March 05, 2004

Identified Sources, Usual Suspects

Campaign Desk sourced the sources quoted in recent political stories and found - to no one's surprise - that anyone who gives good quote draws reporters like buzzards to carrion.

What is interesting is how the sources interviewed by CD view the reporters - as pack hounds seeking what everyone else has, as sound bite collectors in search of a phrase and as journalistic scavenger hunters searching for the pieces that will match a story they've formed before they've even done the reporting.

"Most reporters already know what they want when they call an expert," said Campaign Desk paraphrasing Emmett H. Buell Jr., a political scientist Denison University in Ohio. Said Buell: "They've formed an opinion. They then call up three people who will second that [opinion]. It's pretty mechanical."

Here's another example from the story:

"Charles W. Dunn, who taught political science at Clemson University and now teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania On more than one occasion, he says, he has basically dictated the outline of a story to a hungry reporter on deadline.

"'When you're good at two- or three-word sound bites, they're going to be calling you,' says Dunn, whose specialty is religion in politics." (Emphasis added)

The other day I interviewed a Los Angeles attorney who is widely quoted for her opinions on progressive issues. She explained how she dealt with a reporter from a national newspaper on one story: She gave the reporter background on the story, explained the different sides, gave her names of experts, characterized how forthcoming these sources they might be and told her what articles to read for more information. In other words, said the attorney, "I became her research bank."

In other words, the attorney walked the reporter through the story, blocked out the various points of view and fed her the sources needed to make the story happen. Is it any wonder that so many professionals in law, business, science and other knowledge fields find reporters uniformed and think them intellectually ill-equipped to understand issues critical to those fields.

Campaign Desk reports that one Dante J. Scala, an expert on the New Hampshire primary, was quoted "more than 170 times in the past six months." Scala became so sought after by the news media he said he lacked the time to research the campaign. His research consisted of reading the very papers that were calling him to comment. He said:

"They were calling me to find out what was going on in New Hampshire but I was in my office tied to the phone, and all I knew was what they had written that day. I kept trying to think, can I come up with something from my local knowledge versus what I had just read in the Times or the Post?" (Emphasis added)

Here in California, political reporters call UC-Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. Last year, when voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cain's named appear in the San Francisco Chronicle 35 times and in the Sacramento Bee 42 times. In the last two years, the Los Angeles Times published Cain's name 52 times.

Familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt among readers, but it does induce boredom. The combination of familiar sources and reporters looking for either quick quotes or predetermined responses ensures flaccid reporting.

At the core of the problem is the political reporting process, which has become a formulaic shell of actual reporting: It looks like a story, it reads like a story, it's got all the quotes of a story - but in fact it is hollow, devoid of information and insight.

As I said here [ Read: Servant Journalism ] in response to Jeff Jarvis' question - Is political reporting really reporting? - reporters in general and political reporters in particular are facing the wrong direction: Toward the public figures and politicians instead of toward the public and the community.

It's time for them to turn around. There's more to journalism than calling Dante J. Scala or Bruce Cain.

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Posted by Tim Porter at March 5, 2004 08:51 AM