Pal-Item forgets that framing trumps truth?

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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.

8 thoughts on “Pal-Item forgets that framing trumps truth?

  1. Interesting take on the Holbrook situation. While I'm glad that Holbrook's abuses of tax payer funds and the questions about the proposed dairy have been revealed, the way that the Pal-Item framed its reporting with constant coverage, sidebars, reviews, timelines, etc. was hardly balanced. There was something a bit self-congratulatory about almost everything in the Pal-Item's coverage of the EDC--including Jackson's editorial.

    Also, the paper's coverage has focused mainly on Holbrook's spending and questionable educational background, with a lesser focus(from the Pal-Item) of the EDC board's failure to oversee Holbrook and little discussion about how Wayne County government works or whether citizens ought to be paying an Economic Development tax in the first place. Perhaps an investigation of the cronyism in local government and what that cost the taxpayers in money and other resources would be a worthwhile story. I doubt that we'll be reading anything like that in the Palladium-Item anytime soon. Holbrook was an easy target because of his combative personality, his lack of local ties, and his failure to grasp simple business ethics.

  2. I thinl the Pal Item did a great job on the coverage. It was the aggressive style that has led to the termination of a con man running the EDC. If the Pal Item would pursue all of the injustice and abuse by local elected and appointed officials we would be much better off. To Rich and his staff GOOD JOB.

  3. Rich Jackson Must Go…Paparazzi Style Conspirator of Misinformation!

    I have not found the situation in Wayne County unusual for small towns and thus the current situation and ineptness of how it was handled by the politicians was no surprise to me, after all it is an election year. I find the total disregard for the very straight forward facts and the lack of actual investigative reporting atrocious. The news coverage of my situation was totally one sided and maliciously directed by the editor of the palladium item to create the real life ending he sought for his fictional tale. While this may be well and good for the New York Times best fiction seller list it is no way to cover actual news. In deed, it is deceptive and disrespectful to the readers whom many believe whatever they read to be the actual truth. All the time the single minded editor of the Pal-Item focused his heinous pen and ink on me he completely disregarded what most simpleton reporters would have uncovered. The same things I found in my first year while in Wayne County. There are many things that should concern the Tax Payers that is for sure. First and Foremost is the process of governance. Secondary to that is the potential for misuse of public office and/or appointed offices to either directly or indirectly gain by the appointed or elected persons influence. Even a novice could uncover some of the obvious if they were truly observant of the politicians and elected officials. Let’s start with opening meeting violations. Do those occur in Wayne County? A matter of simple investigation may lead a real reporter and news staff to have uncovered those answers. These are meetings that discuss business as a group with others such as the EDC or any other persons with regard to county business that are not made available to the general public as the law requires. A simple visit to the Old Richmond Inn at lunch time on the day of the County Commissioners meeting day might have uncovered that answer.

    Secondary, what about the potential conflict of interest situations? Did any of the former board members attempt to misuse their board influence to either directly or indirectly gain from their appointment to the EDC board or the respective duties assigned or sought by them? Was this reported to the EDC board by the President? Was an official investigation conducted to determine if any wrong doing had occurred or was intended to occur? Was the silence of Don Holbrook his own will or was it influenced by the board position such matters? Was the reason for his termination and departure related to his possible reporting of potential violations or potential conflicts of interest violations related to any of the board members or politicians? Was his termination retaliatory or done to cover these matters up from possible public view? Odd how only three or four weeks after his raise and bonus for exceeding expectations he is now dismissed isn’t it?

    Several of the board members spoke out against my dismissal because they knew there was no misuse of tax payer funds no basis to the allegations made by the former board members and fueled by the Pal-Item. In fact the questions of EDC leadership lie not with the President but with the board of director’s refusal to follow the advice of their paid professional management team leader on many occasions. Their refusal to follow professional advise dug them into a hole that they could not get out of without sacrificing their own paid leader (does the term scape goat mean anything to you?) This scenario has now created a problem for me to clean up… albeit through the courses of professional intervention as provided for by our own national standards of ethics and protocol. In the end, this one battle does not conclude the matter. The general public will come to see that the dismissal of Don Holbrook was in fact the worst thing that could happen with regard to the best interests of the tax payers. My termination was a travesty with regard to prudent handling of tax payer funds. I only hope they wake up and get rid of the irresponsible editor of the Pal-Item, that voters discharge at the next election the incompetent county commissioners and remove the egomaniacal and simpleton in charge of their money at the County Council Jeff Plasterer. Heaven help you if he wins another election in your county… but spare no quarter in the voter booth with County Council members as well. They were all too narrow minded and lacked the smarts to recognize the efficiencies the EDC made in the budget over the past several budgets…so shame on them! If Jeff Plasterers intellect is the bright spot on the County Council then we need to rev up the juice and find another leader!

