The difference between honesty (or truthfulness, if you’d rather) and accuracy can come down to the answers to this question:
“Do you know what time it is?”
Answer A: “It’s 7:30 a.m.”
Answer B: “Yes.”
The first answer is more honest and helpful while the second is simply accurate. This scenario is one that lawyers in TV shows use to explain how defendants should testify to keep themselves out of trouble: Answer the question, but volunteer nothing more. This kind of demarcation in the answers led to a correction on a New York Times story about “Women who still back Trump” late last week:
You can skip past the bottom two points, as they’re clearly just dumb mistakes that should not have gotten past a rookie reporter for the Beaverton Shopper-Ledger, let alone a political reporter for the country’s “paper of record.” The first two concerns have led to questions regarding the way in which the Times approached its story.
Dan Froomkin of Salon noted that this wasn’t the first time the Times had quoted Republican movers and shakers as just regular folks in one of its stories. Froomkin’s position is that this approach wasn’t accidental:
The New York Times has been caught, once again, passing off Republican operatives as “regular” Republican voters in an article intended to show how effectively Donald Trump is maintaining his support.
It raises serious questions about whether Times editors and reporters, rather than actually trying to determine how voters feel, are setting out to find people to mouth the words they need for predetermined story lines that, not coincidentally, echo the Trump campaign’s propaganda.
In the latest case, an article posted on Wednesday headlined “Around Atlanta, Many White Suburbanites Are Sticking With Trump” by Times national reporter Elaina Plott initially misidentified two of the four allegedly run-of-the-mill voters who supported the article’s thesis: That Trump’s unfounded fear-mongering along the lines that “ANTIFA THUGS WILL RUIN THE SUBURBS!” is working.
The problem with that thesis is that there ARE actually women who support Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. And to be fair to Elaina Plott, she DID actually find a few that apparently weren’t running the Republican Party of Greater Atlanta or whatever, like this woman:
Mr. Biden has said that he has no desire to defund the police, and Amanda Newman acknowledges that. But Ms. Newman, 51, who lives in the suburbs and works at a law firm in midtown Atlanta, also thinks Mr. Biden’s personal views are irrelevant — that a vote for Mr. Biden is in fact a vote for his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, as well as for progressives in the Democratic Party like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have pushed for policies like the Green New Deal. “I don’t think Joe Biden has an opinion until somebody tells him what it is,” she said.
Ms. Newman said she’s been put off by Mr. Trump at multiple moments in the past four years, calling him at times “unpresidential” and comparing him to “a 2-year-old pitching a fit in a candy store.” But she said she feared how “radical” and “crazy” the Democrats had become.
And this one…
“It’s been very unnerving,” said Lori Mullee, 54, referring not to police brutality or Mr. Arbery’s death but the “riots in my backyard.” Ms. Mullee, a University of Georgia graduate, works in marketing and lives in Stone Mountain, a small city in the Atlanta suburbs that in August was essentially put on lockdown as white supremacist groups and far-left counterprotesters clashed at the city’s Confederate monument.
Ms. Mullee said she used to exercise in the state park surrounding the monument, but no longer feels comfortable doing so. (As for the monument itself, she said she did not support efforts to “take down history.”) She is voting for Mr. Trump in part, she said, because she feels the left has stoked division in cities like hers and beyond.
Also, if you take a look at any Trump rally, you do see women, as well as a spectrum of people from other groups that you wouldn’t necessarily consider the hard-core, stereotypical angry, straight, white male Trump supporter. A story that looked into why these folks are supporting this guy would seem to be in the wheelhouse of a political reporter for a major media outlet.
In short, if I had to put money on what happened here, I’d be more on the “We screwed up” end of this as opposed to the “nefarious plot to parrot deeply entrenched Republicans to further their agenda” end of it.
In acknowledging biases, I suppose it would be important to acknowledge my own: I’ve had to cover random weird-ass events that required me to go find “regular people” who were willing to talk to me. That part of the job absolutely sucked, as people who were at Fourth of July parades or county fairs seemed to view me as a KGB operative or worse. As we mentioned in previous posts, some reporters have even faked the “real people” to get out of the drudgery of this part of the job.
Me? I would try to find the people who looked like the most obvious candidates to talk and get what I could get out of them. For example, I once covered the final day of operation for the Lake Delton dog-racing track. I needed to find people who worked there and bet on dogs for this “color” piece. The workers were easy, as I knew a couple people in advance from a previous story, who helped me find others as well.
In terms of “regular people,” I started looking around and found the journalistic equivalent of fast food. This guy was a mountain of a man, probably at least 6-foot-5 with a barrel-shaped body. He had on a really loud shirt and a hat that said something about dog racing. He also wore a license plate on a string around his neck. The plate read: “I BET K9S.”
He was talking to people making bets, roaring with laughter and drinking a beer. That might have been the easiest “real person” interview I ever conducted.
Did I think he might be an investor in the dog track or somehow tied to a larger representative collective that might undermine his credibility as a regular guy? No.
Did I consider that he was a white man, likely straight, and might not be representative of a broader spectrum of potential sources? No.
Did I ask the guy a dozen questions about himself like I was doing an “OK Cupid” profile on him to make sure I hadn’t missed any entangling alliances he might have? No.
I was just grateful to have a human source that said something quote-worthy.
Granted, this was in the time before everyone had the internet and we had a cottage industry of people digging into the work of other people for sport. However, I would be willing to bet I’m not alone in the, “OK, thank God I got that done” vein of journalism that likely exists still today.
I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve use the “B” answer a few times to keep conversations friendly. A lot of my neighbors in various stops were quite conservative and didn’t think highly of commie, liberal, pinko professors who were in their ivory towers at whatever university was in town. When we moved into a given neighborhood, they’d often see me working on my car or doing yard work and stop by to say hello.
When they asked me what I did, I’d respond with, “I work at the U.”
It was accurate, but the truth was, I had hoped they assumed I was a janitor or something. If they got to know me and liked me, I figured the topic would come up in a future conversation and my “professoring” would be unveiled.
In the end, there are limits to what you can do as a journalist when it comes to this stuff. Your hope always is that people will be honest and truthful. It would have been great if the person had said, “I’m involved in politics in XYZ ways,” so the reporter had a fuller version of reality. However, she wasn’t lying to the reporter when she said she was an interior decorator or a graduate from the University of Georgia, so she was accurate.
I’m sure I could turn this into a cautionary tale on how to avoid this problem in the first place, but it seems to be like trying to take out a fly with a rocket launcher. I would wager that, at best, there are three things I could tell you that you probably already know if you’ve read the blog and/or stayed alive during any journalism writing class:
The other two stupid mistakes we skipped past earlier would indicate that the reporter was sloppy, so… y’know… don’t be sloppy in your reporting.
The fact other people were able to figure out who these people were in about six seconds on Google tells us… Do a quick Google search of sources before putting them in your story… I guess?
The correction set the record straight, so when you do screw up, make sure you own it. So there’s that…