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.