    Whenever you hear the words, “we don’t do things around here like they do in the big cities,” you should ask yourself, what do they mean by that? Do they have a different style and if so is it lawful or ethical? They actually may mean we consider ourselves unique enough that the law doesn’t apply in the same way, but our own interpretation works well for us. The State and National constitution makes no difference in population of communities as to how they must abide by the law.

    I hope you have a candidate’s forum for the next election and you ask the candidates to be specific and tell the voters how they intend to actually achieve economic development? Don’t let them just say they support the concept, make them accountable for their own wisdom as to how to get to the next level of creating jobs that pay living wages for your citizens! You then will find out how very little these people really know. I find it scary whom we elect to serve us as citizens and how little financial and common sense they actually have in most matters. To question my credentials when they are impecable is absurd. The situation with LaSalle was over 8 years ago and I acted absolutely correctly by removing all references to it from my resume back then and not using it since in my professional life. I reported that original university accreditation to my board 8 years ago as soon as I was made aware of it to ask for their concerns and they noted in writing that I had acted appropriately and they had no further concerns. This was because I acted in the professional manner one should and ceased using the doctorate title in my profession from there forward. How are those actions deceiving and fradulent? That is also why I prevailed in my court case against my former employer when they tried to use that to terminate my contract as grounds when the real matter was their misuse of their positions for indirect and direct gain. Rich Jackson and his staff used me and this entire community to propel their own careers... and my board did not have the spine to tell the public what was really going on. I reduced the budget expenditures in all categories below the previous administration and we increased productivity and deal flow at the same time. In the corporate world my bonus would have been much larger, and my board knew that but they were afraid to give me a meaningful raise due to the media barrage they had been enduring. All of this was shameful on many parties part. Thank God our country has a means to clear ones name and seek justice in such lynch mob type mentalities such as small towns like Richmond and their thuggery of self appointed leaders, inept elected officials (mostly) and power and glory hungry media zealots. So honest people can clear their reputation and be made whole in such matters as this. One other matter in the Pal-item voters poll there was no choice for negative comments about the Pal-item coverage... another sign of their arrogance and purposeful drive to create a viewpoint.

    Don A. Holbrook,
    University of Phoenix, MBA
    Wright State University, BA Interdisciplinary double major degree (Urban Economic Geography & Environmental Studies)
    Certified Economic Developer (CEcD)
    Certified Economic Development Finance Professional (CEDFP)
    Business Retention & Expansion Certified Master Consultant (BREI)
    Certificates in Municipal Bond & Tax Credit Finance (CDFA)
    Board of Directors, International Economic Development Council, (IEDC) Washington, D.C.

  4. It is clear that Holbrook spent a considerable amount of time working for his own benefit during his so-called employment with the EDC. He likely had many other ventures going at the same time he was supposed to be working for our benefit. I wish the county would investigate exactly what Mr. Holbrook was doing. Where was he going and why? If they pursued this, it would not surprise me if the county pursues this it would eventually charge Mr. Holbrook with fraud.

    As for Mr. Holbrook's education, does it surprise anyone that a man who touts his "University of Phoenix" degree wouldn't know that 15 hours in online courses isn't enough to qualify one for a doctorate? Look at his last post. Mr. Holbrook pads his resume with several entities that anyone here could join if we were gullible enough to pay their annual fees.

    “we don’t do things around here like they do in the big cities” Mr.. Holbrook, you don't work in big cities, you never have. I took a trip to Dayton last month, that doesn't mean I do business there. You are a small fish ever in search of a smaller pond. Each time you run into a medium sized fish, your first instinct is to bite, but, in the end, you are always the one who gets eaten.

    To be petty, no Mr. Holbrook, "scape goat" doesn't mean anything to me. However, "scapegoat" does. Perhaps this is just another shining example of your online degree. Maybe that extra space is just another attempt of yours to be wordy. I have a BA in psychology and it doesn't take me a whole paragraph to tell people that.

    Mr. Holbrook, sir, your credentials are not impeccable. Your business/employment record shows a history of abuse and over-reaction. Your inability to be honest and to treat others with courtesy and respect has gotten you into trouble again and again. As I type this I envision you somewhere, concocting some sort of "salvationarmysucks.com" scheme but on a much larger scale. Unfortunately for you I think the gig is up. All anyone has to do is type your name into any decent search engine and out pours a load of garbage so vast no literate person could miss it.

