The Rapid City Journal’s handling of the incident in which the occupants of a luxury box at a hockey game are alleged to have spattered 57 native American children with beer and abuse is a symptom of degraded state of journalism. The Journal has apologized for screwing up, but its apology did not grasp what was screwed up.
In a follow-up, now taken off the web, to stories on the original incident, the Journal cited an anonymous source who claimed that the abuse directed at the children was a response to the children’s failure to stand during the playing of the national anthem. The headline to the story read, "Did Native Students stand for National Anthem". However, the story itself reported that people who accompanied the children said that was not true.
In its reporting in this story, the Journal committed a basic error. It did not try to establish the facts. In recapping the fundamental premise of journalism, the Pew Research center restates, “[The] ’journalistic truth’ is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.” The Journal made the mistake of concentrating what people said about the facts without verification of the facts themselves.
First of all, the issue in the incident is about adults mistreating children between the ages of 9 and 12. The abuse, according to those who witnessed it was racially driven. Quoting an anonymous person who claimed to be a bystander in the VIP box is a violation of a basic standard of journalism for those who believe journalism has professional standards.
The use of anonymous sources as the basis for a news report verges far into the region of incompetence. Sometimes a source will present information to a reporter that is essential to explaining a story if the source's account can be independently verified. In my time as a journalist, that meant that a reporter had to find two other sources who were not in collusion with the original source to verify the account. If the account was not verifiable, it was dismissed as unrealiable or false.
There is also the matter of using anonymous sources. It is also a reporter’s responsibility to make clear attribution of any information used in a story. If a sources does not wish to be identified, the information the source provides is suspect, unless it can be verified. A responsible, professional news organization would not have printed the accusation.
The Journal compounds its errors in its apology for mishandling the story. The paragraph that tries to explain away the reason for using an assertion by anonymous source totally fails to address the rules of responsible journalism involved. It claims it withheld the identity of the source because of a death threat:
Questions also have been raised about the use of an anonymous source in the article. On the day the article was written, the business owner who rents the suite where the harassment took place — who was neither present norinvolved — received a death threat.
A source in such a state of advanced retardation that he would claim the failure to stand for the national anthem as a motivation for abusing children is already brain dead. But the issue for the Journal is its failure to follow basic journalistic procedure in dealing with factual matters, and its apology dissembles on that point. Furthermore, if it wants to cite death threats, it needs to specify the nature of the threat, who received it, and how it was transmitted. Its citation of a death threat is as specious as the claim that the kids did not stand for the anthem.
The Journal is by no means the only news organization that sacrifices journalistic competence and integrity for a chance to provoke degradation. As a medium that reflects community attitudes, it is a fitting voice for a town that has a well-earned reputation as a racist snake pit. But some of the failings it embraces are a general state of affairs among news media which abandon good journalistic practice to compete for an audience with the Internet social media. Polls have established that comments people make online about news stories affect the journalistic credibility of news organizations very negatively. News media have to decide, apparently, whether to practice journalism and endanger their existence or join in the competition for stupidity and scurrility.
Part of the the decline in news standards is the contribution of radio and television. To connect with their audience and utilize the capabilities, the electronic media use sound bites as a required element in their stories. Sometimes the person they show commenting is involved in the story, but whether or not the commentary verifies facts or contributes to an understanding of the story is not an issue. Getting some kind of graphic or auditory element comprises the objective of a sound bite. Often, the sound bites are not from anyone who can contribute information, but are only for providing an audio or visual element, whether it contributes to the story or not.
The other fallacy that pervades the contemporary news media is the idea of balance. It is based on the notion that controversy is the primary criterion for evaluating newsworthiness as far as what an audience responds to, and so the media looks for controversy. Although there can be disagreement about what the facts are in a given situation, the facts are usually clear and straightforward if the journalists have done their primary job of assembling, clarifying, and verifying the facts. Controversy is introduced in comments about the facts where commenters have differing attitudes concerning what happened. Consequently, the media emphasizes what controversies they can find rather than hard facts.
They cite balance as the reason for including opposing viewpoints about a situation, even though there may be no disputing of the facts. Controversy to the contemporary media is a matter of people getting into nasty and accusatory spat. The veracity and quality of things they contend do not matter. What attracts audience is the spectacle of watching people cast verbal and sometimes physical abuse on each other. Journalism to many means inciting people into degraded and vile behavior of the kind that Jerry Springer promoted on television. Balance is showing “both sides” no matter how inane and stupidly mean the contentions are. Such is contradictory to what effective, responsible journalism is.
The Rapid City Journal had opportunity to be balanced on the abuse kids were exposed at the hockey game. One if its own staff members wrote an account which related the experience from one of the chaperones who accompanied the incident itself. Rather, the Journal chose to feature the idiotic claim that the kids did not stand for the national anthem. Stupid sells big in South Dakota. It makes a lot of people feel like somebody.
The state legislature demonstrates every day it is in session a retrograde movement away from an aspiring democracy. It is enmeshed in the idea that the will of the people is to limit, eventually eliminate, liberty, equality, and justice for all. The Rapid City Journal is more devoted to the opinions behind this movement than in reporting the facts of what is happening to people.
South Dakota’s intellectual and moral failure is rooted in the journalistic failures of its media.