Last week I went on a mini-rampage against Forbes's "Worst Winter Cities" list and the Plain Dealer's sloppy reporting on the issue. Yesterday, Ted Diadiun, the PD's reader representative, defended the paper and the article's author for giving the Forbes list front page coverage. It's a painful read, and, whether Diadiun realizes it or not, it's a very good example of why people are losing so much respect for newspapers like the PD.

(from Flickr user qwincowper)

There's a lot to cover, so I'll start at the beginning. Diadiun opens with this:
...here in Cleveland, we sulk, get our feelings hurt, demand apologies. That’s the way we are. So on Tuesday, when the lead story in The Plain Dealer announced that Forbes magazine’s Web site had named Cleveland the "Worst Winter Weather City" of the nation’s 50 biggest metropolitan areas, the reaction was predictable.
The biggest problem with the PD's coverage isn't that the content is negative and offensive to random commentors on Cleveland.com, the problem is that the list is not newsworthy. There are plenty of important stories in the world that aren't happy and that make people uncomfortable. If they are things that people ought to know about, then it's the obligation of our newspapers to deliver those stories.

What's really at issue is that front page coverage in Cleveland's major newspaper gives the green light to marginal news sources (like local TV news and talk radio) to run wild and blow the story way out of proportion. I pointed out headlines that read "it's official" and "we're #1". True, these were not PD headlines, but the newspaper's front page endorsement made it less ridiculous for others to pass it off as real news. That said, Diadiun continues:
Actually, reporter Mike Scott’s story wasn’t as much about the Forbes survey as it was about the expected midweek snowstorm (the one that sort of fizzled, by Cleveland standards). Scott just used Forbes’ timely pronouncement as an interesting backdrop to a routine weather story -- as those who read more than just the headline surely realized. Some people didn’t read that far, though, which was proven by the number of folks who wondered how Forbes could say that Cleveland winters are worse than Buffalo’s (in the sixth paragraph, Scott explained that Buffalo was not in the 50 biggest cities).
The midweek snowstorm was news, the Forbes list was not. The PD's headline opens with the "worst city" ranking, then ends with a mention of the storm. Mike Scott barely scratches the surface of or wrestles with the the problems with the Forbes list, as I did last Wednesday. In fact, Scott incorrectly reported that Buffalo is not one of the 50 largest metro areas (it's the 47th largest). True, many people use the terms "city" and "metro area" interchangeably, but they are two distinct geographies, and since the author writes about the shortcomings with the list's methodology, it looks incredibly lazy when he does not himself understand it. Diadiun continues with some weird logic:
But in the last couple of years, we’ve also published stories that ranked us as follows: best place for single people to live (14th); most-wired (26th); most caffeinated (83rd); best city for volunteering (22nd); greenest (16th); most political (4th); most sleep-deprived (2nd); best place to raise a family (4th); fastest-dying (10th); best sports city (tied for 5th); and smallest carbon footprint (31st). There were lots of others, but you get the idea.
I get the idea, but who cares? So the PD published nonsense lists in the past, therefore they are justified in publishing another nonsense list now? None of these lists are particularly newsworthy. I took serious issue with the "best city for singles" list last summer. Not all of these made the front page, but even burying them deep in the paper is a stretch. Here's more twisted logic:
So why do we run stories about all these rankings? Their main function is to get people to think -- about their health, their environment, the people who make up this region. But the reason varies with the ranking. The ones that come from trusted government sources are usually worth heeding. Some are quirky enough to warrant attention. Some are used as a news hook to get into a different story.
To make us think? Nice try, I'm not buying it. From my perspective, the PD publishes these lists because it's fluff that can generate a powerful headline and spice up otherwise pedestrian stories. When the Census Bureau publishes a paper that says Cleveland is losing so much population; or when the BLS releases a report that unemployment is rising in the region, that's important, it's based on a well-structured methodology. When we learn that we're the 83rd most caffeinated city in America, what is there to think about? That we could use more coffee shops per capita? Diadiun closes with this:
All, however, should include source information and what the rankings were based on, so you can decide for yourself how seriously to take it. Most do. When you see a story that doesn’t, that means we’ve done something wrong.
OK... but what about when that source information is wrong, as is the case in Mike Scott's article about the worst weather cities? That's just poor, lazy journalism. I'm sorry, but there's no nice way to say that. The PD has done wrong. They've failed to provide meaningful news content and they've misled those who want to actually "think" about this stuff (if we can believe that's actually their intent).

Worst of all, Diadiun wants readers to accept that what the PD has done is justified. He's preempting the criticism that's inevitable the next time the PD publishes more of this fluff. For all the media choices that we now have to get the news... tv, radio, blogs, Twitter, etc. newspapers are supposed to be the go-to source for high quality news coverage. When newspapers fail to be that source, and when they defend themselves as such, they lose a lot of respect.

4 comments:

    Dude. Word. The problem with the PD is the plethora of made-up news and its klutzy attempts at hype.

     

    Ted Diadiun has described Nobel Prize winning columnist Paul Krugman as "odious." If you read Krugman's column in the New York Times you will know that Krugman always seems to be right about everything. The fact that the Plain Dealer would choose Diadiun for reader representative tells you a lot about the paper.

     

    Newspapers don't care, even though many of their readers still do. I think we have all the evidence we'll ever need by now.

     
    On February 21, 2010 stan said...

    The problem, of course, goes beyond the fish rags. Newspapers are losing respect because they don't know anything! Apart from a handful of people, nobody in the media saw the financial crisis coming. The same goes for the Iraq/WMD disaster and so on. They have basically missed the whole narrative -- the world as it is, i.e. reality -- for decades and now wonder why this country finds itself in a deep mess.
    So why would anyone turn to some journalism majors to learn anything about the world?