May 4, 2007

An Analysis of an Article

In my last entry I posted an article, "Same-Sex Benefits Bill a Point of Controversy," which I wrote for my Intermediate Reporting class at the University of Minnesota (the same class for which I keep this blog). I would like to make this entry an analysis of that article in terms of the problems, obstacles and frustrations a journalist might typically encounter in covering state government affairs.
I chose this particlar article because for me it encompassed several of the difficulties I have come to expect in public affairs reporting. Firstly, I found that the idea of the article didn't translate as well as I had hoped to the written page. That is to say, the intrigue of the issue at hand (a proposal for same-sex partners benefits, and the underlying political tug-of-war that that implies) was bogged down by the political jargon in the article. I thought having to use two paragraphs high in the story to explain what exactly an omnibus bill is and why it is significant took away from the overall appeal of the story ... After reading today's Star Tribune article about the fate of the same-sex benefits proposal (it was dropped from the omnibus bill in fear of a gubernatorial veto) I would have approached that explanation much differently. The Star Tribune's article was much simpler in that it sort of bypassed an explanation of an omnibus bill altogether, opting instead to simply call it "a major spending bill."
I also found the changes that the bill underwent over its lifespan to be a bit of a frustration in trying to to track it and cover it. When I first got the idea to write on the same-sex benefits proposal, it was a bill of its own with three identified co-authors and two clear parties of supporters and opponents. If it had remained this way, it would have been much easier to report and clearer to read. Alas, as I learned in the reporting of this story, diffusing controverisal proposals into bulk omnibus bills isn't uncommon, and is done with the specific intentions of making it more complicated in order to sneak by its passage on the coattails of less controversial legislation.
Finally, I found that getting straight-forward comment on a controversial issue from the parties involved to be a near impossibility, especially from the Governor's Office. Members of the offices of the co-authors would speak about their strong support for the proposal, but they were generally unwilling to comment on the level of importance it would or would not be given by the Democratic Party. They would make comments like, "We really hope this passes, blah blah blah," instead of, "This is what we are going to do to make sure it passes ..." The Governor's Office was even worse. For some reason their spokespeople wouldn't give me any response other than something to the extent of "Let's wait and see." I found that utterly bizarre considering the governor's well-documented stance adamently opposed to the proposal. Welcome to the world of politics, I suppose.

"Same-Sex Benefits Bill a Point of Controversy" by Erik Borg

A contentious bill that would give health insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners of state employees was added to an omnibus bill last week.
This unique form of legislation, which groups various items into one bill, mainly features appropriations and state-employee salary changes, making the same-sex benefits article stand out as a glaring point of controversy among the numerical jargon.
The tactic employed by the Democrats in this instance is nothing new in state government, and is done in hopes of making opponents concede the passage of a controversial provision in order to pass the other components. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is adamantly opposed to the provision, cannot veto specific parts of the omnibus bill without rejecting the entire thing.
That sets the stage for heavy negotiations between the governor’s office and the Democratic Party before it ever reaches Pawlenty’s desk.
Standing alone, the bill likely would have received enough support from the Democrat-led House and Senate, but Pawlenty has vowed from the beginning to veto the bill. Democrats do not control enough seats in either chamber to override a veto.
The omnibus bill featuring the same-sex article has passed the Senate, and now is up for consideration in the House Finance Committee. If it clears committee negotiations with the same-sex article attached, it likely will pass the House vote and arrive on Pawlenty’s desk.
That means the article’s fate likely lies in committee negotiations over the next weeks. Sandy Davis, a spokesperson for Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, original co-author of the bill, warned though that omnibus bills generally come out looking significantly different than they do going into negotiations. She said the future of the article depends on the level of priority the Democrats give it.
“The governor’s office has a lot to do with the negotiations in committee before it’s voted on, and they surely would like to see it removed.? Davis said. “It depends on how much the (the Democrats) are willing to give to keep it in there.?
Pawlenty already has established a staunch record against same-sex initiatives. Two years ago, as House majority leader, he led the Republican effort that ended same-sex partner benefits for state employees. Last year, he backed a strong push to constitutionally ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.
An exact number of same-sex partners who might claim health insurance benefits has not been determined, but in 2004 there were 85 state employees who did so, according to the office of Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.
Jo Marsicano, communications director for OutFront Minnesota, an advocacy group for the state’s GLBT community, said the lack of benefits for same-sex couples is an injustice that clearly needs to be corrected.
She pointed to various Minnesota corporations and 13 other states that offer similar benefits to their gay and lesbian employees as proof that Minnesota should approve the measure.
“As a state, we should be leaders in the pursuit of equality, not followers, and that starts with our government,? she said.

