The following is an analysis of the KXLY television news story on State Representative, Matt Shea, aired July 17, 2014. This is not a “fault finding” document seeking merely to complain. Rather, this is intended as an honest assessment of the story from the perspective of responsible journalistic practices. It should also be pointed out that this is not about defending Representative Shea, but is about protecting all public officials, candidates for office and citizens alike from the harm that can be done when the media departs from journalistic integrity and becomes a political tool.
I Suspicion of source
When a news release is received from a candidate for public office that is critical of his opponent, a good journalist must suspect that it may be an attempt by that candidate to use the media as a tool for political mudslinging. When that news release is distributed the same day that the mail-in ballots begin to arrive with voters, then a real journalist’s suspicions should go through the roof.
In the case at hand, an investigative reporters first instinct should be to investigate the source of the report with equal or greater vigor than the object of the report, suspecting that the real story may be a candidate’s attempt to publicly besmirch the reputation of his opponent and to exploit the media as a political tool. Such suspicion of the source would have lead to investigation of all accusations, review of the police report and thoughtful consideration as to whether there was solid evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the accused. A healthy suspicion would have also investigated to determine whether nefarious intent on the part of the party publishing the news release could be established.
II A non-story
The basis for the story is a police report filed by a citizen who overheard a conversation in a restaurant and “thought she was listening to a table full of terrorists,” as the story put it. Police and the FBI investigated the matter and found no evidence of wrongdoing and no terrorists. This was a misunderstanding that police investigated and verified to be a genuine misunderstanding where no actual crime or wrongdoing took place. That is not news.
Real journalism does not waste the time of the public reporting a misunderstanding as news and responsible journalism most certainly does not risk damaging the reputation of an individual by reporting such a misunderstanding. This is a non-story.
III Check your sources
In the text version of the story at http://www.kxly.com/news/spokane-news/shea-opponent-concerned-about-reps-associations-with-violent-militias/27000816, the Josh Arritola campaign’s news release is quoted and associates Matt Shea with the Oath Keepers organization. In the next paragraph, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is cited as a source stating, “The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Oath Keepers a ‘particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival.’”
However, the SPLC, though once viewed as an authority on hate groups, has in recent years discredited itself by morphing into a political activist organization that now uses its list of “hate groups” as a vehicle for attacking individuals and organizations whose ideologies the SPLC opposes (http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2014/03/26/FBI-Dumps-Southern-Poverty-Law-Center). The FBI has been forced to remove links to the SPLC from its hate crimes page. In 2011 the SPLC presented a training seminar in Spokane Valley at which it identified certain area residents as potential threats. When Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich later requested that the SPLC back its allegations with documentation, it was unable to substantiate its claims. Sheriff Knezovich later assured a group of concerned citizens that the SPLC would never again be allowed to provide training to his deputies. The SPLC has let its political vendetta against Christians and the right take it so far as to place Spokane’s Mount Saint Michael’s Catholic Parish on its list of “hate groups.”
Responsible journalism requires some amount of source checking before besmirching the reputation of an organization by citing a discredited entity that has itself become a political activist hate group.
IV Association with “violent militias”
The headline for the online version of the story reads “Shea opponent concerned about rep.’s associations with ‘violent militias.’” That headline infers to the reader that Representative Shea is indeed “associated with violent militias.” This presents two problems.
1) Verification of association
Responsible journalism would require that if you infer an association between groups or individuals, you must then establish that association. The only association made in the story is that Rep. Shea has been present at, or spoken at, events where members of citizen militia groups were quite likely present. However, does that make an individual “associated” with those groups or individuals? The issue here is not whether an individual is actually “associated” with a group, but rather the fact that if you indicate such an association exists, you are duty bound to present your audience with evidence that substantiates the assertion.
