Journalism Pop Quiz: You are a business writer for the Arizona Republic and you get a press release from someone who has filed paperwork at the SEC disclosing that he plans to take over a major Arizona corporation--say, Freeport McMoRan, APS, or even the Republic itself.
You are not an expert on hostile takeovers, but you know that they are expensive and you do a little research and find out that the guy who filed the paperwork at the SEC is a very nice, middle income man from Glendale with no financial experience or connections. After a little further investigation, you discover that a few years ago he announced that he was taking over General Motors and last year he announced that he would be taking over Shell Oil. Each of those announcements generated long Republic stories, but neither "takeover attempt" went anywhere.
What should you do?
Choice A: Ignore the press release because the guy is obviously just trying to use the "takeover" as a ploy to get attention and use the paper as a platform to complain about various companies.
Choice B: Write a 600 word story in which you dutifully air all of the guy's complaints against Freeport, then follow up with denials from Freeport. Then you add some general information about how many jobs might be lost if Freeport were taken over plus throw in comments from financial analysts saying that it would take, like, a billion dollars to takeover Freeport. Then let the Freeport spokesmen point out that not only does this guy not have a billion dollars, he's done this trick before with no results.
The obvious answer is A. Why waste the reader's time exploring a scenario that has no chance of playing out? Why force Freeport, APS, or the Republic to respond to one man's personal diatribe?
That answer seems obvious, but check out this story filed under the very scary headline.
Recall effort launched against Sen. Jon Kyl
Two Phoenix residents on Tuesday filed an application for the recall of Sen. Jon Kyl, citing their frustrations with the way Kyl is representing the state in Congress.
The group consists of Clark and William Crum, the group's treasurer. They must collect 427,121 signatures of eligible Arizona voters by April 20.
Give me a break, does anyone believe that these two guys are going to collect half a million signatures because they are unhappy with Senator Kyl? Of course, no one can claim that Republic reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee didn't write a fair story. After all, she let Kyl's spokesman point out that Mr. Crum has announced a bunch of recalls--none of which have gone anywhere. Lee herself adds that Crum tried to recall John McCain in 2008--an effort that went nowhere. She even calls the Secretary of State's office for the obligatory quote that the half a million signature requirement is "exceptionally steep."
But--like the corporate takeover story--she gives a platform to a guy who is obviously just using the paper to air his grievances. She forces Kyl's office to respond to someone who isn't credible based on a threat that isn't credible. She mentions Kyl's name in the same article as Evan Mecham and subjects Kyl to a headline--which is all most people will read--that makes him look bad.
The journalist's role of Gate Keeper is a legitimate one. Unfortunately it is too often abused. We've all seen examples where the media initially decided that a major issue was a non-story--the Tea Party movement being the latest example. Filtering out major stories that don't fit the media narrative is one type of abuse.
But the gate works the other way as well. Some stories really aren't news. Not every press release needs to go into Valley and State--and the next time Mr. Crum decides to "recall" someone, he needs to show up with a couple hundred thousand signatures before he is viewed as credible.