May 3, 2007

A New Battlefront: Cyberspace

Just as the first televized presidential debate in 1960 changed the way political candidates campaign for office, and the graphic video footage of the Vietnam War changed the way American media cover military conflict, the role of cyberspace in Operation Iraqi Freedom (as the Iraq War is officially named) is marking a technological change in the way the general public is able to gain access and insights to world news events.
Military personell and rogue journalists are reporting first-hand from the trenches and posting it on their blogs for the whole (developed) world to see. Inqusitive U.S. citizens are logging on to al Jazeera's English-language Web site for a Middle Eastern, and often-times less-filtered, perspective on the Iraq War and the War on Terror. In January, millions of people visited YouTube and other video-dissemination sources to view the uncensored footage of Saddam Hussein's hanging.
Today, the Star Tribune announced the U.S. Military has launched its own YouTube channell, featuring footage of firefights, raids and other day-to-day military tasks from a "boots-on-the-ground perspective." I found the videos shocking, enlightening, humanizing, discomforting, and at times disturbing. There is footage of soldiers bantering between one another like the 18- to 22-year-olds that they are as they shoot off weapons that look like they belong in a video game. Then there is footage of the same soldiers scrambling for cover as they take fire from Islamic insurgents. This is not video you would see on the nightly evening news ... it is being captured by the soldiers themselves carrying hand-held videocameras as they go through their daily procedures. If it is edited or censored heavily, I can't imagine the kind of content that has been extracted.
Regardless of the political leanings one has over this war, it must be said that the Military has succeed in offering the public a first-hand account of what it is really like on the ground in Iraq. That transparency is commendable. I don't presume these videos have the ability to change one's beliefs over the war, but they certainly can make us all more invested. That is the power, and advantage, of cyberspace in this new age of war.

April 26, 2007

What's in a Headline?

Today's editions of the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press present an excellent oppourunity to understand the value of a good headline. I would argue that headlines are perhaps the most under-appreciated part of print journalism, but indeed are an immensely important compenent in creating an well-rounded product of high-quality journalism.
Of course, a good headline means very little without a quality story attached, but conversely, a good story can go overlooked when it lacks a headline that successfully engages the reader.
In today's editions, for example, both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press prominently featured the same Associated Press article on their front pages, but with significantly different headlines.
The Star Tribune headline read, "Ignoring veto threat, House passes bill to pull out troops." Compare that with the Pioneer Press' headline, "Withdraw deadline passes House."
The difference is clear. In this instance, the Star Tribune clearly succeeded in intruiging the reader with its headline by highlighting the conflict within the story. The Pioneer Press, on the other hand, failed to utilize its headline as a tool to clarify to the reader that this story is more just another boring piece of legislative journalism. I find it incredible that both papers share the same story, but that the Star Tribune headline manages to make the story seem so much more attractive.
The difficulty in creating an excellent headline is endless. Editors constantly have to toil with space limitations that prevent the use of certain words and syntax structures. Furthermore, the have to walk the fine line between catchy and corny, informative and wordy, and accurate and interesting. I would just about call it an artform.

It's About Time To Declare Imus Overkill

I can hardly bring myself to do this, but I have finally decided to touch on the Don Imus scandal. I thought I had successfully outlasted the "Imus Ordeal" takeover over of American media, but its seemingly inexpicable ability to remain "pertinent" news for two-plus weeks has proved too much for me.
On Wednesday I opened to the Arts section of the New York Times and found a frontpage feauture article discussing the Imus calamity and the changes it may/may not lead to in modern Hip-Hop. Apparently, among all the bonehead innapropriate things that public figures have said and continue to say, Imus' comments were the ones collectively decided upon to trigger a social discussion on indecency in public speech.
In truth, I am still conflicted about the ubiquity of the "Imus Ordeal" in the media, as well as how it has been augmented to encompass a deeper social concern.
One one hand, I am tempted to group the Imus story in the category of over-done sensational journalism — the Elian Gonzales saga, the Laci Peterson murder scandal, and Anna Nicole Smith's death immediately come to mind — however I do not discount that it does have some journalistic value. (My one gripe about this is that he was in fact a "shock jock," which pretty much means his job was to be controversial.) Nevertheless, he is a public figure and his blatantly sexist and racist comments in a public forum certainly should garner a certain level of media attention. I must point out, however, that former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway's recent anti-gay rant on a Miami radio station didn't make nearly as many headlines. Check out ESPN's coverage of that incident to compare its offensiveness.
Still, considering the interest the public has shown in the story, I must commend the New York Times and other high-quality news sources like Anderson Cooper's CNN program for resisting the temptation to beat the story into the ground, and instead opting to guide it into a more substantive arena for pubic discourse. The Times' piece on the double-standard in the use of language we offer to our rap stars is an excellent example of this.
Truthfully, though, I am ready for a new scandal to eat up the airwaves and columns so I don't have to see Imus' mug again for a long time. There is a reason, afterall, that he was in radio.

