I’ll never forget the calm but firm dressing down I once received as a cub reporter at the NBC affiliate in Lubbock after covering a fatal car wreck. I failed to obtain information about seatbelts.
“Do you know how viewers will react if your story mentions that the deceased passengers weren’t wearing their seatbelts?” my news director, Dave Walker, asked me. “They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible.’”
“Do you know how they’ll respond if your story mentions that they were indeed wearing their seatbelts but still died?” he followed. “They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible.’”
His point was that the information was critical to the story either way, and it was my job to get it. Keep in mind, this was less than a decade after Texas made seatbelts mandatory. Believe it or not, many Texans still viewed the law as an unconstitutional overreach that violated their rights. Seat belt violations were common, and everyone had an outspoken opinion on the matter.
We have cub reporters here in the Corridor, too. They’re doing their best to learn their craft, and lucky for them, Iowans are forgiving when it comes to cutting them slack. Maybe we’re too forgiving.
What’s the difference between quality journalism and hack journalism? Quality journalism answers the obvious questions people have while providing useful context that helps everyone stay informed and safe.
Do you know high-quality journalism, news photography and opinion writing when you see it?
Did you know that “stable” is not a condition, according to the American Hospital Association? A patient can be described as stable, but stable is not a condition. So when you hear a news outlet report that a shooting victim “is in stable condition,” that means that the reporter and the editor(s) approving the story are hacking their way through the early stages of their journalism careers.
An experienced news anchor in Iowa will never say flags are at “half-mast” in response to a tragedy. Masts are on ships. The flags we see around the Corridor are on flag poles or staffs, so technically, the flags are at “half-staff.”
A news operation that staffs an assignment desk, photographers and videographers around the clock, or at least has some on-call through the night, is less likely to use stock photos of random fire trucks to accompany a story about a fire that burned down a local business. Instead, some outlets might show day-after images of the burnt edifice because that’s all they could get once their staffers were back on the clock.
A committed news operation is more likely to have photos and footage of an overnight business fire, as well as scenes of the distraught business owners hugging and crying as they watch their business go up in flames. We’re talking about the news biz, mind you — the act of approaching people in their worst hour for permission to photograph them, or even interview them about what they’re going through, may sound crass. Still, the best journalists and photojournalists learn to do it in a respectful and effective way. Then, when you see the successful output of those efforts, you are drawn into the tragedy and are better informed about the story.
A media outlet with thoughtful opinion writers will take bold stands that prioritize public health and safety over politics. If the outlet misfires by telling its readers that “employer vaccine mandates are unwise,” it will at least follow up such a ham-fisted statement with an op-ed written by a health care professional. Everyone makes occasional unwise decisions that need correcting, and that includes media organizations.
The new norms of complicated pandemic science and politically motivated untruths passing as “opinions” open an entirely new world of journalistic quandaries that come with their own weak and strong approaches.
Say, for example, a local college student dies of COVID-19 complications. Weak reporting on such a story will read like an obit. A weak reporter will tippytoe around the hard questions that media consumers want to be answered.
Was the otherwise healthy young person vaccinated? Was her Twitter account full of misinformed anti-science propaganda? Is her mother an outspoken anti-vaxxer that, despite the loss of their child, would still have something to say about the “overreach of vaccines” if interviewed by a savvy reporter who could handle the assignment and get her to talk? Or would the experience prompt her to suddenly advocate for vaccines?
My point is that information critical to a story should be in a story. Trust me, news directors and editors in the Corridor want your feedback. The quality of journalism here is more likely to improve if we all make a stink about unanswered questions, questionable editorials and an overreliance on stock photography/videography.
Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalism, educator and marketer in the Corridor.