Thursday, April 4, 2013

Is it True?

Recently, in a nearby town, a local legend passed away at 92.  He was a giant, one of a generation that seemed to produce many such men.  They served in World War II and came home to build the thousands of strong communities that made our country what it was in the post-war world.   This particular man – a judge – was eulogized in the local paper with a 900-word, 33-paragraph story that included the story of his life, and the praise of people who had known him in different ways at different stages of his life.  (I did not know him and we had never met.)  He was praised for his legal acumen, his patience with young lawyers, his love of his family and his commitment to service and his community.

But, like all of us, he was not perfect, and there was one incident, later in his life, that was part of the public record.  That day, he had been charged with drunken driving following an auto accident in which it did not appear that anyone was seriously hurt.  The case was continued without a finding, and he was given three years' probation.

Now comes the dilemma for the journalist.  Do you include this information in a story about a now-passed leader of the community?  And if you do, where do you place it in order to keep it in perspective, and provide your readers with the truth about this man’s life?

These are some tough questions.  Does leaving it out undermine the credibility of the story – and the paper?  Does a mention of this incident – almost 20 years ago – unfairly overshadow this man’s life and accomplishments?  And if you include the information, where in the story does it go so that it is placed in the proper context?

Well, the newspaper handled it in a way that, in my opinion, struck just the right balance.  They included it in 49 words in the next to last paragraph of the lengthy story.  It was an elegant solution –accurate, fair, and based on what I have since come to know about this man – placed in the proper context as a small piece of the true story of his life. 
Meanwhile, the headline over a story in a local newspaper last month about the Internet in Rhode Island stated that “29% of adults don’t use” the Internet here.  This seemed noteworthy, until you learn that the national average is … 29%*, something the story failed to mention.

And while the lead paragraph made a brief, glancing reference to the fact that “Rhode Island ranks high in terms of access speed and coverage” the story never mentioned how high.  From there, it moved on to dwell on the less favorable 29% figure.

So what are those numbers?  Well, it turns out that Rhode Island is Number 3 in how widely the Internet is available.  That’s pretty good.  Further, we are Number 1 – the best in the country – when it comes to the speed of our Internet.  That – well – that’s the best!

Bottom line: failing to including the fact that our “bad” number was at the national average, coupled with the absence of a more precise description of just how highly we rank in terms of access speed and coverage were serious flaws in the story.  This, in my view, led to coverage that failed to present an accurate picture of Internet infrastructure, and use, in Rhode Island.

*Source:  The John H. Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University

1 comment:

Mike H -- NOT L! said...

Hi David,

Another really on-point, helpful post. You write very clearly and deliver true value for a reader's investment of time. As a fellow practitioner of "the dark arts" (joking), I'm glad I'm on your email list!

Best wishes,

Mike Healey