By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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Moreover, McGuire--along with colleagues as far afield as columnist Syl Jones--is mystified by both the methodology of and weight given to the Lichter study. Besides being commissioned at the same time the project's infamous memo was drafted (a fact McGuire uses to cast doubt on the project's objectivity), the research is dated. In addition, the similarities between the business communities and mean streets of Seattle and the Twin Cities are at best fuzzy, and there's no detailed content analysis of the stories, only rates of frequency. Paul Klauda, a Strib editor who supervises a team of reporters responsible for crime coverage, says a distinction between spot news, analysis, and follow-up would be essential to any study based on the premise that too much ink is wasted on the police blotter. Lichter provides no such breakdown.
Jon Tevlin, the Strib's labor and work force reporter, laughs when he hears Lichter's method of differentiating between a "negative" and "positive" business story. "General categories of 'good news' and 'bad news' were laid out and stories were characterized on the basis of definitions used to define the categories," the report reads, in a nonsensical attempt to define Lichter's terms. "For instance, few people would argue that a report on increased profits is normally good news for a company, or a story on labor unrest at a factory is bad news."
"That's telling," Tevlin says. "My guess is that if I wrote a story about a union leader, business people would see that as a negative story when, in fact, it's a positive story."
In interviews conducted after the project's summary report became public, both Johnson and Steve Moss of Moss Cairns, the public-policy group commissioned to coordinate the project, de-emphasize Lichter's role. They admit his findings sparked their two-year quest, but say it's the feedback recorded in private meetings and public forums that fueled the project's final criticisms and recommendations. Johnson even offers an alternative definition of "positive" and "negative" reportage: "It means coming at a story with a negative mind-set. It means we could do without the presumption of bad intent when stories are approached. It means balance, instead of deciding for the reader what the truth is."
This late-game strategy, deflecting attention from Lichter, throws light on what McGuire and others see as the project's greatest weakness. Despite what Moss and Johnson say, the Lichter study is featured prominently in their group's final report. It is, Johnson grudgingly admits, the only hard evidence gathered in two years' time. The rest of the analysis is propped up on testimonials from citizens who, predictably, sense the local press is out of control, and people with horror stories to tell about "know it all" reporters with "agendas" who busy themselves "filtering quotes" to match predetermined conclusions. "Our study is based on a mountain of anecdotal evidence," Johnson says. Then he chuckles. "I suppose I'll see that in quotes."
To McGuire's way of thinking, this emphasis on anecdotal evidence is not only revelatory, it's hypocritical. While many people might sense that Twin Cities reporters try to pass off bias as objectivity, there is no proof or standard of evaluation laid down by the project that confirms this perception. By Johnson's own definition, the project's report is the equivalent of a "negative" story because of its reliance on opinion and conjecture. "If my paper or your paper or any paper tried to pass this kind of thing off as news, we'd be barraged with complaints. And rightfully so," McGuire says.
Wisely, McGuire's staff and others in the local media, such as KSTP's news director Scott Libin, are not wholly disregarding the overall thrust of the project. That it took two years and an undisclosed amount of money (Moss Cairns is unwilling to divulge its budget) to reach some relatively basic conclusions is good fodder for a cynical yuck. It's also hard not to see the inclusion of Lichter's very limited analysis of crime coverage as little more than a red herring, since it appeals to consumers on both sides of the socioeconomic fence: People in the suburbs are tired of all the gloom and doom, inner-city residents are weary of seeing their neighborhoods portrayed as war zones. Still, the community's growing mistrust of the media, especially homegrown media, is cause for pause. Ally Colón, an associate in ethics and diversity at Florida's Poynter Institute, believes "good" and "bad" news is in the eye of the beholder. He also thinks it would be dangerous for journalists to provide the public with only the material it says it wants. Even so, he admits in this age of media consolidation it's important for newspapers and TV stations to be tuned in to their constituencies.
"Many reporters don't have roots in their communities," Colón says. "They don't belong to anything. They aren't part of the community in ways that people can connect with. For instance, there is a tendency in big newsrooms to do a lot of phone interviewing. In Minneapolis, I wonder how many reporters are hitting the streets. Not just going to City Council meetings and other public events, but actually engaging in discussions with people on a very basic, core, ordinary level."