2) “Violent militias”
This part of the headline again makes an assertion that ethical journalism requires be substantiated in the story. No substantiation of militia violence is provided because none can be found, as no currently organized citizen militia groups have planned or perpetrated acts of violence. Responsible investigative journalism would not print such a headline without first checking the background of the militias that Rep. Shea is supposedly associated with, then providing evidence to substantiate the claim.
V Half the story is not a story
One segment of the story was devoted to the idea that Rep. Shea believes the country is going to collapse and that he views this as an opportunity. However, merely stating that an individual believes these things is only half the story. The other half of the story is why they believe it, and most importantly, why they view it as an opportunity. Without the second half of the story, the first half is relatively pointless and serves little journalistic purpose.
However, of even greater importance, the failure to clearly explain what kind of collapse Rep. Shea expects and how he views it as an “opportunity,” leaves viewers dangling and in danger of interpreting the statement according to their own ideas, preconceptions, or ideas subliminally planted in their minds by other aspects of the story, including the restaurant patron’s mistakenly identifying the Representative as a terrorist, or the video clip of the Representative talking about the need to stock up on ammunition – a 9 second clip cherry-picked from a 15 minute speech. To publish the first half of the story without the second is irresponsible, invites misinterpretation of statements by the public and puts reputations at risk through possible misinterpretation.
Whether Rep. Shea cared to be interviewed for this story or not, a good reporter would look for recordings of Shea making these statements, listen to the full speech, endeavor to understand the context of the statements, then use his skill and training as a journalist to summarize and present to listeners why the Representative believes there will be a collapse, what kind of collapse does he think it will be, and why he views it as an opportunity.
A review of the speech that the 9 second video clip was taken from reveals that Shea was not talking about the collapse of government, but an economic, and possibly thereby, societal collapse. The statement about stocking up on ammunition comes as part of a listing of steps to take to provide for and protect one’s self and family. A reporter could have listened to the speech and articulated this contextually correct understanding of the statements to the viewers. Instead, Shea’s statements were presented without explanation and in a manner that gave the impression he was expecting the government to collapse and that he wants people to buy guns and ammo because it’s an opportunity to take over the country by force.
VI Unbiased reporting
News reporting, as opposed to editorial commentary, is supposed to be, and presumed to be, unbiased. The purpose of news reporting is to present those that it serves with an accurate understanding of the affairs of the world around them through evenhanded and thorough reporting, providing all the facts necessary for people to form their own opinions without being influenced by those providing the facts.
When a story only features the allegations of one candidate for office against the other, it ceases to be unbiased. Even if the other candidate chooses not to participate, responsible journalism must recognize that reporting just one candidate’s allegations against the other is going to affect the political process and unavoidably sway public opinion. When there are only allegations and no actual news story, responsible journalism must report both candidates views equally or drop the story. Publishing only one candidate’s allegations against the other is not news, it is politicking being conducted via the media under the guise of news.
When a story uses politically charged language like, “Shea’s preoccupation with the ‘radical right,’” it unavoidably introduces bias. Unbiased journalism accurately reports a person’s views and actions, then leaves it to viewers to decide for themselves whether they classify the person’s views as left or right, moderate or extreme. Whether the “right” is “radical” or not, is strictly anyone’s political opinion, and has no place in a reporter’s article, unless it would be from a direct quotation of person or persons interviewed and named.
For every member of our community who sees Representative Shea as preoccupied with the “radical right,” there is another who considers Governor Inslee to be “a liberal extremist.” Are you going to begin describing the governor as a “radical leftist”? The use of such descriptions makes reporting inherently biased by telling viewers how to categorize individuals rather than giving viewers the facts, free from emotionally charged adjectives, then letting them decide for themselves how to classify the person’s political views.
This document was created in support of the KXLY Responsibility in Journalism Petition which can be signed at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/kxly-responsible-journalism
For updates on this matter, visit the “Raise a Standard Spokane” Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/raiseastandardspokane?ref=bookmarks
For more background on this story, please see this article https://bobpeck.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/news-media-and-gop-team-up-to-attack-outspoken-christian-candidate/