Don’t you hate it when you read a story in a newspaper or online, or watch a news report on TV, and the reporter seems to have completely missed the essential question? I know I do.
It happens more than you think. Sometimes it’s a product of lack of time, in the case of a TV or radio interview, or it can be a product of a lack of preparation by the reporter. But too often the news consumer gets the feeling that it’s a way to get past an inconvenient fact or issue that the reporter or his or her editors wants to de-emphasize.
A good example of this kind of thing occurred late last month when a group of people opposed to House Bill 2 gathered on the grounds of the N.C. State Capitol with a large number of boxes stacked one upon the other, 26 of them by my count, 20 large moving boxes and six smaller file boxes. The media were told, or were led to believe, that these boxes were filled with petitions signed by people against H.B. 2.
However, once these boxes arrived at the governor’s office and were opened, the governor’s staff reported that there were only enough petitions to fill two of the smaller boxes, and most of those were from out of state.
So here’s my question: Didn’t one reporter notice that these large boxes, supposedly filled with paper, seemed to be pretty easy to carry? Even the women in photos and videos seem to be carrying them with the ease of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Have you ever carried a box of copy paper to your car from the office supply store? Pretty hard to carry, right? Did not one reporter say, “Hey, let me look inside that box. It seems to be empty”?
I’m guessing they didn’t, because not one news outlet that I could find reported the 24 empty boxes. Instead, they published photos of protesters carrying the empty boxes and stacking them dramatically, giving the impression that they were filled with petitions signed in outrage.
In the very last paragraph of the story that appeared on The Charlotte Observer’s and The New & Observer’s websites, the reporter noted that “the governor’s office released a statement” saying that they received only enough petitions to fill two boxes.
Twenty-six boxes of petitions versus two boxes of petitions is a big discrepancy, one that any news consumer would be fair in thinking that a reporter should try to resolve. Did the governor’s office throw away 24 boxes of paper, or did the protesters carry empty boxes? From the photographs and the video of people carrying very large boxes with ease, it’s clear that the latter is more plausible.
But the media didn’t check. And if they did, they didn’t report it. Instead, they acted as if this was a case of conflicting claims that could not possibly be resolved. That’s not journalism. That’s complicity in street theater.
Jon Ham (@rivlax) is publisher of Carolina Journal.