Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why we should always read skeptically

Today's cribbed Game & Fish press release carries an object lesson in the reliability of self-generated news stories and why newspapers have to investigate stories carefully if they are to maintain their own credibility.

Back in the "Getting Out" section we find "Central figure in Macho B incident to pay $8,000 fine," slugged "Special to the Courier", by which we understand that the Courier got it whole and ran it unedited, i.e. a press release. In it we find the Game and Fish Commission fining the guy who originally trapped the last jaguar in AZ and revoking his game privileges for a "prohibited take," meaning he baited and intentionally trapped the animal illegally while working as a contractor on a Game & Fish cougar study. He also drew five years' probation and a $1,000 fine in criminal court.

Comparing this end-of-the-legal-road story with the first report on the incident back in February '09 is illuminating. In that press release, carried here, Game & Fish wrote that "The male cat was incidentally captured" by the department during the study -- by accident, in other words. They collared him and released him, but recaptured him after his movements seemed wrong, diagnosed him with terminal kidney failure and killed him, setting off a small but firm national wave of outrage. News stories like this focused on that decision and how it was reached, but generally glossed over the original capture, which no cat-owner will deny very likely precipitated the health problem (if there was one) and the cat's death.

The outrageous inaccuracy of the agency's first release, whether intentional, mistaken or just sloppy, should raise hackles in the Governor's office and red flags in every newsroom. For readers, when you see "Special to the Courier," you should read it as "Unsubstantiated Happy Talk and Lies." For the editors, I'd recommend you quit running press releases as news without checking them. No serious news organization does this. If you must carry them, label them properly and protect yourself from what's in them, because readers tend to assume you're actually doing your job.


Anonymous said...

I am finding it increasingly troublesome that individuals holding powerful positions, politicians, government agencies and even the armed services seem to be incapable of telling the straight, unvarnished truth about much of anything. They seem all too often to either spin any unpleasant or embarrassing situation, or blatantly lie about it. They repeatedly give dishonest, evasive, self-serving answers ... and in a time when ultimately they will be caught out. This sad story brings to mind the terrible, cruel lies following the death of Pat Tillman from friendly fire (strange use of the word friendly). Whatever has become of the elementary standards of fairness and decency?

Brer Citizen said...

This is because "no one" is ever held accountable for anything once a certain level has been obtained. Our officials and our governmental leadership teach us this on a monthly, if not daily basis. How many times do we hear of an investigation into a public official or entity that the media repeatedly plays/shoves down our throats, that mysteriously disappears without any further ado; or gets white-washed over like this incident with a simple press release and a very handy "scapegoat". Somehow we've created this monster in both an elected government and a free press (sadness and sarcasm in equal amounts for both).