Monthly Archives: February 2008

Trading Places on West State Street

The news that Star-Ledger reporter Deborah Howlett is leaving her job covering Governor Corzine to take a job working for Corzine as his Communications Director raised eyebrows in Trenton this week, especially since it came on the heels of a similar decision by another high profile Ledger writer: Columnist Tom Moran is moving to PSE&G to do public policy work.

The raised eyebrows are understandable.

How is it possible to switch roles so quickly? To go from asking aggressive questions of the Governor and challenging his statements to answering those very same questions and defending his statements?

Are journalistic ethics being compromised by reporters who know they are about to take a job that will change their relationships with the organizations and individuals they cover?

New Jersey law prohibits officials from leaving government and immediately becoming lobbyists. Should we also close the revolving door between the Fourth Estate and state government?

From my perspective – as one whose career has included stints in both journalism and government public relations – I see no problem with the moves that Howlett, Moran and hundreds of other journalists have made.

Who better to serve in a communications and public relations role than someone who has firsthand experience about what make journalists tick?

More importantly, journalism is an industry whose members police themselves. By contrast, governments pass laws to strengthen ethics, but they often are ineffective. This is because no one can legislate morality. Where there is a will, there is a way. If someone wants to ignore an ethics law, they will.

Most news organizations have ethics codes or guidelines. And although they do not carry the force of law, they work. They work because by and large the individuals who have chosen to make journalism their careers value the principles and ideals of the profession.

Back in 1990 after I gave my editors at The News Tribune notice that I was leaving my job as a Statehouse Correspondent to work for the State Assembly, I spent my last two weeks at the paper writing a feature series on the New Jersey Lottery while much more interesting and controversial events were taking place in the Legislature.

In Howlett’s case, she told Gannett that she actually has spent more time covering the presidential election than the Governor’s Office in recent weeks.

News organizations also have taken steps to prevent conflicts that may arise when spouses both have pubic identities, such as the Star-Ledger’s Robert Schwaneberg and his wife, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens.

The truth is the problems with journalism today – in New Jersey and throughout the nation – are not with individual reporters and editors. Instead, the issue we should be examining is how media consolidation and the drive for profit are impacting the quality of the news we receive.

Advance Publications, which owns the Star-Ledger, the Trenton Times and several other New Jersey newspapers, also owns many major magazines, including Bon Appetit, Glamour, GQ, Modern Bride and Vogue. Is the parent company shortchanging its New Jersey news operations because there is more profit to be made by investing in its high quality magazines?

Gannett, the parent company of the Asbury Park Press, owns the Army Times Publishing Company, which publishes a series of newspapers for members of the military and their families. Is there a connection between this military company and the crusading efforts of the Asbury Park Press to keep Fort Monmouth open?

The North Jersey Media Group, which owns the Bergen Record, the Herald and News, and a large group of weekly newspapers, appeals to potential advertisers by describing its market as “an area of unprecedented wealth and retail sales.” Does this mean issues that appeal to an upper-middle class and upper class demographic are more likely to be covered than those that are important to the working poor?

I am not suggesting that the answer to any of these questions is yes. But in order to preserve quality journalism and strengthen our democracy, these are the types of issues that should be researched and explored. They are much more important than debating where on West State Street any individual reporter — or former reporter — chooses to work.

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Anonymous Sources: From Baseball and Steroids to Trenton and a Basketball Tournament

One of the many questions remaining unresolved after this week’s Congressional hearing on steroid use is how much credibility to give to anonymous sources. Indeed when the Mitchell Report was issued in December, naming 89 present and former Major League Baseball players as steroid users, one of first points raised in defense of those athletes was the source of the information linking them to performance-enhancing drugs. The source was testimony from a former personal trainer and a former clubhouse attendant. Both men previously had been implicated in illegal steroid activity and were given incentives by law enforcement authorities for their cooperation with Mitchell.

