As the whole EDC mess swirls on and the gloves come off, the Palladium-Item, Richmond's local daily newspaper, has continued to insist that its role in fueling the fire of outrage over the EDC's affairs has just been about reporting the truth. It is with this sentiment that they've responded to public criticism of their aggressive coverage and editorializing, it is how they responded to concerns raised in an editorial board meeting I attended shortly after the initial series ran on their pages, and it is how managing editor Rich Jackson responds in an editorial column today. But Jackson and the rest of his staff surely know that the impact of their actions in this and every other matter they cover is not limited to the letter of the content they deliver; in a world of fast paced news delivery, short attention spans, and the need for sexy sound bites, the way the information is presented often has as much (if not more) impact than the "truth" that it might be trying to convey. In other words, the framing of an issue tends to trump the truth of an issue. This isn't their fault, but if credibility is important, it is their responsibility to acknowledge their role in that phenomenon.
Jackson, via his remarks, would have us believe that the Pal-Item's pursuit of the EDC story and similar scandals are solely about performing its duties of "watchdog journalism" - asking the hard questions and digging deep on behalf of public concerns. He invokes grand images around the intent of the country's founders, the dangers of unchallenged power, and the taxpayers` need for someone to protect them from the abuses of secrecy by public officials. And really, in my ideal version of what the local newspaper does, I agree with him that this obligation rises above all of the other kinds of information transfer that they perform.
But Jackson conveniently (though perhaps unintentionally) omits a few key factors from his soliloquy on credibility, and the most key (in my opinion) is that he and the Pal-Item staff get to choose how the fruits of their important journalistic endeavors are presented to the public, and in ways that almost completely determine how the information will be processed and used by their readers.
The size and font of a headline. The tone and connotations of the words used to sell and introduce a story. The photo that accompanies a story - how is it lit and cropped, what is the caption, how does it present the subject. The amount of column inches devoted to a story and its impact, and where in the publication they are placed. The quality and length of the quotes from sources that provide "balancing" viewpoints. The opinion pieces that accompany a major story, and if/how they blur the perceived line between reporting facts and editorializing on them. How many follow up stories are done. Whether or not a special section of the Pal-Item website is created to draw more attention to a series online. And so on. All of these variables could ostensibly be said to have little or nothing to do with the "truth" that they help deliver, but all of them make up the all-important framing of the information and how it will be received.
Just as the majority of the public may not have the time to do the research and uncovering that the Pal-Item admirably takes on, the same majority does not have time to follow up on the sources or the research quoted in the resulting articles, and cannot necessarily, then, create for themselves a balanced view of a given issue without significant time and resources that most do not have to spare. And so they rely on what's available: the Pal-Item and the few other limited news sources available. I will certainly agree with anyone who says it is the public's responsibility to verify the information from first hand sources if they are going to act on it (or perhaps even spread it), but we all know that this isn't how public opinion is formed in this town or most any other. People see headlines from afar, gossip about what they might mean, and at best bits and pieces of articles are skimmed and extracted for further digestion. The implications of a story, and the emotions and thoughts its presentation evokes, become the story itself. Any good journalist or page layout editor or news staff member knows this, too: framing trumps truth. (If you want to know why and don't want to take my word for it, I recommend Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.)
Jackson notes that if the Pal-Item ever did make a factual mistake or some other error that required addressing, there's always the great rectifying tool, "the correction." But we all know that unless you're scrambling to make things right in the wake of your own Jason Blair scandal, corrections don't get front page headlines with a full page photo, and they very rarely contribute to refining the framing of an issue. How do you publish a correction apologizing for the size of a headline? And perhaps that's why no one has sought corrections or clarifications from the Palladium-Item on these difficult issues: they feel that it really doesn't matter in the end, when the principles of fair and balanced reporting on a given issue have already been superseded by printing what sells papers. Maybe that's the Pal-Item readership just not holding up its end of the bargain? Maybe we need more Letters to the Editor about how the Editor spends his or her time? You're reading mine.
I admire Rich Jackson and his staff, and I think that on the whole they do an excellent job of balancing the difficult requirements of being the only local printed news source in a town where news sometimes comes hard (see: every front page weather story they've ever had to write). And I admire that at least some there subscribe to some greater notion of objective truth that every citizen in our community has a right to access in some pure form. But I don't think they should fool themselves - or their readers - by denying that they have (and often exploit) the ability to present the different sides of that truth while also significantly shaping how it is received, and what people do with it. If they ignore that truth, no triple-checking of facts or Code of Ethics will restore their credibility as a journalistic entity.