Toyota cruises to No. 1, Gives Motown a Hit to Ego

One story I found especially engaging Wednesday was the New York Time's coverage of Toyota's recent assension to No. 1 automaker worldwide, passing long-time leader G.M. The article was featured front and center of the Times' Business Day section, accompanied by a large photo and an emphatic headline, "Move Over G.M., Toyota is No. 1." Clearly, this was the biggest national business story of the day, and quite possibly internationally.
I found it interesting that at times the article read more like a euology than a hard news story, celebrating G.M.'s rise to the pinnacle of automaking and its 75-year reign as the world leader in this most American of industries, only to lament it's stumbles in recent year and resign G.M. as a fallen giant at the feet of a (Gasp!) foriegn automaker.
I really thought that this sentimental approach to covering the story was the appropriate choice. After reading about the real-life effects of the switch, which come later in the story, it becomes clear that this "passing of the torch" is really more of symbolic importance than anything else. Afterall, as I learned in the article, selling more cars doesn't necessarily translate to higher profit margins. The real story here is that G.M., and to a broader extent the United States, has to acknowledge that it finally has been out-performed at its own gig - carmaking - by a group of big thinkers from Tokyo, which also ties into the issue of a degrading Detroit.
My immediate reaction after reading the Times' article was to cross-examine it with coverage from a Tokyo-based source. Is the Japanese media hailing the news as a momentous occassion in automaking and a victory for Japan just as the Times has bemoaned it for the opposite reasons? Or is it just another meaningless milestone for the driven Tokyoites. Perhaps Toyota saw this day on the horizon for some time now, whereas G.M. failed to adequately use its rear-view mirrors. (*Note to the Reader: Please forgive me for all those puns, I couldn't resist.)
As a bit of a surprise, I failed to find much of any Japanese coverage on the story outside of the Associated Press version. (Of course, I was limited to exploring English-language sources, which could certainly account for the lack of findings.) Still, I have no choice but to assume that the news of the switch was a bigger deal in the States than in Japan. Perhaps it's because of America's long-standing cultural attachment to the auto industry that leads us to view this particular story through the scope of sadness rather than approach the story dispassionately like most business news. Regardless, it is interesting to observe in journalism how one story can be valued or ignored so unequally by the different parties involved.

April 5, 2007

Buzzbee Makes a Great Analysis Without Bias

By far the most interesting piece of journalism in today's Star Tribune was an analytical article on Iran's seizure of British sailors. The article, plucked from the Associated Press wire, finally provided some thoughtfull insight into the overall significance of the 13-day confrontation. Unbiased insight, that is.
For anyone who follows current events on a regular basis, this story has truly been inescapable over the past couple of weeks. It has filled America's front pages and dominated the news tickers. In true American media fashion, however, the on-going story has largely appeared to the public as a regurgitation of "official" statements. Yet in this instance, both London and Tehran were employing secret strategies and masking alterior motives, so it was understandably difficult to report anything other than the facts that were handed to the media. The point of this entry is not to berate American media for its quality of reporting, but to commend Sally Buzbee for offering a fresh and interesting angle to the story in the form of dispassionate analysis. She managed to perfectly tackle the question, "What does all this mean?" without inserting her own political leanings. Instead, she employed the thoughts of political and military theorists to gage how the conflict might affect future dealings in the Middle East and the foriegn relations among the involved countries. Like any good analysis, she also made room for various opposing possibilities.
She wisely steered clear of declaring Britain or Iran the outright "Winner." Not surprisingly, some of CNN's and Fox News' so-called pundits were not so reluctant to jump all over such a flashy word.
Buzzbee's reporting reminds me more of the way Edward R. Murrow and his foriegn corresponds (Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, etc...) reported during World War II. ***Note to the Reader: No, I'm not that old, I've just read a couple biographies.*** They always reported with one eye firmly fixating on where the story was going, keeping in mind the bigger picture. They remained unbiased, but weren't afraid to include commonsense observations. It is commendable that Buzzbee has followed in their noble vein of journalism.

