I had originally planned to discuss the lack of primary documents provided by news organization in their online reporting because I noticed in my own reporting how difficult it was at times to track down government documents or other primary sources that reporters referred to in their articles.
Why, in the age of quick links, could articles not contain information that sent readers directly to a bill or document or video? Why are readers or listeners expected to just take the reporter at his or her word instead of being able to easily access a primary source document or video if they want to look it over themselves?
I found this particularly distressing in coverage of the protests at Wisconsin’s capitol. One article from Madison.com describes emails that Gov. Scott Walker released to the Associated Press on March 18th, saying that messages came from both side of the debate.
“Walker released the e-mails to The Associated Press on Friday, providing a first glimpse of the extent of public support the governor said he was receiving via e-mail and the extensive opposition that he has generally downplayed,” the reporter wrote.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would have clicked a link to read those emails had it been included in this sentence and if they would have felt more informed for having done so.
But the recent resignations of National Public Radio’s CEO Vivian Schiller and top fundraising executive Ron Schiller (no relation to each other) may have revealed another problem with not making the primary source readily available. NPR first published articles detailing the resignations on March 9, 2011.
At first glance, the secretly shot video of Ron Schiller discussing the Tea Party and the Republican Party in a negative light may appear flat out unprofessional. Dave Edwards, the chairman of the board of NPR, denounced the views Ron Schiller expressed. But even Edwards admitted in a conference call blogged by Minnesota Public Radio that he had not watched the entire two hour video, but instead relied on the edited version.
MPR paraphrases Edwards as saying: When I watched a portion of the video that I saw yesterday — I’m told its two hours in length and was edited — but I have to tell you watching that video, I felt that the comments being made were so opposite, so … I cannot tell you how much it bothered to me to my core as to what was being said. What was being expressed there has never been expressed to me by anybody from the NPR staff, the NPR board. NPR, I believe, is a welcoming organization to a variety of viewpoints.
But the fundamental primary source problem persisted: The views Edwards says were “expressed” were not necessarily expressed in the first place. The video, edited by conservative activist James O’Keefe who has done other stings like this one, doesn’t even show the sequence of questions and answers accurately, among other things, according to an NPR article that came out on March 14, 2011.
The NPR piece titled, “Elements of NPR Gotcha Video Taken Out Of Context,” explains how the sequence of questions and answers had at times been edited from the original copy to make it look like Schiller was responding to different questions. It also says that in one place where Schiller is seen disparaging Republican politicians and evangelicals he is actually quoting others – not sharing his own views.
I wonder if, knowing that these , the board would have supported the resignations? This example only goes to show the importance of truly understanding a situation before acting quickly.
Although providing a primary source for audiences may be to their advantage in terms of gaining more context and insight (as well as fact-checking the writer), it is also telling that a news organization with such a national presence felt it appropriate to let two of its senior members resign when the chairman of the board had not seen the whole video.
Does this say something about not only our news organizations, but also about the way we function as a society? If NPR had published a statement saying that the video was severely doctored and there would be no repercussions for Ron or Vivian Schiller, how would the public have reacted?
It is a question worth pondering when two senior members are let go so abruptly – especially when the evidence against them is for the most part inaccurate.