Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Why Getting the Little Things Right
Really Matters In Newspaper Stories

One of the reasons the Wall Street Journal has come to be so beloved and trusted among serious readers and serious writers everywhere is the paper's uncanny habit of getting its facts straight--at least in the news pages. Over a century, it built a unique newsroom culture that was probably the purest expression anywhere of the group pursuit of factual accuracy. It's a culture that seems unlikely to survive its new owner, Rupert Murdoch.

But factual accuracy isn't simply about getting things right. It's equally important not to miss important facts, the kind of facts whose absence can render the point of a story all but moot.

I thought about all this when I read a story in the Plain Dealer last Wednesday about a plan to merge the Cuyahoga and Cleveland bar associations. Written by Alison Grant, it was a workmanlike late-summer piece that wouldn't ordinarily attract much attention. At least until I read her summary of why this region happens to have two bar associations: ancient cronyism and ethnic bigotry. Actually, as anyone who has spent any time at all around the Cleveland legal world should know, the older Cleveland Bar has historically been comprised of defense firms and their lawyers, while the Cuyahoga Bar has been mostly home to plaintiff's lawyers. If you know anything at all about the law, you should know that division represents a giant cultural chasm and a real divergence in their outlooks and interests.

Okay, so it would have been one thing if she was merely one of those college students on a summer internship that I wrote about recently. In that case, you'd mostly lay the blame at the feet of her editors. But that's hardly the case: Ms. Grant is a veteran reporter who was a Pulitzer finalist in 1996, for her devastating series of investigative reports on city hall corruption in Beachwood. Let's be generous, shall we, and chalk it up to a case of the summer blahs.


At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Merely one of those college students..."? Doing a little channeling of "that president," Bill Clinton? That reference must make those mere college students feel quite special... Anyway, what IS your point? That the Plain Dealer is not the Wall Street Journal? Or that you've spent more time around Cleveland's legal world than Ms. Grant?

At 1:45 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

My point of course is precisely what I've written here: that omitting an important fact from a story is just as fatal to its accuracy as is getting a fact wrong.

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

fatal is probably overstating it...

anyway, to anon on murdoch: sometimes you become a bazillionaire through shear will and single minded focus to make ever more dough and damn the consequences or implications. But don't take my word: check out Ken Auletta's New Yorker piece on Murdoch. Auletta uses his trademark calm, methodical reporting to build a damning case of Murdoch's past "journalistic" behaviors. The Journal's future may in fact be grim.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're absolutely right about Auletta. He's the gold standard, and his pieces are always extremely persuasive because, as you say, he calmly builds his case through methodical reporting. That piece on Murdoch was only his latest jewel.
And I'll agree that fatal is an overstatement.

At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say about your comment "merely one of those college students on a summer internship"...it's a little demeaning. When I started this internship I would overhear other interns telling people they were "only an intern" and I refused to succumb to that. No matter how you look at it, those papers hired us because they thought we were the best for that position (even if it is an internship). I don't know about anyone else, but not once this summer has my byline ever run distinguishing me as an intern.
Our readers see my byline the same they would see any other reporter's byline in the paper and I think people should treat us the way any other reporter would be treated. That's the idea behind the internship. That's how we learn, that's how we grow and I absolutely refuse to believe that I'm "only an intern" or "merely a college student."
And as far as the general idea behind this post, I believe that if it would be fatal to a story's accuracy for a seasoned reporter to leave out an important piece of information, it's equally as fatal to the story's accuracy for a newcomer to leave out the information. The readers would still be without vital information in the same product, so why should it be treated any differently?

At 9:55 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Theresa, guilty as charged. You make a very powerful argument why the industry needs at least 10,000 more young professionals like you. Thanks for setting me straight.

At 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The interns over at Talking Points Memo are putting their bylines on some great stories. They are doing a "heckuva" lot better job than some of the veteran reporters for the NYT and the WaPo, for sure.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good point, Bluster. They have indeed been impressive. As is my friend Theresa, whom I wrote about a couple weeks ago, and who commented here in defense of interns everywhere.


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