Monday, November 12, 2007

Designer Wallpaper and Pictures That Lie

A new writer at the Charlotte Sun is doing very good regional reporting. He’s writing stories that examine issues that cross county lines and which take more than half an hour and a telephone call to investigate. No puns, pop-culture analogies or self-centered philosophical meanderings mar his journalism. Unfortunately, irrelevant photographs and wallpaper words from the page design department got in the way of today’s story and injected an unacceptable bias into an otherwise balanced and informative story.

Neil Hughes’ story this morning is about the tax local governments charge builders to build. The one-time, building-impact fee is earmarked for installing and maintaining roads, utilities, schools -- infrastructure that supports new occupancy. During the current housing market downturn, a couple of localities are temporarily lowering their fee, hoping to put builders back to work by making it less costly to get started. Some municipal consultants aren’t convinced the tactic is particularly effective.

The page designer evidently thinks two pictures of abandoned construction – one of a house with raw cinderblock walls and weedy yard and another of a poured foundation with plumbing connections reaching to the sky – tell the story. They don't. Nothing in Hughes’ excellent reporting says building-impact fees have led to any abandoned construction sites, much less a general condition in the industry. The pictures, in fact, corrupt and subvert the message the reporter has carefully researched: If sidewalks and utilities are not bought with impact fees, they may have to be purchased with ad valorem taxes.

The saddest part is the cutline of the larger photo says the unfinished home “sits stalled for unknown reasons.” That should have told someone that the photo probably doesn’t go with the journalism.

It gets worse.

The picture-chooser apparently has access to a keyboard and decided to exercise something like poetic license to write the “call out” that decorates the picture.

“Direct Impact: Charging impact fees and covering infrastructure costs has proven to be a delicate balancing act for local governments in Florida, and results across the state have varied wildly.”

Ignoring that Florida 10th graders learn plural verbs follow compound subjects or they won’t pass the FCAT, there is, once again, nothing in the story about results across the state varying wildly. The story notes wide differences among impact fees charged in a cluster of southwestern counties. They don't change week to week, month to month or even year to year. The story says nothing about wild variations here or "across the state." Like the pictures, the copy desk's call out is nothing more than designer wallpaper that corrupts the reporting and misinforms readers.

The problem is easily solved: Read before writing. And if there's nothing in the story about abandoned construction, then don't use pictures of abandoned construction.

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