Locally, New Jersey also had a sports story this week that demonstrated the volatility of relying on anonymous sources. On Sunday, the Trenton Times ran a column indicating that the Prime Time Shootout, am annual basketball tournament featuring some of the nation’s top high school teams, might not return to Trenton. The column described a number of reasons why tournament officials were unhappy with the current arrangement, ranging from sponsorship conflicts to the food for volunteers to the manner in which Mercer County officials treat the Prime Time staff.

The column, however, had not one on-the-record source. The “problems” identified in the article were attributed to “sources,” “one official,” “one of the PT (Prime Time) officials, who did not want to be quoted,” “a spokesman from one of the sponsors who also did not want his name in the newspaper, and “one of the officials of the Prime Time who has been with the event since it began.”

The newspaper also reported that County Executive Brian Hughes did not return a phone message it left for him. This sounds peculiar since Hughes generally is accessible to the press. He has communication staffers whom the paper could have contacted and the Trenton Times has reporters who cover the county and should be able to get a question answered on a Sunday.

But rather than wait for the official word on the status of the tournament, the paper published a column with all of its information attributed to anonymous sources.

That was unfortunate because the story was quite different when the Times finally did speak with people who had no problem seeing their names published alongside their quotes.

“I think our situation with the Prime Time Shootout is fine,” Hughes said in an article that appeared the day after the column. “I plan to be back here,” added Jeff Hewitson, the tournament’s director.

Anonymous sources have an important role in journalism and value for our democracy. But they must be used appropriately and with great discretion — and that did not happen here.

How News Frames Shaped the Super Tuesday Coverage

Almost without exception, the state’s daily newspapers led their New Jersey primary stories with language indicating that Hillary Clinton had held off a challenge from Barack Obama:

Gannett – Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated the late-surging Barack Obama in New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday…”

Courier-Post – Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame a fierce challenge from Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic primary Tuesday…”

The Record – Hillary Clinton held off a surging Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday as party power brokers, Latino voters and labor unions helped her avoid an embarrassing loss.

Star-Ledger – New York Sen. Hillary Clinton withstood a furious, final-days challenge from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in her own backyard to win the Democratic primary in New Jersey yesterday amid a record-shattering turnout by voters.

True, Clinton had long maintained a convincing lead in the polls and Obama had narrowed that gap in recent weeks. But by portraying Obama as the challenger, these stories created the impression that Hillary Clinton already had won something in New Jersey.

That’s fine if you are writing about a prize fight in which a boxer is challenging a heavyweight champion who has won several bouts to earn his title. But in the New Jersey primary, the fact is Hillary Clinton had not won anything before Tuesday. When the polls opened at 6 a.m., she and Barack Obama had exactly the same number of votes – zero.

Yes, Clinton was ahead in virtually every voter poll conducted prior to the primary, but the credibility of polls took a beating in New Hampshire earlier this year. And as candidates are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place in the voting booth.

By framing stories in this manner – whether or not intentionally – journalists have the ability to shape events, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The press both covers events and, in choosing what to report and how to report it, shapes their outcome,” she wrote in The Press Effect.

In discussing the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jamieson contends that the frame became one in which Bush was perceived as the winner and Gore as the challenger, even though there was no clear-cut winner. This in effect made it more difficult for the Gore team to gain support.

Moving back to New Jersey, the lead of the Star-Ledger’s national story on Super Tuesday created an air of invincibility for John McCain:

“Sen. John McCain continued his march toward the Republican presidential nomination…”

Now that Mitt Romney has bowed out of the GOP primary, it appears that McCain most likely will “march toward the Republican nomination.” But on Wednesday, when this story appeared, Romney was still a candidate, albeit a weakened one. Yes, McCain’s nomination appeared inevitable, but nothing is inevitable. Just ask the New York Mets, whose chances of playing in the 2007 post-season were considered inevitable before their historic collapse.

When journalists create a sense of inevitability, it can have a direct impact on public perception.

For example, a study by Jack Lule of Lehigh University found that news reports prior to the 2003 war in Iraq were based upon the assumption that war was inevitable. In turn, this assumption had profound implications in terms of public support for the war. This conclusion was based on six weeks of coverage by NBC Nightly News in which the network titled its reports Countdown: Iraq, Showdown: Iraq, and Target: Iraq.

