How The Clarion-Ledger Got It Wrong: The Importance of Context | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

How The Clarion-Ledger Got It Wrong: The Importance of Context

Metro dailies like The Clarion-Ledger often neglect to place important stories in context, which is a grave disservice to its readers.

Metro dailies like The Clarion-Ledger often neglect to place important stories in context, which is a grave disservice to its readers. Photo by Trip Burns.

As part of its coverage of Mississippi's proposed execution of Michelle Byrom, The Clarion-Ledger's Therese Apel wrote a puff piece that ostensibly explored whether the United States reserves its harshest punishment mostly for men. Does the criminal-justice system suffer from gender bias?

It's an interesting question to explore. Putting aside the article's numerous other problems (beginning with its nonsensical headline, "Idea of executing a woman mixed" because, you know, "ideas" are difficult, if not impossible, to "mix"), what the story completely failed to do is provide readers any reason to care.

Somewhere around the middle of the piece, Apel provided statistics: "There have been 53 women executed in the United States since 1900, with only four of those being in the last 10 years," she wrote. "There have been close to 10,000 executions altogether in the same amount of time."

That's good information, and it's important within the scope of the exploration. But Apel stopped there, leaving readers with the impression that, of course, gender bias is obvious. Without providing readers any of the "whys" for the stats, Apel (and the C-L's editors) turned what could have been a serious, informative article into a self-serving bit of inconsequential fluff.

To be fair, Apel isn't the first journalist who failed to provide the relevant context, and she won't be the last. After all, adding the necessary context to a story is time-consuming, painstaking work.

Political reporter Sam Stein called his job during an election cycle "an unmitigated process of data searches, interview requests, editorial insights, email exchanges, and ultimately deadline-influenced pieces."

Stein's column, "Fast-Paced Journalism's Neglect of Nuance and Context," appears on Harvard University's "Neiman Reports" website, an outlet devoted to excellence in journalism. The piece addressed online news, primarily, but his conclusion is directly on point. Lack of context, he wrote, "is primarily a function of reporters settling for a timely article rather than a complete one. It is an avoidable problem."

Reporters must thoroughly research their stories, he continues, and in the interest of informing their readers, they should provide links and other sources available online. That's important, "not simply because readers and viewers demand it, but because ... it makes our work a clearly superior product."

Boom. If a media outlet wants to increase readership, isn't providing a better mousetrap the way to go? News consumers want interesting, engaging stories. But journalists—and their editors—have a responsibility beyond providing sophomoric entertainment.

"Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context," the Pew Journalism Project writes on its website. "Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can - and must - pursue it in a practical sense."

"Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. ... In short, it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant." 

The day after the Ledger published Apel's piece, The Nation magazine also published a story on gender bias. In "A Very Serious Problem With Very Serious Journalism," Julia Carrie Wong explored the lack of women engaged in foreign policy reporting. The richly researched piece drew its conclusions from numerous sources, and provided links to each one. She thoroughly supports her premise: that diversity is fundamental to the debate and to the reporting of it.

"A journalism more aware of the intersections of race, class and power will be much better equipped to ask the questions that might not even occur to reporters who have never interacted with the state from a position of weakness—whether that's as a person of color subject to intense police repression or a woman whose access to reproductive health care is increasingly under attack," she wrote.

Readers may not agree with the premise, and certainly, they are free to do further research and come to their own conclusions. But no one can argue that Wong met the standard of providing "meaningful context."

Ultimately, journalists and editors come complete with biases and blind spots. But they must demand and do the hard, necessary work of putting their stories into a larger context. Without it, it's not news; it's just more mindless clutter.

Ronni Mott first investigated and reported the Byrom story, in a story published March 19. Find it and others at jfp.ms/byrom.

Like independent media outlets around the world, the Jackson Free Press works hard to produce important content on a limited budget. We'd love your help! Become a JFP VIP member today and/or donate to our journalism fund. Thanks for considering a JFP VIP membership or one-time support.

