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Best Practices: Fairness and framing in news reporting

Several of the elected and appointed office holders in our roundtables expressed frustration with reporters who seem absolutely convinced — at the very beginning of the reporting process and long before all of the bases had been touched — that their story is going to be a blockbuster. They said they often felt that reporters had their minds fully made up by the time they approached key figures to get their versions of events. (Haiman, Best Practices 57)

I think every experienced reporter can relate to that feeling that you're on the trail of a good story. Before you even begin interviewing or digging up information, you can almost picture it in your head--what the sources will say, where you can insert key facts for maximum effect, how readers/viewers/listeners will feel at the end of your article--and sometimes that feeling can overwhelm your senses. You feel the temptation to breeze past unexpected facts or quotes that don't fit your angle, and you start to lose sight of the real purpose of your pursuit: finding the truth (the whole truth).

As reporters, we naturally develop a keen intuition regarding which sources we should interview and what they're likely to say; it's comparable to, say, a scientist who gets better at guessing the right methods for and results of his experiments over time, because he has become more familiar with the formulas involved. But formulas encourage us to overlook the possibility that we might be misinterpreting what is really going on.

Throughout the course of reporting on countless stories, we start to trust our instincts a little too much, and we let bias creep into our reporting before we ever actually begin writing the article. We, like the scientist, have to be careful to follow the proper procedures. You can't skip steps 1 and 2 and jump immediately to step 3 when you're reporting the news just because you think you already know what you'll find in your early investigations. You have to give every story the same consideration, the same hard work and attentiveness to detail, no matter how big or small it is.

That's easy to argue in theory. But the reality is that reporters are often under pressure from editors and deadlines that make taking shortcuts a very attractive alternative to taking the long and winding road.

A few journalists acknowledged privately that pressure from editors to produce a story can sometimes push a reporter to write the story before it is ready, when more reporting might reveal a picture that is closer to reality. Others complained of pressure from assigning editors who had fixed views of what “the” story was, even though the reporting was developing a different picture. One journalist said, “I’ve worked for a few editors who would never dream of doctoring a story — but they were willing to try to doctor a reporter.” (Haiman, Best Practices 57-58)

As Haiman argues in his book, editors have to learn to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and reporters have to have the guts to speak up when they feel like their stories aren't getting the time they need to develop naturally.

I can recall at least one time when I had to ask for an extension on an article I wrote for The Setonian because I knew I was missing quotes or facts from good sources that might change the way I decided to frame the story. It was a story about student clubs and organizations on campus. As the deadline approached, I managed to speak with plenty of students who spoke about these activities as positive experiences, but I knew there had to be some other opinions out there, so I kept interviewing. Eventually, I stumbled upon some students who gave me some insight into how their experiences have had a negative impact on their academic success at Seton Hill (as well as how difficult it was to keep students interested in the club).

It's important to know when to quit, too--that is, to know when there's no story at all. I can't count the number of tip calls I received while interning at the local TV news station that led to dead ends. It happens all the time. You also have to be careful to distinguish between tips about legitimate stories that deserve coverage and tips from sources who just want free publicity for themselves, their organization, or some event they're involved in. These sources understand how the news works, so they know how to put a spin on their tip that will entice journalists into believing there's a story to be had, even if there isn't.

During the 1999 Unity convention in Seattle, a panel discussed recent coverage of the Buffalo Soldiers, the little-known Army Calvary troop of black soldiers who exhibited great courage and bravery in protecting Western settlers from hostile Indians. The Buffalo Soldiers got little recognition or news coverage until many years later. Several black journalists attending the panel expressed pride and satisfaction that recognition of heroism in battle finally had come to the Buffalo Soldiers. There was a general feeling of “justice finally was done.” But a Native American journalist shook the room by asking, “How can you possibly celebrate a group of men who systematically murdered and butchered Native Americans?” It was a poignant moment that demonstrated how the framing of a story can be influenced by the perspective and values one brings to it. (Haiman, Best Practices 59)

This last section really struck me while reading Haiman's book, and I think it's a powerful example of the way framing can affect a story. It's situations like this that explain why editors have to be careful when they select a reporter to cover a story. They have to choose someone who is appropriately distant from the news, someone who can provide some objectivity on the topic.

I've spoken to several editors on the Setonian staff in the past who have said they feel like their job isn't really important because all they do is assign stories, but in truth, our reporting wouldn't be of such high quality if it weren't for their keen sense of who's best for the job.

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