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Published:March 24th, 2006 14:49 EST
Scale: The Lost Element In Reporting News

Scale: The Lost Element In Reporting News

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

It’s not just glitzy tabloids that disregard scale. As newspapers and other media lose their audiences to the Internet, they tend to set aside the concepts of scale and context. Mix this trend with reporters’ natural desire to own a great story and you have an unhealthy brew.

Think back to the 1992 presidential campaign. It was then that a word that was to dog Bill Clinton’s presidency entered the public domain: Whitewater. The media began using the word scandal in connection with Whitewater long before any conclusion about the affair could possibly have been reached. Once that one word attached itself to the debate the affair lost any sense of scale. Deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a Northern Virginia park. In the following days, it was found that Bernard Nussbaum, the White House’s chief counsel, had removed documents from Foster’s office about the Whitewater Development Corporation. The President and his wife, friends of Foster’s, had invested in this corporation. Some of their political enemies suspected them of hanky-panky in connection with their investment as the federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the failure of Madison Guaranty, an Arkansas trust company involved with Whitewater.

Three separate inquiries found that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove to a jury that the Clintons knowingly committed a fraud. Because the Clintons drew and still draw such vehemence from their critics, the press reported what came to be known simply as Whitewater, with a diligence usually reserved for war. But all along, a plain-- albeit anecdotal-- fact known to most experienced reporters and editors haunted the story and its tedious details: Whitewater was so common and pedestrian a story as to have counterparts in almost every county in the country. In other words, almost from the get-go the Whitewater story was reported and repeated again and again without scale or context. It wouldn’t have taken the press much time or effort to instill in the public’s mind the fact that across the entire land, then and now, developers corrupt local government as they pave the environment and damage its ecosystems. To have imbued the public’s mind with this context would have put Whitewater in scale. It would have been seen to have been an ordinary land grab, questionable but probably not illegal. It happens again and again, stories without context.

For example, we are now concerned that China is in bed with some authoritarian regimes, like Iran or Russia, but we’re not hearing in the same breath that American foreign policy since World War II has been to cozy up to some of the most corrupt and oppressive regimes in the world. If you ask reporters or editors about this some will nod and agree, but most will say that they don’t write history, they write stories about current events. This is disingenuous, to say the least. It’s true their stories have limited space in print and time on air, but the fact remains that without context and scale things get quickly out of hand, and the public begins to respond in irrational ways.

The run-up to the Iraq war is another case in point. The White House and its minions in the Defense and State departments spoon-fed reporters snake oil. The issue of oil was never raised. Mentioned, but not explored. The even more intriguing question, raised by that restless muckraker Greg Palast, of whether we went into Iraq to increase or decrease its flow of oil, was never raised. Even today, with oil prices soaring and oil companies embarrassed by their wealth, the question is still not being raised, except, of course, by loners like Palast. Nor was the historic fact that Great Britain, our partner in this derring-do, had done the same thing in the 1920s and failed disastrously. No scale, no context, just the White House’s bent facts and the press’s mesmerized response. When our soldiers rushed to protect the oil fields, but not Iraq’s irreplaceable national treasures, the press reported it, but did not question our motives. When the Administration seemed curiously indifferent to the diminished flow of oil from Iraq the press did not ask who gains from this development. With two professional oil men running the country, the press did not question this curious turn of events. No one asked how many troops Great Britain deployed to unsuccessfully contain unrest in Iraq when its population was much smaller than it is today. No one asked if the long-oppressed Shiites might avenge themselves on their Sunni enemies. No one interviewed Turkish historians about Turkey’s long experience in governing Iraq, which was for centuries its Mesopotamian province. No one asked why we had fielded more than 300,000 troops to drive Iraq from Kuwait, but expected to conquer and rule it now with fewer than 200,000 troops. Anticipating the question, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the press it was because he had made our armed forces more efficient, an assertion discredited by events.

How could Whitewater have been put in context? How could its scale have been compared to similar controversies? Reporters could have asked investigative reporters around the country if they had covered similar stories. The libraries of major newspapers could have been culled. Political historians could have been consulted. But that wouldn’t have made very good copy. It would have been digging up old stories to diminish a running story. So it wasn’t just the reporters who failed to give Whitewater perspective, it was their editors and television producers and newspaper owners.

Nobody wanted the story to be seen in context, because putting it in context would have been tantamount to saying it was overblown in the first place. And then, of course, the right-wing of the political spectrum would have accused the allegedly liberal press of minimizing the story to help the Clintons, hardly the most liberal politicians themselves. So we see that the forces lined up against giving stories context and scale are many and vociferous. Sometimes, a reporter can’t persuade an editor to give him the time and resources needed to do the job. Sometimes an editor can’t persuade an owner. As the number of independent newspapers and television stations declines this problem will get worse. Blowing stories out of proportion goes hand in glove with a Fourth Estate that is the creature of big corporations with their own political agendas. The Jack Abramoff scandal is a far bigger story than Whitewater because it suggests whole sectors of our elective and appointive government have been bought and paid for by big corporations, but the story hasn’t received anywhere near the lineage or air time that Whitewater received. Shouldn’t this be said? The answer is: how can you write an Abramoff story and mention Whitewater without showing your “liberal” bias? If a reporter tried, some editor would almost certainly say, I don’t understand what Whitewater has to do with Abramoff—one’s an apple, the other an orange. And yet, once the apple and the orange are compared it becomes immediately clear that the public would benefit from the fruitful comparison.

One answer to this conundrum is that this is what we have pundits and talking heads for, to cast issues in ways ordinary news stories can’t. But if the pundits and talking heads had been doing this, the polls would probably have shown that the public was far more exercised about Jack Abramoff and his corrupt practices than it was. The fact is that the news is more exciting without scale and context. A witch hunt makes news day after day. It sells newspapers and boosts ratings. But watering down a nascent witch hunt with context doesn’t help pay media salaries or shareholder profits.

This is an immense ethical question for the Fourth Estate. And it’s even more serious for the rest of us. Even the Associated Press style book militates against fitting a story into context, because once the essential facts, the new facts, are reported, an editor can lop off the rest of the story to fit a slot. This means the reporter must develop a sidebar or a backgrounder that will situate yesterday’s breaking story into a larger historical context. It will tax the reporter’s ingenuity to make this backgrounder interesting.

But it can be done, and it should be done. How to do it is worth a think-piece some other time. For now, savor the idea of giving the reader a way to judge just how important this story is. Stop selling the story and give some thought to helping the reader comprehend whether it’s a blip, a blast or a bombshell.

This is hard to do. You want to sell the story to the editor because more and more these days you’re not competing with another newspaper or station or network, you’re competing with your own colleagues, and all of you want to be seen as hotshots. But you do have an ethical obligation to tell an interesting story without hyping it. It’s the difference between Barry Bonds bouncing one off the wall or knocking it out of the park. —Del Marbrook Editor/mentor