    So Don, my suggestion to you is change your appearance and name. Get that nose job you've always wanted (and needed). Become Bob Smith. Because no one is going to hire you. Though you'll probably just take the easy way out and start scamming the elderly.

    God bless,

    Ricky

  5. Now that Rich Jackson's weblog is no longer accessible, I wanted to post his response to this post (noted in comment #3 above) from his weblog, salvaged from Google's cache of it:

    Thursday, February 2, 2006, 01:57 PM
    One of the greatest aspects of blogging is the ability to carry on a democratic conversation in front of thousands. That's why I'd like to answer some questions Chris Hardie raises on his blog and ask others to join in the conversation.

    Chris suggests in his headline that this act called "framing" trumps the truth. He goes on to suggest that, while stories include truthful information, the truth actually is subverted by such things as fonts, photos, headlines. And he implies that there is an intent to subvert the truth largely in order to sell newspapers.

    (I hope if I've mischaractized Chris's argument in order to summarize he corrects me.)

    First, I would say we put provable things in stories. You either have a doctorate or you don't (as in Don Holbrook's case). You either can write agency checks to yourself and friends or you can't (in Bill Selkirk's case -- and by the way, you can't). We double and triple check those provable facts, a process that takes weeks and sometimes months.

    So why then would I allow staffers to subvert wonderful writing, tangible facts, with skewed headlines? Out-sized photos? Bad cropping? Front-page placement? Would Chris have us put controversial stories only on back pages with no headlines and no photos to keep the truth clean and pure?

    No, I'm afraid framing doesn't trump truth. The truth will always win. Perhaps that's because I always think about John Milton's essay "Areopagitica," which we had to learn freshman year in college journalism class. Milton, in fighting official censorship in 1644, wrote: "Let (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

    As for selling newspapers, Holbrook's made that charge as has County Commissioner Tom Dickman. I'm afraid none of these people understand the dynamics of the newspaper business. Stories like those on the EDC, Selkirk and even Hayes Arboretum don't sell extra newspapers. Murders, fatal car crashes and drug busts do, but then only in the range of a couple extra hundred copies on the day the story runs. And at 50 cents per copy, it hardly seems worth our integrity to sensationalize any story when the upshot is a hundred bucks. (I used to have a journalism professor who used to say that if you're going to sell out, make damn sure it's for a lot of money because you'll never work in newspapers again.)

    I'm afraid the process of journalism isn't that nefarious, and that's why we invite people to our editorial board and if someone wants to come watch us put out the newspaper, they're welcome.

    Check out Chris's initial points at http://www.chrishardie.com/weblog/archives/2006/01/pal-item-forgets-that-framing-trumps-truth.html and then join in the conversation.

  6. Ricky has again shown the level of unconscious attention that one must pay to heinous people who act without true information. While his slanderous statments sound credible, they lack total substance.

    First and foremost, the University of Phoenix is the largest university system in the country and is nationally accredited by all acreditation bodies in the United States including the U.S. Department of Education. To discredit a legitimate degree simply because it is different than your own or beyond your modern day comprehension is absurd. You probably thought the internet was a fad as well back in the 90's.

    Second just because I do not fight back in the news media and use search engines to respond to wrongful statements does not make them true. I just choose to be a bigger person and not maliciously attack people outside of the avenues made available to us by our country that are recognized and legitimate without bias such as our legal system when applicable. My silence on matters does not mean I am guilty just done with trying to fight the media (it is a battle only they can win.)

    Last is your improper implications against my employment record are incorrect. How could you even know my employment status as it is priviledged information... oh, I know you read it in the media and you believe that to be the gospel. Again, you mistake my silence as agreement with false accusations. My professional colleagues pay no mind to such foolish statements and that is why I have not fought these issues out in public. The truth is I have resigned from public life because I have found it froth with corruption and self serving ego maniac leaders that have no intention of serving others first. Your accusation of me is totally untruthful. It is small minded people like you that scare me the most in life. You justify your self-annointed views as moral compass for others and yet your direction is one of self-serving interest of some shape and form. I am sure that if I investigated your back ground you would have some indirect or direct involvement in this whole mess at the county level or one of the related parties that was behind my dismissal for their own purposes.

  7. Thanks for your blog post!

    I grew up in Richmond, and there were def. some stories that the Palladium Item has run through out the years that def. rubbed me the wrong way, and which everyone basically knew was wrong. As a journalism major, I believe that their over-coverage on crime by members of the community went well-beyond the public's right to know for the sake of sensationalism, or for a personal agenda. It will be interesting to see if things change now that Rich Jackson is no longer the mananging editor.

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