December 11, 2004

Killer Reporting on 'Killer King'

During a conversation yesterday with Michelle Levander about the health-care reporting project she is putting together for California journalists, she urged me to read the L.A. Times' series about the medical incompetence and financial mismanagement at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles.

What an incredible piece of journalism. The stories of deadly patient abuse, endemic worker fraud and haughty institutional arrogance, all woven into a pastiche of inflammatory and intimidating racial politics, demonstrate the capacity newspapers hold to serve their communities when journalists are allowed to follow their passions.

I agree with Marc Cooper, who writes in his blog and in his column for L.A. Weekly, that the Times reporters -- Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein and Mitchell Landsberg -- abandoned what Jay Rosen calls the contraption of objectivity and pursued the series with emotion at full throttle and all journalistic talents in gear. Writes Marc (all emphasis added):

"It’s painfully obvious that the reporters on this series — and apparently the editors — have very strong opinions about Killer King; they clearly think the place sucks. And the stories they have published deliciously reek with those salty perspectives, as they damn well should. ...

"The beautiful aspect of the Times’ series is that every pointed assertion, every contemptuous observation made by the writers, is fully supported by the hard-as-rock bed of facts and figures on which the narrative rests. The L.A. Times team has written a searing, unflinching and unequivocal indictment of a morally criminal operation bereft of any apologies or doubts.

"Wonderfully absent from this reporting is the boilerplate Yes/But "blazing straddle" mealy-mouthed newspaperese that lamely tries to inject "balance" into what is, in reality, a very skewed (and, in this case, screwed up) situation. In other words, by going over the line, by eschewing the routine approach of equaling out every negative assertion with some positive quote from someone else, by rudely shredding the rule book on forced objectivity, the Times has given us — in the King/Drew story — not a biased or unfair view, but instead an infinitely more honest one. The reporters investigated. They found horror. They vividly reported it. Full stop."

I'll admit that when I read the Times' stories I didn't notice the absence of the "on the other hand" construction. I was engrossed by the depth of the reporting and the running narrative. That says to me that I, and most other readers, regularly skip over such boilerplate as just so much non-journalistic fill. The King/Drew series is exactly the type of journalism newspapers are meant to do -- not providing a stenographic display of facts, but bringing that data to life by telling the truth about those facts, truth reported and written and edited and photographed by engaged, impassioned journalists who give the newspaper a clear, recognizable voice as an advocate for community well-being and the good of its citizens.

Read the Times series here.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 11, 2004 08:50 AM