April 4, 2007

A Balancing Act: Representing the Big Picture vs. Providing Details

Perhaps the biggest local story this week is the ongoing saga of 3M chemicals being found in area landfills and in some metro communities' tap water. In reading/viewing/listening to the various reports and articles on the issue, it is clear a lot of grey area remains. There still is a lot of information to be found and questions to be answered; most notably, how dangerous the chemicals really are. All this grey area leaves the door open to a large variance in the way the story is reported, and this is evident when reviewing the coverage from different local news outlets.
The Star Tribune today printed a frontpage article highlighting three more tainted landfills. It differs slightly from MPR's Monday broadcast of the saga in that it containts slightly more up-to-date information, but largely focuses on the same back-facts and information. I found it interesting to note the differences in the ways the two outlets reported the story. Firstly, as a radio broadcast, MPR's coverage was expectedly more conversational. It had more quotes and comments from officials and researchers, and also included the perspective of a mother of young children living in an affected part of the Metro area. This personal angle is definitly more indicative of broadcast journalism. The Star Tribune article, on the other hand, featured more scientific jargon and dampening facts. Yet, on the whole, I found MPR's broadcast to be equally informational and far more accessible. MPR did an excellent job with the difficult balancing act between sufficiently representing the big picure with facts and information, and clouding the situation with intricate details and scientific specifics.

March 29, 2007

Good Journalism Can Be Pretty Too

It's safe to say that the trial run for the Star Tribune's vast redesign last year has come to an end. When the Star Tribune scrapped it's traditional design last year in favor a bolder, simpler and easier-to-read design that looks a lot more like USA Today than the New York Times, there was a lot of buzz about what the implications would be and what it says about the direction of modern journalism.
Some expressed concern that the increase in graphics, photos, charts, graphs and anecdotal news clips would get in the way of quality news coverage. Others expressed optimism that the more accessible layout would keep the paper competitive in today's increasingly crowded media landscape.
Now that I have been a regular reader of the Strib for several months, I'm ready to weigh in.
Firstly, there is no doubt that the new design is more aesthetically pleasing. It's easier to read in that the headlines and story summaries jump off the page in bolder, better-featured text. But does that take away from the quality of coverage? I would argue that it doesn't ... Sure, stories may tend to be shorter in an effort to cater to attention-deficit readers, but a good journalist should be able to write a quality piece in less than 20 inches anyway.
Also, the redesign has featured a bi-weekly World section that delves much further into international affairs than the paper ever did before .... That, in my opinion, is a sign of responsible journalism. Colorful maps of the world don't hurt anyone either, afterall, who doesn't need to hone their geography knowledge a bit?
Finally, I am going to go on record as a fan of the "Have You Heard?" section that appears on the front page each day. For those unfamiliar with the section, it is a small green block of text that usually includes four or so blurbs of current-events information that don't merit an entire article in the paper. Think of them as "Water Cooler" topics for the news junkie. In response to the critics who call this form of anecdotal journalism a dumbing-down effect, I say, What's wrong with interesting journalism that gets people talking? In today's paper, for example, we learned that the Marines are banning tattoos below the elbow and knee in new recruits; that children see an average of 21 food ads a day, more than 40 percent of which are for junk food; and that a World Health Organization study found that circumsized heterosexual men are 60 percent less likely to contract HIV. While all interesting, and something one might share with a friend or co-worker, they aren't exactly fluffy. Each have the ability to spur an important public dialogue. For example, The Marines policy touches on the conservative mindset of our military today. The junk food ads likely link directly to the U.S. epidemic of child obesity. And the circumcision study could lead to new policies and efforts in the global fight against AIDS.
Of course the journalist in me would much prefer that Americans spend the time to read an entire article on each of these topics instead of a simple sentence, but today that is not our reality. The "Have You Heard?" section is our reality. Newspaper people need to embrace that if they want to keep their papers alive. Thank God the Star Tribune did.

