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What the Devil won't tell you

Zoo column flub shows media's true potential biases

The 'ripped from the headlines' story that Hollywood won't tell you about what drives journalism

Well, my election-night zoo column took a hard 180, didn't it?

I stand by my overall conclusions but I must admit the news peg turned on me and bit me in the bum because I've been watching far too much British TV. One day Tucson had approved the Reid Park Zoo expansion and not its funding. Two days later, both were approved. I jumped a bit soon.

Or maybe the otters stuffed some ballots.

Tucson does have a problem with waiting for our fortunes to change from without. We want it all but don't want to invest in the change ourselves. I chose on election night to illustrate this by highlighting the mixed message voters originally sent.

Last Tuesday night, as the largest batch of ballots were counted and totals announced, voters split on the pair of propositions that would fund upgrades at the zoo. Prop. 202 was passing by a 3,000-vote margin, while Prop. 203 was failing by 350 votes.

The margin on election night wasn't big, but it was sizeable enough that I didn't think it would flip. I've seen enough elections in Arizona, where those questionable ballots are counted the following Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and sometimes for 10 days. And the results don't change.

So I jumped to a conclusion and landed on a land mine.

It was my honest-to-God takeaway from the 2017 city election but the broader point was informed by years of living here in Tucson and covering issues elections.

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And then, the ballots that came in on Election Day were reviewed and added to the count. And Prop. 203 flipped, with just enough votes to pass.

Cool. It gives the chance to write about the disconnect between readers and the media that my column illustrates. We do have biases — just not the ones were accused of.

I blame Hollywood. Think about it. How many times a week do viewers get to go inside a facsimile of a police station or a something akin to a hospital and see sorta what those jobs are like?

Then again, really nailing the life of a reporter would be like watching toenails grow. It's just not that sexy.

Episodes like "The Night the Editor Called With Stupid Questions" or the high drama of "The Day Spent Chasing Down Art" doesn't pump the blood. "The Phone Won't Ring, So We Search the Web," pales to the cinematic flop sweat of a surgeon grafting an aorta. We're so dull we make law firms seem thrilling.

The public remains clueless about journalists' motivations and obstacles, so they fill in the blanks and presumes bias drives the press.

Does the media tell the truth? Do we get it right? Can we be trusted?

We try our damndest. Define your terms. Absolutely we can be trusted to do what we do.

The media can be trusted to get you the news as it happens, as we understand it. The press writes history's first draft. Someone's gotta do it. The downside is that first drafts are often torn up and rewritten.

So journalists deal in the currency of "coverage," believing no single story stands alone. Sources tend to understand and cut us slack when they read a story that bugs them. Readers treat each news story as a be-all, end-all account, but committing journalism is an ongoing process. Some outlets sadly don't circle back to offer more context. We'll always strive to do that.

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Political bias is the least of the media's worries. We are influenced far more by Newtonian Physics and good old spacetime.

Room with a limited view

Space decides just how much you know and that is a bias built into the delivery of news.

In reader survey after reader survey, the buying public tells newsrooms they want shorter stories. Readers won't read after the jump. So stuff gets left out. If it is important, reporters will leave it for a follow-up (folo in journalism lingo).

I could go on and on about the pedantic nature of the shorter-is-better conclusion because it seems to be exclusive to smaller markets. Big cities, see, like more in-depth coverage. Yokels just get overloaded with all those ... big-city words.

TucsonSentinel.com doesn't have to worry as much about space or time. We have room to provide context. We have no print "newshole" to limit story length. It's why I write as long as I do. We can write until you stop reading — and our readers have demonstrated that they appreciate in-depth reporting with context. Because we are a portal online, we don't have to feed the beast every single day. We can take our time without a fresh-cut new product to deliver to doorsteps or on TV at noon, 5 and 10.

TV news is just screwed. They have 30 or 45 seconds to tell their story and often their reporters are so shuttled around from day-to-day that they don't get a chance to develop expertise on a topic.

Reporters leave stuff out of their stories when they have 12 column inches to tell them. Journalists find themselves pondering a topic that would add context but can't spare the extra inches. There's more to the story but journalists run out of real estate.

Inside newsrooms, the biggest gripe reporters have with space in the headlines. Copy editors write headlines and a one-column hed in 60-point type doesn't leave a lot of room for explaining. So the headline sometimes doesn't match the story. Readers get mad. The reporter gets mad. Copy editors, because they are copy editors, do not care. They are their own genetic breed.

(Aside: I (mostly) write my own headlines here at TucsonSentinel.com so I don't have the luxury of that particular complaint. Dylan can be snarky but he's not hateful.)

Space limits what we can and can't say and frankly, doesn't provide much room for context. Context is the light that shines over information.

Time and time again

Space is a journalistic challenge. Time is the journalist's enemy.

Straight-up deadlines can influence what you know.

I can't count how many times I had a story all but written and just needed that one last source to call so I could plug in that last quote only to find that last bit of information changed the whole damn story.

Say you are doing a story about neighbors up in arms about a new planned development. You talk to the city, the developer and the neighborhood representatives and think you are good to go waiting on a call from the developer's lawyer. At 7 p.m., the lawyer calls and tells you about case law that is on his client's side no one else told you about.

