Why stories full of holes end up in print and online

Delicious as a snack. Not good as a news story.

Delicious as a snack. Not good as a news story.

Jim Romenesko drew the journosphere’s attention yesterday to a note from The Oklahoman’s publisher, apologizing for a recent story about a couple of politicians. Not that anything in the story was false, the publisher wrote, but its “placement on the front page of Sunday’s edition did not comport with the worthiness of the story.” We journalists have an instinctive reaction to apologies like that, and it isn’t to think “oh, how fair-minded of the publisher.” Throw in words like “comport” and our eyes roll back into our heads.

However.

I read the original story. The editor in me had a lot of questions. Because I’ve seen other stories that raised the same kind of questions, I want to discuss them here. That’s especially true because some reporters whom I respect got stuck on that first reaction — to wince at the publisher’s note — and rallied around the original story. That disturbs me.

But first I have to say that I’m not picking a side. I don’t know what happened inside the Oklahoman before the story was published or what later led to the publisher’s note. Like any other reader, all I know is what I see in print. But if I were the editor and this story came to me, here’s what I’d say:

Can we support that lede? “Oklahoma County Assessor Leonard Sullivan and County Commissioner Ray Vaughn both get a tax break that many Oklahomans would envy.” There’s the general objection to claiming to know the thoughts of others, the reason many editors would object to ledes such as “The Cleveland Indians’ winning streak has cheered up a city depressed over …”

But more particularly, the tax break applies only to properties that are rented to nonprofit organizations. The pols’ properties qualify. I doubt that “many” Oklahomans rent property to nonprofits — or own any rental property at all. Yes, you could argue that people can still envy a tax break they don’t qualify for. But the editor in me says, come on. The clear implication is that these two guys are getting a special break denied to the common man. Just putting “tax break” and politicians’ names into the same sentence is raising eyebrows; throw in “envy” and you’re begging readers to be suspicious.

Why do we refer to this exemption as “their secret?” “What’s their secret?” — that’s how the story introduces its explanation of the tax exemption. Here’s what I’d infer from that: These guys are sneaking around, getting something other people don’t know about. But the story later says that the exemption was created by a 2002 state Supreme Court decision. The online version of the story doesn’t provide a link, but I would assume the court’s decisions are public, not secret.

Perhaps the decision’s impact isn’t well known to the general public, but that wouldn’t impress me. Ah, but what if it’s not even known by most other property owners who could take advantage of it? Now, that would add interest … but the story never cites other property owners, tax accountants or real estate attorneys. So there’s nothing to back up the claim that this is a “secret.”

Is “what’s their secret” just an expression? Yes, and in many contexts it would pass without notice. But in this story, it seems to carry other connotations. And any time an editor notices some holes in a story, he starts to question everything.

This “could be politically awkward?” Says who? Any time you read unattributed statements like that in a news story, you can reasonably assume that someone in the newsroom wants to maintain the illusion of the objective journalist while injecting his or her opinion. Or someone insisted the story had to have a nut graf explaining why it was important and, not having a legitimate one, they threw in a “could be.” As a reader, I would at least expect the paper to be a little better at hiding its intention — say, by tracking down some political opponent happy to view the story with alarm. As an editor, I’d say just about anything a politician does could be “politically awkward” in this day and age.

Why does the reader care that the politician doesn’t like you? “Sullivan became irritated when asked about the situation.” Isn’t that most politicians’ reaction to almost any question from a reporter? Putting that in a story reminds me of when I was a reporter and got assigned to do man-in-the-street interviews. Somehow, the ledes of my stories always mentioned how cold/hot/wet it was. In retrospect, the autoworkers in Saginaw probably didn’t have a lot of sympathy for my suffering on the streets.

I would guess, from this story and from knowing what politics at the county level often are, that Sullivan has a generally belligerent attitude toward the media. A reporter could convince me that the politician’s reaction was relevant. But we’d have to talk about that.

