Here's a classic example of how a reporter can write a "story" that is actually hit piece in disguise. Check out this lede and see if you can spot the tricks.
State Sen. Kelli Ward announced her U.S. Senate exploratory committee to supporters this month through a mass e-mail that featured a photo of her seated in her state Senate office, raising questions about whether the fundraising appeal violated an Arizona law that prohibits the use of public resources to influence an election.
Notice the passive voice in the term "raising questions". Who is "raising questions"? Whenever you see a phrase like this or "critics argue" you know that it is the reporter himself who is creating the story. There's no outcry--either Reporter Dan Nowicki saw the picture and decided to write the story, or more likely some anonymous person who isn't a Kelli Ward fan, forwarded him the email. At which point, Nowicki used the "raising questions" ploy to gin up a controversy.
Now check out this paragraph considerably further down in the article.
A state Capitol lobbyist alerted The Arizona Republic to what appeared to be a breach of a time-honored protocol in which legislators avoided the use of state House or Senate facilities in their campaign activities.
Hmm, now we have a little more info. We know that the original source is an anonymous lobbyist. Now we can see why Nowicki buried this info deep in the story. Obviously if he had written that "A lobbyist who asked not to be identified sent me an email in which Kelli Ward is at her desk...." If Nowicki had disclosed his source early in the piece then readers would have had the information they needed to disregard the piece immediately. Reporters know that the best defense for this type of story is for the target to say "consider the source", so Nowicki hides the source as long as he can.
By the way, what's the Republic's policy on anonymous sources? If Nowicki were to tell us who this anonymous lobbyist is, it's a pretty safe bet that he/she is a McCain supporter who has had run ins with Ward. Of course, we will never now because we started with "raises questions" and moved on to anonymous lobbyist, but we don't learn any more.
This trick is effective because many people will just look at the headline and the first paragraph and will be fooled.
Did you catch the next trick? What did the opening paragraph say the issue was? It questions whether she "violated a state law..." But that's not what the "lobbyist alerted..." paragraph says now is it? The later paragraph says that she "appeared to be a breach of a time-honored protocol..."
Wow, is that enough weasel words for you? It's not a law, it's a "protocol". And she didn't "violate" like it says in the first paragraph, she "appeared to breach."
So I guess that entire first paragraph was pretty much just BS. We went from "violating laws"...to appeared to breach a time-honored protocol. The story unravels as it goes.
Of course, Nowiki is also just making up the "time-honored protocol." Which is pretty easy since "time-honored protocols" aren't written down, so making them up and giving them an official sounding title is pretty easy. Here's a great picture of Rebecca Rios' on the floor of the House. You can find it on her campaign website. I guess you aren't really violating that time-honored protocol unless you are thinking about running against John McCain.
The next thing to notice is that Nowicki knows that the photo isn't illegal because he called the Secretary of State's office and they described the use of state property as "incidental."
Here's a fun analysis, think about the time line of the story. My guess is that Nowicki wrote the lede paragraph and then called the Secretary of State who deflated the whole story by pointing out that this was merely incidental use of state property that is not covered by the law. By then, Nowicki had so much invested in the piece already that he invented the term "time-honored protocol" and put it above the point in the story where he admitted that the conduct wasn't illegal.
Naturally, what a real reporter would have done was answer the lobbyist's call and point out that the lobbyist has an axe to grind, won't allow his name to be used, and is complaining about an incidental use of state resources that is both common and legal.
That would be actual reporting. But it's a lot less fun than writing hit pieces--especially when you are such a big John McCain fan.