak up for readers who deserve a better effort. 1) Get the facts right (Obama). 2) Share the right facts (Foley). That's really all we ask from the Nebraska press, and - sadly - that's more than they've been delivering.


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