Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Disclosure Helps But Doesn't Make it Right

Readers expect legitimate newspapers (as opposed, for example, to penny advertisers and tabloids) to be reasonably objective. Readers also know pure objectivity is probably impossible; the very act of selecting one story for front page display and another for a three-paragraph brief entails judgment and selectivity. Nonetheless, attempting the high standard of objectivity is one of journalism's canons. Among the first skills reporters are expected to master and use are techniques to help them present news relatively free of personal bias or favoritism for one advertiser or source.

Sun readers this week have been treated to several items that missed this mark – widely.

The most recent is a Sunday story written by Harold Lanni who writes about new accreditation standards medical-equipment suppliers must meet to remain Medicare suppliers. The problem is, he’s an employee of the company featured in the article, and his specific title is disclosed as “accreditation manager.”

On one level, I thank editors for disclosing the writer’s affiliation. Disclosure helps me understand why the one-source story is a slick, superficial and glowing report of one firm’s path to accreditation.

Despite the disclosure, the story remains a sorry piece of reportage. Lanni does not help Sun readers understand equipment-billing fraud has plagued Medicare to the tune of $2 billion a year, by some estimates. He fails to mention south Florida is the specific target of several federal investigations and pilot programs to detect and root out fraudulent medical-equipment operations. He fails to report that more than three dozen medical equipment providers serve Sun’s readership area and fails to report if any, besides his own firm, are accredited.

None of this is his fault; he’s paid to make his employer look good. The editor, however, is not an employee of the firm; she does know better, and she chose to sell our her credibility – and that of the entire Sun-Herald Newspaper company.

The second instance of being too chummy with a source comes from the business pages. Editor Bob Fliss wrote last Tuesday:

It's always a good feeling when one of your ideas comes to fruition -- never mind the fact that a whole bunch of other folks probably had the same idea.

After all, didn't our beloved Ronald Reagan once remark that people could accomplish amazing things once they ceased fussing about who got the credit?

Team Punta Gorda will be holding its third annual meeting Nov. 8, and their keynote speaker is a businessman who could play a big role in shaping the future of this community.

Tom Wilder is a principal in the Boston-based firm The Wilder Companies, which is planning to develop a 1.2 million-square-foot retail center on Jones Loop Road, just west of the new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The tract covers about 200 acres, and Wilder removed any doubt that he was serious about the project by buying the land late last year -- prior to getting all his approvals from Charlotte County.

I don't mind admitting that every time I've interviewed
Wilder by phone, I've gently prodded him about hooking up with Team Punta Gorda for a public meeting. I'm glad to see my friends at TPG have had the same notion.

Chummy, chummy, chummy. Every reader should be asking Fliss some pointed questions: How objective will you be when it comes time to report negative news about a man who did you the favor of "hooking up" with your civic group? How fair is it of you to appear to disclaim credit for prompting the nice developer to meet your friends in one paragraph but left-handedly claim it in the next? How much influence did your position as an editor and reporter have in persuading the developer to meet your lunch bunch? How much objective reporting can readers expect if tomorrow's news happens to involve your friends at TPG?

I know we're in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. But, this is a business column; Fliss is an editor (and not an inexperienced one) who has, by virtue of his position and experience, a duty to deliver something more than chummy takes on his lunch buddies.

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