Gonzales' Defiance Won't Do

One of the biggest stories of the past month was the unexpected firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department. The controversery centers around whether the firings were done for partisan reasons and how involved Attornery General Alberto Gonzales was in the decision. The on-going story has been great fodder for 24-hour news broadcasts, whcih have attacked the story like hyenas and fed it to the public in pieces of soundbites and beaurocractic rhetoric. The story also has unraveled on the front pages of some of the country's most influential newspapers. Most recently, the Star Tribune reported Tuesday that a key aide to Gonzales will opt for the Fifth Amendment instead of testifying in a congressional hearing about the firings. By invoking the Fifth Amendment, a tool to avoid self-incrimination, the aide has signaled a concern that wrong-doing did occur.
The Star Tribune article quickly moved from the aide's news-making decision to Gonzales' recent TV appearance in which he sought to deflect criticisms and deny any improper conduct. The article reports that Gonzales repeatedly asserted in the interview that no wrong-doings ocurred, yet it is never clarified what exactly the decision-making process behind the firings was. It is unclear in the article whether the NBC journalist conducting the interview even asked Gonzales the hard-hitting questions that would clear up exactly why the firings occurred, but one thing is clear: If those questions were asked, Gonzales certainly didn't aswer them. Simply put, his feet were never put to the fire ... which means in this instance journalism failed in its role as the public's political watchdog.
In my opinion, an equally important story to the one that ran across the country Tuesday would be one focusing on the fact that Gonzales is skirting the tough questions. What does he have to hide? Why isn't he being an open book if he or his department did nothing wrong? Please, Mr. Gonzales, tell us what those attorneys did to loose their jobs. Unfortanately, such a story has yet to be published in mainstream media. Even the usually top-notch New York Times failed to point out Gonzales' defiant behavior. Instead, Gonzales has basically told the press and the public, "Don't worry, I have nothing to hide, but I'm not going to tell you anything. Just take my word for it." While the mainstream press has obliged to Gonzales' wishes, we the should public hold our media to a higher standard.

March 28, 2007

Minnesota, Medicine, and Medtronic

The Star Tribune reported Tuesday that a recent medical study has found certain drugs are as effective as stents in preventing heart attacks and helping heart-disease sufferers live longer. The study, while certainly important in most medical circles, probably did not recieve significant coverage in many metropolitan papers. The differing factor for the Twin Cities, however, is that it serves as an international hub for medical research and medical-device production. As the headquarters for Medtronic, a important site for Boston Scientific research and production, and the the homebase of University of Minnesota medical research, it is explainable that this story would merit broader coverage in the Star Tribune and other local publications. In Minnesota, at least, the effect of such a study goes beyond the medical implications, but expands to the reality of a possible economic impact. As a potential precursor to the way doctors around the world respond to heart conditions, the study could ultimately affect job lose and production decreases here in Minnesota (For example, Boston Scientific's stent product is currently produced in Maple Grove) This explains why the story ran as a small excerpt on the front page as well as the top story in the daily Business section as opposed to perhaps waiting for the weekly Health section. In this instance, the Star Tribune has exhibited an adhearance to one of journalism's key mantras: the importance of locality, and its subsequent effect on relevance.
The study was conducted at the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans, and featured patients from across the United States and Canada. Therefore, not surprisingly, the story was not covered locally, but instead was plucked from a newswire service. In the paper, the story is listed in its byline as a Bloomberg Newswire article, but also credits Star Tribune staff reporter Janet Moore for addtions to the wire version (a practice not uncommon in attempt to localize a national story). It is not clear exactly which parts Moore contributed to give the story a Minnesota pertinence, but some parts stand out as localized additions. For example, the fact that Boston Scientific produces its stents in Maple Grove, Minn., most likely would never appear in a national version of the story. Check out the CNN.com version of the story to note the differences.
As a whole, the The Star Tribune coverage was done very well. The story included the local business angle while still sharing the medical importance as well. My one complaint would be that the story failed to mention Medtronic (Arguuably the Twin Cities biggest and most important name in medicine) until the second-to-last paragraph. In today's attention-deficit media culture, it has been established that almost all newspaper readers fail to read an article from beginning to completion. This indicates an even greater need to stress the importance of including the most imperative facts toward the beginning of the story, which in this instance should have included the affect the study might have on Medtronic.