Comments

smokediver68 5 years, 7 months ago

The "mindless clutter" was this "article". I thought that the JFP had gotten past the cry-baby attitude and always whining about the CL. It's old and worn out. You write of sophomoric journalism but yet you attack another journalist. It doesn't get much more of a high school mentality than that. Last I checked, Ms. Apel has been on several national news channels contributing to stories from around the state that have made national news. And she makes us look good. The reason we see her and not anyone from the JFP is because she is recognized by her peers as a professional who does her job and does it the right way. You won't hear anything from her about this because she's probably out working on an actual story and not plotting another way to play the victim and cry as Ms. Mott has chosen to do. But thanks for giving us an up-to-date list of the bands playing around town when it's time to party!

0

tstauffer 5 years, 7 months ago

@smokediver68 I'm not going to put through another comment like this from you that completely skips the substance of the argument and makes it personal about our writers and company, but I wanted folks to see this one for what it is. (Ronni may have her own response.)

Media criticism is something we do -- and people who take it personally are free to do that, but that's not how it's meant. The Clarion-Ledger still purports to be a statewide daily, backed by the largest newspaper company in the country. While it is perhaps increasingly irrelevant, it remains the "paper of record" in these parts. So, in my opinion, they have a responsibility to the community.

Carrying water for this meme -- that somehow the Byron case got special treatment because she's a woman -- is at best confusing correlation for causality. And it happens to be a REALLY bad fit for this case, because the only logical premise is that it matters if a woman gets different treatment for the same crime, and this particular case is a bad fit for that premise.

The C-L needs to get beyond this "national new channel" level of discourse and move to the next level in their coverage -- context -- something that you don't actually seem to have a quibble with since you didn't address any of the substance of Ronni's piece.

As for Ms. Apel "making us look good" I hope that's true (I've never heard of her, but don't have any reason to doubt it), but that doesn't make this piece any better -- something which we might rightly blame on her editors more than her if they gave her the assignment. Nor does that C-L's Monday-morning grandstanding on a story that they've completely whiffed on.

As for your other comment about our up-to-date list of bands -- you're welcome, and thanks for reading! We pour every resource we have into all aspects of our reporting and we enjoy offering high quality content as a service to our readers.

0

RonniMott 5 years, 7 months ago

Smokediver, if, as you say "Ms. Apel has been on several national news channels contributing to stories from around the state that have made national news," her piece is actually more egregious because she knows better.

I have no reason to doubt that Apel has done good work. But my piece, contrary to your claim that it is a personal attack, points to a much bigger media issue on a national level. As I wrote, "To be fair, Apel isn't the first journalist who failed to provide the relevant context, and she won't be the last." Apel wrote this piece on assignment and on deadline, I'm sure, and her editor has as much--if not more--responsibility for the outcome. It's one small example of what journalists are often forced by circumstance to produce. As an editor, I would see it as a decent first draft, not a finished piece. It could have been so much more.

The story is written by a woman looking at a valid question raised by one woman's legal battle. Yet Apel included only men's voices, and those from her journalistic colleagues. She presents no media scholarship to explore the question, and no statistical evidence beyond what I quoted.

Journalism is hard work. It should be, as it often shapes public opinion, and thus, public policy. That's a big responsibility, and is protected by the U.S. Constitution because of its importance to the democratic process. We need to do a better job than the numerous examples of sloppy, lazy, context-less reporting and mindless "infotainment" drivel that we are too often prone to write and publish. When we fail to abide by our own high standards, we deserve to come under serious, sometimes scathing scrutiny from our colleagues--and by the people who rely on us to give them real information.

In that spirit, thank you for your comment.

0

msu_scrappy 5 years, 7 months ago

Mr. Stauffer and Ms. Mott:

While Ms. Apel may have missed an opportunity to expand the story and report on a larger story beyond simply the execution of a female in Mississippi, I personally feel the editorial article by Ms. Mott was more unfair because it misses an even greater point.

Ms. Mott's article is about trying to improve journalism, but it headlines the Clarion Ledger got it wrong, but Ms. Mott did not attack/critique the JFP editors for poorly labeling the article. In fact, you have to read past the first half the attack piece of the article to realize the article is intended to be a critique on how to improve journalism, but, as Ms. Mott points out fault in Ms. Apel's article, her own article, lacks sufficient examples and does not have the best structure to get to the point she is trying to make. Further, Ms. Mott, in writing her article, fails to turn the article at her own paper, and how other papers can do better, especially how her own paper could do better.

