Words, Context and the El Paso Times
by Sito Negron
Posted on April 19, 2008
Words matter, and the way they're put together matters as well. That's why I get frustrated by the El Paso Times on a regular basis, and to a lesser degree, journalism in general, and to an even lesser degree, myself. (Hey, I mess up -- everyone does -- but just not as much as they do.)
Here are a few examples of what I mean, all from the last week.
On Tuesday, April 15, a Times story titled "El Paso Democrats questioned" -- at least, that was the title online, which is where I read most of my news :-) -- told us that lawyer Donald Williams was challenging the delegate count that emerged from the El Paso County Democratic Convention. Leaving aside the fact that I broke the story (shameless self-promotion taught to me by a UTEP professor), the story was a bowl of mush.
We learn some facts from the story:
"Williams is asking that 26 of El Paso's 175 state Democratic delegates be switched from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to Obama."
And Williams is quoted: "The local party leaders.... engaged in conduct that disenfranchised the delegates and alternates whose preference was presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. The violations resulted in an overall state delegation reflecting Ninety percent of state delegates supporting Senator Hillary Clinton and Ten percent supporting Senator Barack Obama." (emphasis added)
But what violations? That is the key to the story. Otherwise, it is some steaming pile of he said-she said, as if his assertions and the denials carried equal weight. How is a reader to interpret the meaning of the challenge if the reader is not given the benefit of the facts upon which the challenge was rendered? In this case, there is a specific rule governing the selection of delegates, and it is upon the interpretation of the rule that a right or wrong can be assessed. The readers are denied that opportunity.
Moving on …
The next day, Wednesday, April 16, the Times had this online headline: "Reyes denies donations, contract linked."
You can read background on the issue here.
From the Times' story: "In the fiscal year 2008 defense funding bill, Reyes requested the funding for an existing project at Fort Bliss to help soldiers train for combat, which Digital Fusion Inc., received.
"It is this funding request that the Wall Street Journal reported is related to the contributions Digital Fusion employees made to Reyes."
Now this might be splitting hairs to some people, but the WSJ did not report that the funding request was related. The WSJ may have implied, insinuated, linked or used any other qualifier regarding the connection between the contributions and the funding request, and honest people may read the story and come away convinced that contribution and the funding are related. But the newspaper did not report that the funding request "is related" to the contribution.
In defense of the Times' interpretation of the WSJ story, however, there is the title the WSJ used: "Defense Firm Forged Close Ties To Congress to Get No-Bid Contracts."
Is the campaign contribution the close ties forged with Congress? Again, the story lays out the facts and implies such is so, but absent a memo from Reyes' office factually asserting a quid pro quo, the WSJ wisely chooses to qualify its reporting.
Moving on …
This one comes from Reuters, through the NY Times Web site. On Friday, April 18, Reuters moved a story with this title: "Clinton Says Obama Can't Stand The Heat."
The lead from the story: "Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton said on Friday that rival Barack Obama could not stand the pressure of the White House after the Illinois senator complained about tough questions at a debate."
What Obama said was this: "Last night I think we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people. That's just how Washington is. They like stirring up controversy and they like playing gotcha games, getting us to attack each other, and I have to say, Sen. Clinton looked in her element."
So maybe he was complaining. Maybe he was indicting. Big difference. The writer chose "complained" for the lead, however, and it could be a reasonable choice given that the story was reporting on Clinton's assertion that Obama could not take the pressure and was complaining.
Perhaps that should have been the focus of the story -- is Obama indicting the strategy of the ABC moderators to spend the first half of the debate asking questions about political controversy or was he complaining about the debate? [Editor's note: Those who live in glass houses ... the preceding sentence was changed at 2:39 p.m. on April 21, 2008, to reflect the CORRECT network on which the debate appeared.]
But Clinton framed that story, which followed the lead and used the word "complain" five more times, including as the frame for Obama's quote.
Thus, the word "complain" and its modifications become the narrative. Now, there's a judgment call there. I'm sure the editors did not consciously mean to slant the story against Obama, just as I'm sure that given a chance, Obama would challenge the characterization of his quote as complaining.
The point here, again. Words and context matter.
From Friday, April 18, in the El Paso Times: "Shapleigh asks OSHA to investigate Asarco."
Briefly, the story is about the assertion that Asarco used a different standard for assessing lung damage for Hispanic and African-American workers than it did for non-Hispanic Whites. Part of the assertion is upon a 1990 investigation in Hayden Ariz., where Asarco had a smelter.
The story states that State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh cited a letter from "Dr. David K. Parkinson of the State University of New York's Stony Brook School of Medicine to Asarco's medical director Dr. Charles Hine about the 15 percent rule. The letter stated, 'I do not know of any literature which supports this practice except in blacks.'"
"Hine responded, 'Blacks had better performance (in lung-capacity tests), and we put the Hispanics closer to blacks. ...Somebody had studied it -- a long time ago.'"
Putting aside the incredible fact that someone used science to justify allowing higher level of exposure to toxins for African-Americans, and possibly for the Hispanic workers at Hayden and other Asarco plants, Hine did not respond to Parkinson's letter.
Hine made his comments to Arizona Republic reporter E.J. Montini.
Why is this important? Well, because someone looking to this story for facts will be misled. Hine did not respond to the letter, and it's sloppy to make it sound like he did.
These things are important because taken together, a series of imprecise words, false impressions, and sloppy juxtaposition render an image of a press that can't get things right, a press that cannot be trusted.
Look, the Times and every other media outlet gets far more right than they do wrong. But there's no excuse -- there are reasons, such as heavy workload, rushed deadlines, etc -- but no excuse, for sloppiness and imprecision.
I think part of the problem is lack of competition. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but much of what the FBI is investigating is a problem that grew up in the last 10 years, when the El Paso Herald-Post went away and the imperative to be better every day lessened slightly for the El Paso Times, the lone English-language daily in the market.
NPT is not perfect. I expect and welcome debate and scrutiny about how well we perform given the goals of tight, precise and fact-based reportage.
Words matter, and my sincere hope is that as NPT grows and as the media competition in general in El Paso intensifies, the words will matter more and more.
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