Thursday, January 20, 2011

What would better journalism look like?

Every once in awhile I wonder what various industries would look like if they were run according to Christian standards and principles. Recently I found myself wondering about journalism. It's difficult to get quality information on many subjects because you basically get either left-wing or right-wing political propaganda, depending on the news outlet. Sure, I try to keep up with the talking points of both sides, but the irritating thing is the debate stays really shallow, and there isn't a lot of in-depth coverage out there.

What would Christian news look like? It would speak the truth with love. It would also follow the wisdom of Solomon: "The first to present his case seems right until someone comes forward to question him." Both sides would be heard, and both sides would be questioned.

Let's take a hot-button topic, and I'll show you what I mean. Let's talk about the criminal justice system: the concerns over convicting the innocent or acquitting the guilty. The usual stances are: the left accuses the right of being too hard on criminals, being too gung-ho for justice, and risking convicting the innocent -- and, of course, racism. The right accuses the left of being too soft on criminals, being more pro-criminal-rights than pro-victim-rights, and acquitting the guilty.

What could a reporter do?

  • Calculate and publish the conviction percentages by judge. Check if there really is a difference in conviction rates between Judge(D) and Judge(R).
  • Is there a particular judge whose conviction rates are way out of line -- much higher or much lower -- compared to the others in the group? Spend some time in that courtroom and figure out why.
  • Check and publish mistrial rates.
  • Check and publish the plea bargain rates, and the typical differences in sentences.
  • Stay in the courthouse for a week or a month and take a survey after every acquittal. Pay the former defendants $20 each to tell you, anonymously, whether they were really innocent or guilty, to get a handle on the "acquitting the guilty" rate. If you're really feeling bold, ask them if their lawyer knew they were guilty before entering that "not guilty" plea, and ask them what factors enabled them to get away with it.
  • Check for overturned convictions or known cases of convictions later proved false. Research and write up the factors that led to the miscarriage of justice. If possible, get enough cases that patterns can be detected.
  • Interview the judges, prosecutors, public defenders, defendants, police, and victims about the different questions that come up during the background research.
Some would take financing; others would just take some good solid research. Ever seen a piece of reporting like that? I haven't. And that has a direct bearing on the quality of the political conversation. Fairly often it's the reporters who set the tone of political discussion in our country. The shallow and one-sided approach is poor stewardship of the public trust and of the public role of a reporter in our society.

Let's take just one more hot-button topic. Let's talk about illegal immigration -- or more specifically, the reporting on illegal immigration. The boilerplate stances are, on the left, that the poor from Mexico deserve a chance at the relative prosperity in America, that immigration enforcement and border security are just a cover for racism, and that the U.S. should provide a path to citizenship for those who enter the country illegally -- or from the right: that millions of illegal aliens are taking jobs that millions of Americans really need and adding a high burden of social service costs, and that the drug war in Mexico is too dangerous to leave our borders as they are. The reporting rarely gets deeper than that. That means it's not really reporting as such, it's more a matter of position papers being put out by the news affiliates of the two main political parties. People looking for real solutions are left without enough information.

What more could a serious investigative reporter find out?

Here are things that could probably be found with some background research. This first batch of items is limited to things where there are probably official statistics available, or that where statistics could be gleaned from existing sources with some effort. Because this first group of questions has to do with laws, statistics, and budgets, the subject matter is relatively limited, dealing with things that are covered by law or tracked by statistics.
  • How many people are in the country illegally?
  • How many jobs are held by people in the country illegally? What kinds of jobs? What are the typical hours in a work day? In a week? What is the typical pay? Who are the typical employers?
  • What are the typical living conditions?
  • Is there any estimate on what percentage of illegal residents have jobs that are intrinsically criminal (e.g. drug smuggling), what percentage have regular jobs, what percentage are day laborers, what percentage are unemployed?
  • How much money does the average illegal worker send back home to a dependent family in the average month or year?
  • Which public-funded service programs serve people regardless of citizenship or legal resident status?
  • How many publicly-funded students are in the country illegally? What percentage is that? What are the percentages on the high and low end of the spectrum for different neighborhoods, cities, counties, states? (Scope depends on the level at which the reporter works.)
  • How many illegal-resident students receive publicly-funded special services such as bilingual or ESL / ELL programs?
  • How many illegal-resident students receive free or reduced-price school lunches?
  • How many crimes are committed by people in the country illegally? Is there an estimate of the financial or human cost of the crimes?
  • As a percentage, how does the rate of criminals for illegal residents compare to that of citizens and legal residents?
  • How many people in the prison system are in the country illegally? What is the cost of incarceration? Who pays it? What percentage of the people in the system are in the country illegally?
  • Where does an illegal resident go to get health care? Who pays the bill?