Select all. Delete. Start again. It happened so much that I just stopped writing until I got all my sources. It turned out to be faster. But what if the lawyer never called on deadline? You would read the story absent critical information. If a reporters knew there might be an important nugget to track down, then maybe the news desk could be convinced to  hold the story another day.

If you didn't know that vital kernel was coming, the story won't tell the reader the whole truth on day one.

The truth itself evolves over time.

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The day after the 1999 city election, I was charged with writing a story about how business finally got what it wanted. A Republican mayor, in Bob Walkup, and a brand-new deal for business called Rio Nuevo. Ten years later, Democrats were running for their lives from Rio Nuevo, haunted by its failures and too-far-reaching promises.

Who knew? What the business community championed in '99 would make their blood boil in '09. I sure didn't that November day.

On election night 2017, I wanted to knock out a column on the results because election nights are just a festival for news and context. The people only so often get to weigh in with their appraisals of how things are going and what they want out of their elected leaders.

What stands out on election night that complements Dylan and Paul's crackerjack news reporting? The zoo election. I could wait for the final results but experience taught me X when Y was true. Even though we didn't have the need to publish a new product the day after the election, the notion of "sooner rather than later" is embedded in our operating systems. So we got the story out sooner.

Painful experience

I fell victim to the Experience Bias, haunted by time. I know what's what because I've been at this so long. A margin of a few hundred votes is just too hard to make up as the county tabulates ballots not counted on election night.

The very experience that can provide readers with context can reach the wrong conclusions about what exactly it is reporters are learning.

The zoo story won't be what haunts me to my grave. That would be missing the biggest economic story of the last 80 years as it happened right under our noses.

The housing bubble happened right here in Tucson. Home prices were skyrocketing at unsustainable levels. There was a story I was working in 2005 that had me perusing home listings. Those listings included the tax bills. The tax bills usually run about 1 percent of a home's most recent assessment, give or take 20 percent. But the listing prices were up over $300,000 in some neighborhoods on homes with tax bills was just over $1,000.

Something was out of whack because $120,000 homes were going for two and a half times that.

To my way of thinking, home prices were set by income. No way could Tucson salaries support that market. On the other hand, people could if they were moving in from other markets where home prices were even higher.

So even when realtors were telling me most of their clients were from within Tucson, I didn't believe it. Even when they were telling me spotty credit and a low income didn't prevent anyone from buying a single-family detached. I thought they were just talking smack.

Incomes were flat in Tucson. How could Tucson home buyers suddenly afford twice the house? Well, I was told it was interest rates. That didn't seem right either. It had to be California refugees.

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The reporter covering the housing bubble at the time couldn't wrap his head around the fact that the whole market would collapse. He was a good and experienced writer with a nose for bullshit. Home prices had done nothing but go up for 20 years in the Tucson market.

So, when we wrote about increasing prices, we missed the time bomb that would take down global markets hidden in that great ramp up of prices.

At no point, did any of the newsroom leaders sit us down and say "what the hell is going on here?" Our head of news had an MBA. She was a former business editor. Our publisher was a smart cookie and tough-nosed news guy. Both grew up in Tucson.

By 2007, the housing bubble was too advanced to keep from breaking but maybe the country would have been better prepared. If local news had found it in Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas and South Florida, would it have gone national over the wires? If the drumbeat of coverage grew, would it have made a difference in how much of the economy it took out? Who knows? It was our job to test the theory.

I just knew at the time that journalists who had been watching the housing markets for years were informed by their experience: It couldn't happen here.

Blame the victim (Hi!)

In hindsight, I should have waited on the final zoo election results but we thought we had it down. I still stand by the broader context of the column but ... yeah. We fell on hubris crunched by time.

These are just two of the biases the media should spend more time worrying about, rather than whether reporters prefer Pell Grants to precision munitions.

In a broader context, the press can be trusted to do what it does over time but understanding its internal biases and limitations helps illuminates the media's daily shortcomings.

If you are searching for eternal truth, consult a pastor, rabbi, imam or shaman. Read some philosophy. If you want the facts, as they happen, the press is well-trained and well-accustomed to provide them.

It just makes for lousy TV.

Next episode: "The Source Who Talked Too Fast."

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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have your say   

1 comment on this story

Nov 21, 2017, 10:48 am
-0 +0

I like what you say here:

The public remains clueless about journalists’ motivations and obstacles, so they fill in the blanks and presumes bias drives the press.

Does the media tell the truth? Do we get it right? Can we be trusted?

We try our damnedest. Define your terms. Absolutely we can be trusted to do what we do.

But what are we to think when so much of what many news consumers think of as news comes from sources like Fox News, Breitbart, etc.?  (Or HuffPost or the Daily Kos, for that matter?)  Either your statements about “the media” are no longer valid, or the definitions of “the media” and “journalists” have to be changed to exclude those whose motivations do not include truth above, say, power.

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Click image to enlarge

Reid Park Zoo

Dresena, a Malayan sun bear, at the Reid Park Zoo in 2015.