Federal stimulus checks bring out the worst in reporting `whom’ vs. `what’

by | Mar 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/May 2009

Money is being distributed at record pace these days, courtesy of federal stimulus checks. And though the bailout prompted partisan debate at the Capitol, you’ll be hard pressed to find a lawmaker unwilling to reap the dividends.

Some accept the money with open arms; others hold their noses. Regardless of the circumstances, they all are quick to take credit for delivering money to local projects and constituencies.

It’s unfortunate that many editors and reporters fail to see through the public relations charades of politicians. Bottom line: newspapers must learn to separate the “whom” from the “what” in exercising news judgment.

The magnitude of the recent U.S. federal bailouts – nearly $3 trillion as of March – is ready-made news on a variety of fronts in communities across the country. With every appropriation is an opportunity for someone to take credit.

Thus the headlines: “U.S. Rep. Johnson announces grant for local airport.” “U.S. Sen. Swanson delivers stimulus money for local highway project.” “Governor returns from Washington, says federal bailout will boost efforts to balance state budget.”

Don’t misinterpret. Politicians campaign on the ability to deliver critical votes – for policies and dollars – that benefit local interests. When they do so, they deserve to take credit. That said, the partisan debate about the federal bailout should raise the red flag for editors when federal lawmakers – especially those staunchly opposed to the measure – suddenly “announce” money for local projects.

Politicians always have taken advantage of the campaign season to step up their public relations efforts. It’s no coincidence when a federal lawmaker shows up at a county board meeting to announce support for federal funds for a local highway project. Or consider those incumbents facing tough re-elections who ask for time on a city council agenda to provide an update on federal or state legislative issues. Election time also is opportune for a legislative candidate to attend a school board meeting and endorse more state dollars for education.

Election cycles unfortunately have become year-round affairs, especially the higher you ascend the political ladder. Lawmakers routinely seize all chances to get their names in newspapers.

That’s understandable, but it’s no excuse for editors and reporters to ignore the obvious ploys for publicity. A lawmaker announces the rules for a state quilting contest. Another announces that shipping season has closed on the local waterway.

These items may well be legitimate news. But should a lawmaker be given credit – even be mentioned – in the story? Absolutely not. There is no connection whatsoever between the news and the politician.

In similar fashion, newspapers must monitor how they report the federal stimulus checks. The stories may well warrant mention of a local member of Congress, but it’s highly questionable whether that is the story lead. A quote is likely sufficient coverage unless there are extenuating circumstances.

The flurry of stimulus press releases draws attention to the broader issue of when to acknowledge a connection between the “whom” and “what” in everyday reporting. There is no universal right or wrong in these situations, but decisions demand consistency. Newsrooms should develop general guidelines, keeping in mind that all circumstances must be reviewed on their individual merits.

Newspapers typically confront these decisions in connection with “bad” news. Editors should not forget, however, the instances of prominent residents – politicians included – who expect favorable treatment in their local newspapers. These individuals expect that certain items will be published – and at minimum, that they will be connected to this good news – items that would not see print under ordinary circumstances.

Newspapers should evaluate. Bending the rules for “good” news can produce just as many headaches for editors as looking the other way when “bad” news occurs.