Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reporter Uses 1994 Government Press Release as News

Two short bits before the larger story:
Bit Number One: Skimming through John Lawhorne’s front page feature this morning about the effect development has on bird watching (news flash: development is not good for birds), Old Word Wolf happened on his unattributed assertion, “The good news for birders is that, for the time being, Southwest Florida still can be considered one of the premier birding areas in the country, if not the world.”

A Google search of “premier birding areas” turns up Sierra Vista and Tuscon, Ariz., Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, the Rio Grande Valley; Blaine, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo, Wash., Cheraw Reservoir in Colorado, a dozen places in Montana, Lodi Lake, San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz, Calif., several spots in Wisconsin, Acadia National Park, Maine, Merritt Island, Fla., Cape May, N.J., Lake Alice, N.Y. – you get the idea.

“Premier birding area” is an empty, overused phrase that a naive reporter has culled from his reading. He thought it sounded nice and decided to share.

And, before we get to that serious headline, there's one more giggle:

Near the close, Lawhorne innocently reports, “Birding requires a minimum of affordable equipment to get started. All you need is a pair of binoculars and a field guide to the local bird fauna and you are ready to head for the outdoors.” Ahem. Lawhorne's birder is ready for the “naturist camp” they’re trying to build in DeSoto County.

But there's much more that is deeply troubling about this story. Lawhorne was recently caught using Wikipedia as an unattributed source (the practice is called plagiarism everywhere except the Charlotte Sun) for a rock band story, of all things. So OWW decided to check the data he used to report the size and scope of the bird watching industry: Lawhorne: “The FWS noted that Americans spend an estimated $18.1 billion a year to watch wildlife.”

A key-word search produced this archived news release from the U.S. Department of the Interior dated May 12, 1995: Bird Migration Thrills Millions, Boosts Economy, but Loss of Habitat Threatens Popular Species and a Rapidly Growing Industry. Along about the second page, this paragraph appears:

“In a study released by the Service, “The Economic Contribution of Bird and Waterfowl Recreation in the United States during 1991,” indicates that, of the estimated $18.1 billion Americans spend annually to watch wildlife, $5.2 billion is spent on bird watching, using the most conservative economic assumptions. That figure could run as high an $9 billion, according to the report’s author, Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates. Using conservative assumptions, the number of jobs supported by bird watching is 200,000, according to the study.”
Without telling, Lawhorne feeds readers a 13-year-old press release whose information is based on a study published four years prior to that. And, he misrepresents the information. Here’s how he does it.

Lawhorne: “About 200,000 jobs nationally are supported by birdwatching. The FWS noted that Americans spend an estimated $18.1 billion a year to watch wildlife.”

Any editor worth his paycheck would notice that “wildlife” is not restricted to birds. Lawhorne’s own source attributes less than a third of that amount (about $5.2 billion)to bird watching. But Lawhorne doesn’t tell readers this, and neither does he tell readers that the job data is 17 years old.

The government press release goes on to report, “All indications are the bird-watching and -feeding hobby is growing fast. The number of specialty stores selling wild birdseed, feeders, and equipment has exploded in recent years ...”

And Lawhorne dutifully copies: “According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all indications are that the bird watching and feeding hobby is growing fast. The number of specialty stores selling wild birdseed, feeders and equipment has grown dramatically in recent years.”

Lawhorne, the copyist, is unable to supply what any wide-awake editor would ask for: What numbers constitute dramatic growth? He can’t because his 1995 press release about the 1991 data doesn’t say.

In addition, Lawhorne is unable to report what the 2008 economic downturn, which has shuttered thousands of small specialty shops, has done to his claim of dramatic growth in recent years – that is, almost 20 years ago. For example, Wild Bird Center Inc., a retail-store franchise operation that targets the bird watching and feeding hobbyist, has declined from “more than 100” retail outlets five years ago to about 80 today, according to OWW's historical review of the firm's press releases.

Why is OWW picking on John Lawhorne? For one thing, she likes her news reporters to be accurate, fair, and honest. Today’s big-play feature and its author are none of these. Lawhorne is thumbing his nose at his readers, his editors, his publisher, and the profession of journalism.


  1. on top of all that, could that story have any more cutline?!

  2. AND the layout is awful. AND the display type used ineptly, with gratuitous effects thrown in that impair legibility. AND the cutlines are poorly executed in terms of writing, editing and design. AND the refer to other features inside is lost amid the clutter.

    AND there's a horrid typo in the downpage hed on the left.

  3. AND nobody checked which bird names are capitalized and which aren't -- an art in itself.
    AND love the bullet refer to "another siting photo"

  4. JoetheCountrySingerThu Oct 30, 09:31:00 AM

    Sorry to interject content into this discussion. However, days before the presidential election with 10 ballot questions and the balance of power in the country in question, Sun Coast Media Group puts birds on A1.
    In an article entitled "How to read a newspaper," Walter Cronkite said:
    "You’ll find the main or lead story in the farthest upper-right hand column. Why? Tradition. Newspapers used to appear on newsstands folded and displayed with their top right-hand quarter showing.They made up the front page with the lead story there to entice readers.
    You’ll find the second most important story at the top far left, unless it’s related to the lead story."
    Forgetting placement for a moment, as being an old time "tradition", Birds gets four cols and six photos and "Early Voting Extended" gets two cols and a headshot.
    The Florida early voting extension by Gov. Crist was a national story.
    Damn. It's enough to make your headshot explode.

  5. While standing around the water cooler at work today, I noticed the lead story, the story people were most interested in was bird watching. NOT.
    I think people are talking most about the election, the Rays and whether they'll be able to afford to stay in their homes and meet our families budgets.
    I admit being new to journalism, but I learned in school about lead stories.
    OWW, someone at SCMG told me about your site and I really enjoy it. I learn from reading your comments.

  6. Newbie -- don't get caught! This site has been designated NSFW (not suitable for work) at your shop! e-mail me privately and I'll store your comment off-line. Thanks for the support!