I was writing a Backlist to the Future post for this week (which is forthcoming, I promise), but because of all the reporting on the horrific events in Cleveland and the rescue of the women who spent a decade imprisoned by their kidnapper, this issue is on my mind, so I think now is a good time to address it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibility of handling facts in reporting, and I think it’s especially relevant to us at Ooligan, because many of us will probably go on to work for media outlets. For the sake of this post, I am going to assume you are familiar with the news story I am referring to, and I am not going to re-report it here but if you need the details, you can read about it pretty much anywhere.
In journalism, and to a lesser extent in nonfiction literature, it is the responsibility of the writer to report the relevant facts of an event with as much accuracy, clarity, and attention to detail as possible. However, there is a disturbing trend in reporting that I find very well illustrated in the reporting surrounding the Cleveland kidnapping case. That is the skewing and muddying of the public discourse caused when a media outlet chooses to focus their reporting on a lascivious or sensational detail that, in reality, is of very little relevance to the story as a whole. This often goes beyond burying the lead and slides far into destructive interference with where people’s focus is directed with regard to the event in question.
I am not suggesting that any factual detail of a story should be concealed by those who report on it. I am not advocating spinning or whitewashing untoward aspects of a story. I am saying that those who report fact have a responsibility to choose where they focus their reporting, and thereby the attention of the public so that they do not deflect focus from the relevant issues by sensationalizing irrelevant details. The responsibility of reporting fact must include the refusal to cross the line from fact gathering into muckraking.
But how do we know what the line is between thorough reporting and sensational chatter? This is not as difficult to detect as it might seem. The key is intent. For example, in the Cleveland story, a neighbor named Charles Ramsey responded to the victim’s cries and rescued the women. He was taken up by the public as the hero of the story. However, the Smoking Gun almost immediately published the man’s criminal history, which included previous domestic violence convictions.
Though this detail is factually accurate, what was the intent in reporting it? Does it clarify the story? Does it tell us more about the rescue? Does it give us a clearer picture of the suffering of the victims or the circumstances of their imprisonment or rescue? No. The intent appears simply to be increasing hits on their website by publishing a little piece of character assassination.
While the Smoking Gun’s choice to focus their reporting on Ramsey’s criminal history was misguided, no one could call it obviously malicious. However, it served only to confuse the story, not clarify it. In reporting this detail, the waters are muddied and we have lost the victims, we have lost the villain, and we have lost focus on what is important; worrying instead about these unrelated facts. What is important is that this man, regardless of his past, responded to the situation in a commendable way, rescued these women, and probably saved many future lives.
However, some media outlets focused on the police, whose job it is to do what Ramsey actually did, and exposed how they ignored reports by neighbors of suspicious activity, failed utterly to protect or serve these people, and even treated the victim with abominable disrespect and carelessness when she was set free and called for help. These are untoward details of this story as well. Instead of being destructive to the narrative, though, they clarify the story, help to elucidate the horror of the situation, and keep the reader focused on what is important. That is the difference between muckraking and thorough reporting, and that is where the responsibility of reporting fact lies.