Journalists as Cheerleaders Print
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 31 July 2001 18:00
Relations between journalists and the subjects about whom they write feature an inherent tension. As journalists, we’re asking sources to take time out of their schedules to talk with us when the results are uncertain: They don’t know whether we’ll write something glowing or damning about them.

Reporters and sources deal with this issue in different ways. Writers, knowing that being too negative might cost them access to business, political, and arts leaders, sometimes soft-shoe everything. More often, they go out of their way to be fair, thinking that even if sources don’t like what they print, they’ll get grudging respect and continued interviews.

Some leaders, on the other hand, make themselves inaccessible to journalists, circumventing the issue altogether. Others, explicitly or implicitly, dole out access only on the condition that they be treated fairly, however they define it. “I’ve been burned before,” one source told me. “If what you write isn’t fair, this will be the last time we talk.” While such a statement contains a threat – and “fair” can be an ambiguous term – it makes sense; treat me right, and I’ll treat you right. A journalist who is unfair to sources probably deserves to have access denied.

Other leaders and organizations, though, take a different and distressing approach. They try to guilt journalist into avoiding negative stories and angles by appealing to their sense of civic pride. This is a widespread problem, among community, business, and government leaders who employ the tactic and among reporters and their bosses who buy into it.

DavenportOne is but one example of an organization that asks reporters to keep things upbeat. The organization’s leaders routinely end interviews with statements such as “Write something positive” or “It’s crucial that we have community support, and your paper is an important part of that.”

The most innocent construction of such requests goes something like this: We’re trying to create positive change for all of Davenport, we think we’ve accomplished a lot, and our continued success requires that the media help spread the word of what we’ve done and what we plan to do.

A more realistic reading is that DavenportOne simply wants local media outlets to be cheerleaders for the business community.

Either interpretation asks the media to abdicate its basic journalistic responsibilities. Reporters are supposed to report and evaluate, not be mouthpieces for local civic groups. If an organization is doing great things, the public and the media will know it from the results, not because the group says it’s so.

The River Cities’ Reader’s article two weeks ago on DavenportOne’s first year certainly lauded the organization’s goals for the community, while at the same time questioning its diversity in representing the business community and the city as a whole. Was the article fair? I think it was. Was it positive? Not always. Which is more important?

Now that DavenportOne is in its second year and newly capitalized, it’s time for it to become a little more mature. While the “be positive” requests didn’t bother me at first – revealing insecurity more than anything – they now suggest that DavenportOne doesn’t understand the positive role that civilized conflict (and subsequent resolution) can play in building a stronger organization, especially if that group represents so many different businesses, people, and interests.

The healthiest groups are ones that allow and encourage discussion and disagreement. Conflict and strife is not pretty, but when open minds are at work, those rough spots often bring better ideas and stronger results. A vital organization might be contentious – and it can sometimes be paralyzed by indecision and argument – but it can accomplish far greater things than a group with its ducks neatly lined up.

Community groups need to learn that consensus is not mandated from on high; it is built from the ground with trust and results.

DavenportOne leaders asking journalists to not rock the boat are even more appalling when you consider that the organization doesn’t disclose important information about itself. In preparing its cover story two weeks ago, the River Cities’ Reader requested three pieces of financial information: an accounting of how DavenportOne spent its $1.2 million budget this past year; the value of its contracts with consultant Brian Vandewalle; and the amount the consortium that owns the Eastern Iowa Industrial Center pays DavenportOne to market and run the site. DavenportOne declined to release the information, citing its status as a private organization.

How exactly can journalists evaluate performance when it isn’t even given access to basic financial information? How can journalists or citizens stand behind a community group when they don’t have a complete accounting of what it did?

If an organization really wants the support of the public and the local media, it needs to earn it. It needs to hand out details of its operations instead of hiding behind we-don’t-have-to-tell-you legal protections. It should study the Freedom of Information Act – which doesn’t apply to private organizations but can still serve as a model – and set parameters for sensitive information that might not be appropriate for public consumption (such as agreements and deals that are still being negotiated) and then throw sunshine on everything else.

Public trust requires an organization to be transparent. People get skeptical when government holds back information, and the public will be just as distrustful when a private organization closes its doors.

But many community groups haven’t shown that they want informed support. At this point, they expect blind cheerleading.

We can hope that changes, throughout our community.