Did he really mean that? ” ‘I’m going to give [the nonprofit] notice tomorrow to move out of the building,’ Sullivan said.” I believe he said it. But was he serious? When was he interviewed? If it was more than a day ago, did he follow up on that supposed threat? Or was he just being sarcastic or bombastic? It makes a difference. (Personal confession: At a school board meeting I covered, a teacher talked about the money her union had raised to support a pending property tax renewal. She said that some of the cash would be used for “our victory party.” I quoted her in print. This did not go over well with the voters. Did she say it? Yes. In public? Yes. Was she serious? Maybe, but I never asked. I should have. It was a quote that was too good to check.)

Just as prosecutors can make the mistake of over-charging a criminal, reporters can try to pack too many gotchas into a story. It dilutes the main points and provides openings for criticism.

Are the politicians profiting from this “break?” Both pols say the tax breaks ended up saving the nonprofits money. Did all of the savings go to the groups? What are those nonprofits paying in rent, and what are comparable market rates? There are some numbers tossed around, but nothing concrete.

In similar circumstances, I’ve heard reporters argue that they never explicitly accused the subjects of their stories of misdeeds. That may work in a court. It doesn’t work for me as an editor. If the lede was “Two local politicians are using a tax break to help local nonprofits find affordable headquarters,” that would be a rather different spin.

How many other people are getting this tax exemption? “Sullivan said many landlords benefit from the same tax exemption that he and Vaughn do, but said he has no way of counting how many once they have been removed from the tax rolls.” As I wrote yesterday, part of being a journalist is going further to find information than an average reader could. In this case, context was needed and one question wasn’t enough. Did we look up the addresses of other nonprofits around the county to figure out whether those properties are on the rolls? Did we check around in other counties?

At this point, if you’re not a journalist, you’re probably wondering how a story like this gets into print. I can’t even guess at what happened at The Oklahoman. But I can talk about what I’ve seen with similar stories on papers I’ve worked at.

The most defensible reason is the “shake the tree” argument. A reporter suspects more than he can prove, or at least more than he can put into print. Publishing an incomplete story may encourage sources to come forward or get a prosecutor to start sniffing around.

It’s a strategy that I’ve seen work. But there are temptations — to sneak charges in through implications, to set the play of the story based on what you think it will develop into rather than what you are ready to publish.

The least defensible reason — but one that is behind a lot of these stories — is that one or more editors get intrigued by the initial story pitch or what they thought the story could be. And once the “keen editor interest” train gets rolling, it’s difficult to stop. Reporters may even beg for weaker play for their stories, only to have an editor do a rewrite to make it appear to be worthy of its predetermined fate. Copy editors may raise red flags, only to be told that the metro desk signed off on the story so it’s inviolable.

Somewhere in between are the stories that get lawyered to death and show up in print as zombies. Lawyering doesn’t always involve lawyers, either; it could be a timid editor who chips away at what the reporter thinks are solid facts. Sometimes it’s a combination — the lawyers raise questions, which is their job, but editors take the questions as requirements. As to why stories that are undead make it into print, see above for trains, and the unstoppability of same.

Hovering around the same point are the times when reporters and editors get overzealous in trying to bring down a bad guy. Let’s say you’ve got a local pol who’s sleazy — awards contracts to friends, tries to hold meetings in private. You’ve written about him for years, detailing his actions, but the voters keep re-electing him. Reporters and editors may start coming to every story about him with a presumption of guilt.

Bottom line:

  • The message of a story goes beyond the words on the page or the screen: It includes the way we frame the story, the play we give it, the order of the facts.
  • While the message goes beyond the words, the proof must be on the page.
  • If we take a punch at someone — big shot or small — we have to land it. Every whiff only makes it harder for our readers to trust us.
  • The toughest critics of a story should be the editors involved. The bigger the target, the more important that internal grilling.
  • Journalism is not easy, and it’s often frustrating. But on the plus side, we get to work nights and weekends.

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  1. By Mark Puente

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