Saturday, June 04, 2005

Two Bad Practices of Print Journalism

Not to pick on a particular reporter, but this article commits two sins of journalism I find especially annoying.

First and foremost, there is no context! The reporter repeatedly tells us the Mayor talked about and said this or that, but never tells us where and to whom. Was he speaking publicly, at some civic group luncheon? Or privately, to the reporter in his office? We don't have the least idea.

Did the reporter call the Mayor to pre-interview him before he went before the City Council? Or did the Mayor call her to City Hall to lay the groundwork in the media for his budget proposals? To readers who notice the lack of context, there comes a suspicion of complicity on the part of the Commercial Appeal with the Mayor's plans. Are they being partisan or neutral? The problem for the community is if they pretend the latter while being the former.

The second thing that bugs me is more of an apparent lack of basic economics and political education on the part of the reporter. The article says:
Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton will lay out a five-year financial management strategy for the city Tuesday that he says will highlight new revenue sources beyond the dreaded property tax.
There is but a single source for all tax money: you. The citizens, the people, Mr and Ms Shelby County. You can intercept it at many places in the economy, but it all traces back to a single headwater.

Real estate transfer tax? You the buyer pay that. "Payroll" tax on your place of employment? You the employee pay that in reduced pay increases and smaller benefits. Higher fees for government service? You the consumer of government services pay that. Property tax? You the home owner pay that, and yes even you the renter pay that, too. Hotel and rental taxes? You and your family pay that when company comes to town.

Only business taxes minimise the impact locally. Much of Memphis economy is based on transportation and warehousing businesses that operate nationaly and even internationally. Business and property taxes and franchise taxes will affect locals to some extent, but these businesses have enormous customer bases to spread that cost around to.

But the Memphis Industrial Board is very generous with their PILOT programs (payment in lieu of taxes) and with tax freezes and breaks. They have to be to get businesses to locate here in the first place. But in shifting the share of the tax burden from business to private citizens, we also take on more than our fair share, don't we? Same for the hot, hot, hot downtown. Lots of breaks there, too, that mean lost tax revenue that has to be "made up" somewhere else. Guess who that "somewhere" is?

It's always important to remember that the vast majority of reporters and journalists get degrees in journalism that mean nothing more than they've been taught to write a certain way. Most journalists will even joke that they went into journalism so they could avoid math and science classes.

And yet they are the ones who must cover and report on important issues of politics, economics, business and science with no particular training, or even knowledge! Like someone once said, we'll read a story in the paper that shows they have no understanding of a certain subject, turn the page, and then expect that they have competence in another subject.

Look at the abuse of statistics in political reporting. Look at the credulous reporting from "health" and "science" reporters, who breathlessly and uncritically pass along whatever health or science story comes down the wire with no ability to assess what they're reading. Look at the "business" reporters who have never run a business, studied business in school, been a manager, met a payroll, plowed through regulatory paperwork, etc. And yet folks will read these reporters as though they know what they're talking about, with no reassurance other than they are employed by a local newspaper.

The same applies to television news reporting. But there you add a whole extra burden -- which takes time from learning such things as physics, economics, business, statistics, etc. -- the burden of how to look good in front of a camera, which has little or nothing to do with actual content.

Remember that every time you read the paper and watch the news. Or read blogs. Next time you call a reporter to ask after a story, try to find out what kind of education beyond journalism they got.

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