Teaching Examples

The blog and the congressman
October 25, 2006, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Why did ABC News use a blog post to break the story about Congressman Mark Foley’s suggestive e-mails to a congressional page?

Because the story wasn’t weighty enough to be on World News, ABC’s flagship nightly news program, according to ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross, who broke the Foley story. The blog allowed ABC News to launch a public conversation about a serious breach of ethics, even though it was too insubstantial a story to take up a minute-thirty on the 30-minute newscast.

In a fascinating report, Pat Walters explains how other news organizations (including The St. Petersburg [Fla.] Times, The Miami Herald, Harper’s, Roll Call, The New Republic and Time magazine) ignored the same four e-mails that for Ross were the basis of an important story. It’s a valuable lesson about news judgment.

There are also hints in Walter’s story about the inside game of journalism:

August was a month many reporters spent working on anniversary stories about Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Summer is a slack time for journalists in the U.S. When I worked at Time magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a phrase — “a summer cover” — that we used to refer to fluffy celebrity stories and feel-good features that often led the magazine from June through August. Combine that summer malaise with a pair of blockbuster “anniversary stories” — the easiest, and possibly least important, stories known to journalism — and you get a bunch of people saying poo-poo to solicitations from an elder congressman to a 16-year-old boy.

Ross felt that something was wrong, and he followed up his news judgment with a phone call to Foley’s congressional office — which confirmed that Foley had sent the e-mail messages.

That’s an important piece of Walters’s account — Ross acted like the trained journalist he is and checked the veracity of the e-mails BEFORE he posted anything on the blog. It was only AFTER he had an official admission of Foley’s authorship that he made the e-mails public. That’s a responsible and professional way of doing journalism. Once the e-mails were posted on the blog, the public could judge how inappropriate such messages might be.

The ABC News handling of the Foley story deserves a place in the textbooks of the future, where we will read the history of how online media changed the practice of journalism.

But online media should not change everything about journalism — and that’s part of the story too.

Update: Mark Glaser interviewed Brian Ross in MediaShift.

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2 Comments so far
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The St. Pete Times editor wrote a column (which was on their Web site and might still be) saying they reported the story pretty intensely last fall but ultimately didn’t think they had enough to justify publishing. You can differ with that judgment, but it’s hardly “ignoring” the e-mails.

Comment by Lex

That’s a good distinction to make, Lex. Deciding not to publish is not the same as “ignoring” the story. I stand corrected. Thanks!

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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