After the basic statistics and background research had been done and the reporter has a clearer idea what to ask, they could start lining up interviews. I bet every one of my readers could think of good questions to ask. Here are types of people I'd expect would make good interviews:
  • Day workers
  • Illegal residents with regular permanent jobs
  • Employers
  • Apartment managers / landlords
  • Police
  • Immigration officials
  • Money transfer / wire transfer workers
  • Coyotes (professional people-smugglers) if available
  • School officials: admin; BIL/ESL workers
  • Hospitals, doctors' offices, local health officials

Here's the thing: if I sit around at a blog and can think of this, I know that a professional reporter could think of this, and better, if they tried. And it's not just these particular issues. Almost every issue of any depth could and should have someone do some serious reporting on it. The financial crisis, unemployment, recent frauds, an expose on how Congress really works ... all kinds of possibilities.

My point is not that a Christian would be (D) or (R); I think political point-scoring would be shunned as dirty pool by someone whose first priority is following Christ. A Christian approach to reporting would go beyond the slogans and canned talking points and get to the people really involved, with an eye to both love and justice.


Martin LaBar said...

That's great advice. Now if we can get CNN, Fox, NPR, CBS, ABC, NBC, AP, Reuters, etc., to take it.

Weekend Fisher said...

LOL. I think we're going to have to start our own news agency. As soon as there's some real competition, the other guys would have to clean up their act if they didn't want to become the Jerry Springer of news.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

There are some good questions/suggestions here, but I'm not sure that you would get a truly guilty person who doesn't deal with responsibility to answer honestly. People are not, after all, "innocent" but rather, "not guilty" charged. It is important that the state/government actually be able to prove its case when there is real guilt so that it also has to prove its case when there isn't guilt.

There could also be innocent people who plea bargain because the case looks too good, and innocent people who refuse to plea bargain because they know that they aren't guilty, but they get convicted.

One of the issues with the type of reporting that you are encouraging is that it is statistics based. Well and good. The problem is that most reporters are word people, not numbers people. They often haven't studied statistics and how to use them correctly or incorrectly. They may not know how to really evaluate various studies done by others. Perhaps more numbers people in journalism would be the biggest help to quality journalism.
You are implying that a judge might make a big difference in conviction rates. But it is the jury that convicts. Do you think that the judge sways a jury? Or is it the various lawyers who sway a jury? What's in it for the prosecution to get a conviction if they don't really think that a certain person did the crime? After all, that could mean that a criminal goes free.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Hmmm, the last half of the last paragraph was supposed to be the third paragraph.

Weekend Fisher said...

Reporters need a perspective-check. They need to know what the big picture is. Any decent new agency should have enough research types that they can set the background for the stories, even if actual write-ups or interviews are done by people with different skill sets.

On the juries -- it's kind of interesting to me. Both the prosecutor and the defender have approved all the people on the jury. But how often have you seen sporting matches where the referee might as well have been paid by one team or the other, as much as he was leaning on the scale for that side? I suspect the judges, setting the tone and making the calls in the courtroom, at times affect the outcome of the decisions.

I do wonder about some of the lawyers. For instance, O.J. Simpson's "dream team" comes to mind. That would be an interesting interview: to interview prosecutors and defenders, see what their perspectives were. Especially ones who had ever been involved with acquitting the guilty, or convicting the innocent.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I too wonder about such cases as the OJ Simpson case. Many people assume he is guilty as charged. What if he was innocent and had a bad lawyer?

Regarding the research by reporters, etc. Newspapers have cut costs by cutting staff. News organizations have cut staff all over the world. It isn't going to get better.

There is disinformation with news and numbers and there is ignorant use of statistics. My F-I-L was good with numbers and sometimes would look at a newspaper article, work on the stats, and confirm that his impression of misuse of figures was correct.

Joel R. said...

Speaking as a former news producer, you have a pretty unrealistic view of how much time reporters can invest in any given story. Your examples would involve levels of research, data gathering and time that no reporter has.
I'm not saying that your suggestions of in-depth storytelling are bad, but it's not an answer to frustrations with journalism.