EYE ON THE PIE: Who is watching Hoosier journalism?

September 25, 2006

I recently attended a lecture on renal problems of penal populations. The study of kidney disease among prisoners has been a fascination of mine since I started watching James Cagney movies.

The next day, I thought I would break out in liver spots when I read the newspaper account. The central points of the lecture were missed as the reporter bore down on other interesting, but tangential, issues. No doubt some of prisoners' kidney problems are the result of specific issues confronting prisons. But to ignore the kidney problems and focus almost exclusively on prison overcrowding is not good reporting.

How many times has this happened to you? You go to a City-County Council meeting and the report of that session makes you wonder if you were there. What is said in the paper or on TV about the event is at great variance with what you saw and heard yourself.

Or you go to an outstanding concert by the distinguished Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performing with the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the reporter spends four paragraphs describing and ruminating about a mole on the upper lip of the tuba player. An exhibit of art by Degas becomes a human-interest story on bakers who supplied muffins to ballet dancers in 19th-century Paris.

A few reporters, in print or electronic media, see more than we do. They know much of the background that is opaque to us. They know the players and can read the unspoken messages. It is not surprising that they provide a depth of knowledge and understanding that far exceeds our observations.

Other reporters know nothing and can hardly discover the surface of an issue. They are incapable of giving an accurate reading of their own birth certificates. They are fortunate to show up in the right place at approximately the right time.

Some reporters are timid and passive. They do not ask questions, but accept whatever is said, paraphrase or copy handouts, rely on the comments of the random "ordinary" citizen for expert opinion. Others are brazen and believe the purpose of journalism is to challenge and disrupt so that the journalist (with or without accompanying photographercamera operator) can be seen as the appropriate center of attention.

Still other reporters have a bias, a slant on life that transforms their work into opinionated essays disguised as objective, disinterested journalism. Often, these are the most intelligent interviewers and particularly skilled writers, but they may not be good reporters because they are not reporting.

Often, I see articles on the property tax that make it clear the writer has no knowledge of the subject. Believe it or not, there is a difference between tax rates and tax bills. Often, tax rates remain unchanged but tax bills rise because the tax base (the assessed value of property) has risen. Many articles do not distinguish these differences but contribute to the confusion suffered by the population in general and by the General Assembly.

How can you and I get the word out that a newspaper, radio or TV report was off the mark? How does a public official or business representative register concern about press coverage?

Letters to the editor are isolated expressions of displeasure. Often, they are written by the offended party and thereby seen as only self-serving. Perhaps Indiana needs a journalism Web log, or blog.

A blog concerning journalism in Indiana might be a place for serious observers to comment on coverage of the news. It should not be a place for venting, but a site for providing information that corrects errors in the media and praises good coverage of events and topics. Properly indexed, this blog could become a registry of performance useful to all of us and particularly instructive for students and practitioners of journalism.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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