Monday, December 22, 2008

Five Ways to Spot Fake News

Congratulations to Sun Newspaper’s business editor, Terry O’Connor. Relatively new to the staff, he makes a front-page splash this morning with a publicity agent’s dream. He interviews a local construction company president, the president’s son, and a county parks director in order to describe – in glowing terms – the firm that built Sun Coast Media Group’s (O'Connor's boss) own addition to its telephone-company building in Murdock.

Unfortunately, it’s all fake news. As the reader swims through a sea of up-beat, uncritical praise for this sterling firm, she senses the editorial lard – a story greased with quotes that broadly support the paper publisher’s own policy of reporting whenever possible that the economic water glass is half full. It’s fake news, from start to finish. So, how does a critical reader spot fake news?

The first step is to look for the news nugget. If readers can’t find genuine news, usually near the top of the story, then all the words that follow may well be ersatz news. In this case, the not-news is presented as the grizzled construction mogul advising President-elect Barack Obama to “take care of our veterans [ ... give] them an affordable house.”

It’s patriotism. It’s history. It’s good intentions. It’s a WWII vet’s recasting of the past as a viable future. But news? No – maybe a sympathetic set-up for the soft feature that's about to swallow the news hole – but definitely not news. (If it were a real news story, O’Connor might somewhere have compared the number of returning WWII vets -- 16 million -- with 2.3 million troops since the 1991 Gulf war, and he might have pointed to the fallacy of wishful thinking as economic stimulus.) A real news hook might be that the county last week awarded its 25th contract to the company, or that the firm has merged or acquired or changed in some way. None of this is in evidence.

The second step is to look for hard facts, data, and numbers. Not too far down, O’Connor reports the company president says his firm's gross revenues declined from about $20 million two years ago to about $10 million this year. Gross revenues are a suitably vague measure of a privately held business. What the company’s profits actually are relative to gross sales is “company business [that] stays in the company,” as the patriarch puts it. O’Connor fails to note if this construction firm is the only one in town (which his feature makes it sounds like), or if similar firms are experiencing similar 50-percent declines. It’s one thing to put a rosy glow on the recession with profits generated by a $10 million base. It’s quite another thing to survive with two trucks and a Rolodex. The reporter fails to compare this firm's situation with any of the two or three major developers who have gone bankrupt or pulled out of major local projects. His hed says the contractor is "built to handle adversity," but nothing in the story supports this claim -- except that it thrives on government contracts: See Step Five, below.

The third step is to look for a cross section of what folks say about the “news.” The writer rounded up a county parks director (to give high praise for the nice construction company), a banker who needed a new building (to give high praise for the nice construction company) and the company president’s son (to give high praise for the nice construction company his dad owns and which has written him a paycheck since he was 10 years old).

The fourth step is to beware of “chamber of commerce” press release statements woven into the text. O’Connor manages to get the man who built his own boss's new building to say “Charlotte County is one of the finest places in Florida situated between two huge growing metro areas.” It probably didn’t take too much prompting to get him to add, “Now more than ever, it’s a very affordable community. It’s beautiful and you’re not in the rat race.”

The fifth step is to look for the reporter’s dig. This one didn’t dig; he surfed. He used the construction firm’s Web site and copied its list of projects. Some are generous and big-hearted sounding: “support areas for Charlotte County Homeless Coalition,” and a safe house expansion for the homeless. What the reporter fails to report is the millions made seem to stem mostly from local-government funded construction. Tax revenue funds this firm’s profits – and the head of that firm is urging the next president of the United States to build bridges and homes for returning vets.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with government construction. OWW is a big liberal when it comes to homeless shelters, county parks, city marinas, and air-conditioned “justice centers.” She just wishes the reporter had made it clear this featured contractor’s revenue stream flows directly from taxpayer.

There’s no evidence of digging when a reporter fails to report on lawsuits, liens, layoffs, settlements, or even one less-than-perfectly satisfied client. There’s no evidence of digging when the reporter fails to investigate exactly what it was that happened in Mississippi to make the contractor decide he was “spread too thin.” There’s no evidence of digging when readers are given no hint of interests overlapping, country and yacht clubs in common, or mutual business interests between publisher and the featured gentleman of the day.

So what happened here? A promising new reporter, fast promoted to business editor, gets roped into his publisher’s dilemma. As a result, readers are asking if the cash-strapped, layoff-prone newspaper has had to exchange a little free, uncritical publicity -- and a reporter's soul -- for a contractor’s debt.

1 comment:

  1. This story does nothing to give the reader knowledge of a subject or tell them something they should know about their community.

    Also, on the more fundamental economic question for SCMG — does anyone care to read this? It's boring except to his family and friends.
    Informative? Not really.
    This is, at best, a 15" to 20" business profile on the business page.