November 09, 2004

Liberty and Security: Making Decisions

Some more highlights from the Institute for Justice and Journalism’s conference for its 9/11 Security and Liberty Fellowships:

Liberty in the Balance, a four-day series by the Sacramento Bee examining the liberty-security concerns in post-9/11 America, was the most ambitious effort by a regional newspaper on the topic when it was written 14 months ago. It still is. Sam Stanton and Emily Bazar, reporters for the Bee, and Rick Rodriguez, the paper’s executive editor, talked about how the project came together.

The idea was born at the beginning of 2003 when Rodriguez decided he didn’t want to send a reporter to be embedded with the U.S. military during its invasion of Iraq. He not only thought embedding wouldn’t produce the type of journalism he wanted but that “the real story would be in this country and in Iraq after the war.” The decision not to send to Iraq was a controversial one in the Bee newsroom and produced a significant amount of grumbling that the Bee, as Rodriguez put it, was “not a big league newspaper.”

Rodriguez, of course, turned out to be prescient.

Stanton and Bazar worked on the series for eight months in a manner that should be a model for serious, long-term reporting: They started with a kernel of an idea and let the project define itself through the reporting.

“We didn’t have a thesis,” says Stanton about how they began. “We didn’t know what we were going to write about. We didn’t have a preconceived idea.”

Stanton and Bazar, traveled across the U.S. and Canada for their reporting, an unlikely team at first: Stanton the skeptic who, at first, saw the deportation of Muslim immigrants as a fitting recourse for their visa violations; Bazar the daughter of Iranian immigrants who was passionate in her belief that a “selective enforcement” of the immigration law was targeting Muslims.

The reporters benefited from Rodriguez’s generous allocation of newsroom money (dollars not being spent in Iraq) and his certitude that a big story was developing in the United States that was not being covered by the press – a shift in the liberty-security balance that might be costing Americans some of their rights.

“I didn’t want to look back 10, 20 years from now and say we didn’t do all that should have done,” he says. “… I didn’t want to be looking back at my own career and say we didn’t do what we should have."

When I heard Rodriguez say that yesterday morning, I immediately thought of a comment made by Jim Willse, editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, during a recent discussion on the need for more press overage. “Did we do all we could have if we look back at the coverage 10 years from now?” Willse said.

Rodriguez is also the incoming president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and I asked him what ASNE is doing to compel editors who don’t share his passion or possess his initiative to answer Willse’s question.

“Investigative reporting,” says Rodriguez, is what is going separate us (newspapers) from the rest of the media crunch.”

ASNE is sponsoring, with Poynter, a gathering of newspaper editors after it spring convention that Rodriguez hopes will create a cadre of evangelists who will carry his commitment to “unleashing the watchdog” to the rest of the ink-stained profession.

This is good news, but I am not sure it goes far enough.

Too often – and I’ve heard it mentioned here at the IJJ conference several times in just two days – lack of in-depth reporting is attributed to lack of resources. Sure, newsrooms could use more money and more reporters, but the best stories begin with a commitment and passion that, when allowed to develop, can overcome resource issues.

The not-enough-people-not-enough-time excuse is a tedious copout. Reporting is all about decisions – what to cover, how often, with who and for how long. Rodriguez’s decision to eschew the Iraqi desert in favor of California’s Central Valley produced an excellent piece of journalism instead of the predictable tales of ride-a-longs with U.S. troops. In a broader sense, it was a call to not do what everyone else was doing and take a chance on something unique.

That type of thinking needs to be applied to newsroom resources as a whole. Why are beats structured they way there are? Why do more reporters cover cops than health? Why do stories about institutions and processes dominate news coverage? The answer is simple: Because this is how we have always done things. These are our traditions – and real change in newspaper reporting won’t come until these traditions are challenged, dissected and discarded in favor of a rebuilt system of reporting that emphasizes ideas, values and people over processes, institutions and government.

That’s an ASNE seminar I’d like to see.

Posted by Tim Porter at November 9, 2004 08:00 AM