By Vincent Duffy, RTDNF Chairman
The conference call hosted by the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter yesterday was pretty standard. The Sierra Club announced its environmental and energy policy grade for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, and found him failing, saying in their press release they only agreed with the Governor’s actions on their list important issues 22 % of the time.
Many news outlets “reworked” the press release and had the story up on their websites before the conference call was even finished.
But the release didn’t pass the sniff test for our reporter because the Sierra Club seemed to be complaining about everything, including the Governor’s approval of two coal permits the reporter knew weren’t even going to be used. The release also counted that one action as two bad decisions. A call to the Governor’s office and the Department of Natural Resources created more suspicion that not everything in the press release was accurate.
While a few news outlets ran the story with only the press release as a source, others got the required “we don’t agree with the grade” comment from the Governor’s office. But we held off, while our reporter compared the bill summaries in the press release to the actual public acts.
At the end of the day (well, 6:30 pm to be exact), the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter released a revised press release with the errors removed. The corrections only caused the Governor’s rating to improve from 22% to 25%, because the errors were suddenly issues not worth counting anymore.
But by that time the story had already made its rounds, sitting on websites since noon and broadcast in drive time and evening newscasts. This happens more often than we in our business would like to admit. Sometimes our sources are careless (as I suspect was the case with the Sierra Club in Michigan), but sometimes organizations and politicians are betting that overworked reporters on tight deadlines will regurgitate what they’re given as they struggle to feed the beast.
When we blindly assume the press release is accurate, we’re not doing our job, we’re just helping press release writers do theirs. It really doesn’t take that much time to check a few facts, or add a few numbers, to make sure you’re not being fed half-truths.
Years ago (OK, decades actually), I was an enthusiastic rookie reporter at an Illinois News Broadcasters Association convention, sitting in a session about making your daily stories even better. I took one bit of advice from that session that I still use today because it often yields great results. That advice: Do the math.
It was less than a month later that Illinois Treasurer Pat Quinn (yes, the same guy that is the Illinois Governor today) was travelling around the state touting his newly developed Home Savings Program. He proudly told the assembled press that the Treasurer’s office had boldly created a program, available to the working poor, which allowed people to use a payment schedule to send money to the state and get a special interest rate so they could save for a down payment for a home. It really appeared the state had created a wonderful program to help the working poor become homeowners.
I took my tape and press releases back to the station and remembered the advice: do the math. So I did the math, made some calls, and discovered that after five years, participating in the state program would earn less than six dollars more than if someone simply opened a passbook savings account at the average bank. My story was very different that day than the other outlets that covered Mr. Quinn’s press conferences.
But even the best newsrooms and reporters can be fooled. When that happens, you owe it to your audience to let them know, and not just pretend the story is old news and nobody cares anymore.
At Michigan Radio, State Senator Tom Casperson was a live guest on our talk show, making the case for allowing a wolf hunting season in northern Michigan. During the program he told a terrifying story about wolves menacing children in the back yard of a daycare center. After the bill allowing the wolf hunt became law, a competing media outlet was able to show that Casperson was, in fact, crying wolf. The story he had told on our airwaves was, let’s politely say, highly embellished.
Were we embarrassed? Sure. Did we hide from it? Certainly not. If you even inadvertently misinform your audience, it’s your job to let the audience know and set the record straight.
We’ll see how many Michigan news outlets bother to set the record straight today with the story about the Sierra Club grades for the Governor.
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