0

tstauffer 5 years, 7 months ago

@msu_scrappy: The headline says exactly what the article is about -- the importance of context, and how it was missing from Apel's analysis of the role of gender in the Byrom case. I'll let her speak for herself, but I'm guessing one reason Ronni didn't "attack" anyone else at the JFP because the headline reflected the content of the piece accurately.

0

donnaladd 5 years, 7 months ago

I'll weigh in: That Clarion-Ledger piece was one of the worst I've seen in that paper in recent history, and that says a lot (especially considering last year's election coverage and the whole arc of their devotion to Frank Melton).

Ms. Apel concocted a narrative that people might be more concerned about Ms. Byrom's execution because she was a woman, which is remarkable considering the people (including Ronni and the JFP and the Innocence Project who first alerted me to it) who were the loudest on this case. They are all people and institutions that have long worked to get unfairly accused and prosecuted people out of prison and off death row.

She then interviews a male columnist/former Ledger editor (known for his support of the death penalty) and a male reporter at her paper about it -- neither of whom seemed astute about or schooled in gender/media issues.

Then there are the issues about selective and out-of-context statistics and other problems Ronni detailed in her analysis above.

Not to mention, I have heard one after another person bring this story up to me as an example of the remarkable news decisions made at The Clarion-Ledger, even now when they're trying to remake themselves but so often failing miserably (which I suspect is the fault of the editors, not Ms. Apel, whom I've never really heard much about/from, either). In fact, I can't think of a strong female news/serious opinion voice from inside The Clarion-Ledger in the years we've been pushing. Again, the fault of management and editors.

The Clarion-Ledger does its worst work, typically, on "second-day" (or often, in their case, second-week) stories where they try to figure out something to report on a story they didn't first report. That's when they often try to go contrarian and often to disastrous results (two stories about last year's mayoral election come to mind).

The problem with this story ultimately is how insulting it was to women, the people working for justice in this case and Ms. Byrom herself. It added nothing to the conversation and could actually be harmful. It matters, and that's why we ran Ronni's analysis of it.

0

RonniMott 5 years, 7 months ago

"Ms. Mott points out fault in Ms. Apel's article, her own article, lacks sufficient examples and does not have the best structure to get to the point she is trying to make. Further, Ms. Mott, in writing her article, fails to turn the article at her own paper, and how other papers can do better, especially how her own paper could do better."

msu_scrappy, while your critique has some validity, it is highly subjective and fairly defensive.

My subject is context. I provided one very problematic example (the C-L piece), one describing the challenges journalists face (the Neiman Reports piece) to provide it, an example of what journalistic contextualization should strive for (from the Pew site), and one column on gender bias that amply achieves those goals (from The Nation).

In a 685-word column, how many examples would you consider "sufficient" to make the point (that journalists and editors "must demand and do the hard, necessary work of putting their stories into a larger context")? I can't address your structural issue, because you didn't say what your problem is. (The criticism sounds a lot like the kind of thing I heard from marketing clients in the past ... "I just don't like it.")

Certainly, if this were a 5,000-word academic research paper (or a 400-page book) on the role of context in journalism, I would have provided far more examples, quite possibly even pulling in bad and good examples from the Jackson Free Press. But my piece is neither academic nor a book. It is a media analysis.

I used the C-L story as an example of a story that was insufficiently researched, insufficiently edited and is, therefore, just not very good. It wouldn't take a lot of searching to find other badly executed, context-thin news stories. I also pointed out that the question Apel attempted to explore is interesting. Her piece was pointed out to me because of it's purported relevance to a story that I was deeply involved with. It's not a valuable addition to the conversation about the death penalty or women entangled with the criminal justice system, and I found it factually misleading.

Despite your opinion that I didn't offer ways that other papers can do better, I actually did. It all comes down to adding the "why" (and "how") to the "who, what and where." The Nation piece is a prime example of how to get context right.

Your screen name implies that you may be an MSU student. If you are, I invite you to explore the subject further and, perhaps, write a thorough thesis on the subject. If you teach journalism, this could be a jumping-off point for your students. If you're a working journalist, I invite you to look beyond your defensiveness and take the message to heart. Write a better piece on gender bias or a better media analysis.

0
comments powered by Disqus