“By using Countdown: Iraq as a structural metaphor, particularly in the middle of February 2003, NBC Nightly News affirmed the inevitability of conflict with Iraq at a time when many Americans and nations around the world were still attempting to prevent the conflict,” Lule wrote in Journalism Studies.

One could argue that the consequences of framing Hillary Clinton and John McCain as candidates in commanding positions on Super Tuesday may not be as great as the frames that helped build public support for the war in Iraq. That is true, but with Super Tuesday, we also are talking about a process that ultimately will determine who will serve as the nation’s next chief executive in one of the most challenging times in our history.

And that is a decision that deserves to be made carefully and thoughtfully by a well-informed electorate.

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Related Post:

Has Election Coverage Entered A Brave New World?

Did PR Help the Giants Win the Super Bowl?

Ask a group of Giants fans why the team from East Rutherford had a successful season that culminated in a Super Bowl vistory and you probably will hear a myriad of responses.

Eli Manning’s maturity at quarterback, Plaxico Buress’ athleticism, Brandon Jacobs’ brute strength and the emergence of Ahmad Bradshaw all are likely to be at the top of the lists.

One answer that you probably will not hear is public relations.

True, it was Mannings’ touchdown pass to Buress that sent the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII, but the path may very well have been cleared last summer with Coach Tom Coughlin’s attention to public relations and the image the he and the team have with the public and the press.

In his first three seasons as Giants’ head coach, Coughlin came across as a stern disciplinarian with a short-fuse. Images of him exploding into tirades on the sidelines became familiar scenes. His coaching style and decisions were openly challenged by his players and subjected to daily scrutiny by the media. He was abrupt with the press, sometimes confrontational.

On the field, his team struggled through highs and lows, making it to the post-season in 2005 and 2006, only to lose in the opening round each year. Many thought his job was in jeopardy after last year’s playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but instead he received a one-year contract extension.

Given another chance at the helm, Coughlin decided to re-invent himself, as detailed in a September 2 New York Times story.

“Coughlin smiled more than scowled at training camp,” Times reporter John Branch wrote. “He laughed more than barked. Practices ended early. The first half of two-a-days in Albany often consisted of a sweatless walk-through without pads. Daily news conferences, often devoid of news, were also devoid of Coughlin ‘s familiar snipes at inane or repetitive questions. He canceled a football meeting for bowling, for crying out loud.”

Coughlin also spent time meeting individually with the beat reporters who cover the team to ask what he could he do differently and how he could make their jobs easier.

His actions were designed to change his public image. Like politicians whose frontstage (public) personalities differ from their backstage (private) lives, Tom Coughlin, the NFL head coach, was not the same man that his family and friends knew.

“For years, Coughlin ‘s wife and children have been telling him that they do not recognize the man on the sideline exploding in fury, and that they do not understand how one seemingly innocuous question at a news conference can rile him into a rant that ends up on nightly newscasts,” Branch wrote.

But the benefits of Coughlin’s image makeover may extend beyond PR. By taking steps to end distractions, he was able to focus more attention on doing job and doing it better.

“It’s about trying to succeed in this business,” he told the Times. “And if I’m putting my team and my organization in a better position to achieve and to win and to be looked at in a more positive way, then so be it.”

How much of a factor Coughlin’s kinder, gentler personality played in the Giants’ run to the Super Bowl is debatable. But there is a lesson here, and it is a lesson that also may be applicable to leaders in government.

The relationship between government and the media is becoming increasingly adversarial today. On one hand, a press corps that is aggressive and suspicious of government is a healthy thing for democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”

But today the press has become an easy target, a scapegoat for those who do not fully understand the role the media plays.

Tom Coughlin didn’t need to take the time he did to learn about the media and the impact of his public image. But he did. And he’s had a successful year, regardless of what happens in Sunday’s game.

And if improving relationships with the media and paying more attention to public images helped the Giants win the Super Bowl, who knows what could happen if government leaders start following suit?

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