CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Craig Gurian’s previous posts on preparing to launch his new site can be found here.
The featured articles in the first couple of editions of Remapping Debate have all weighed in well north of the 2,500 word mark. Not all of our featured pieces will do so, but it is safe to say that most of our reporting will not consist of short pieces. There will be an exception to that rule, at least most of the time. It’s a distinctive feature on which we have gotten some very good initial feedback. It’s called Story Repair.
For Story Repair, we select a story from a major news outlet that neglected to pursue lines of inquiry that are actually central to the story. Then, making a similar investment of time as the original publication, we redo the article in the hope of producing a more illuminating final product. The first stories taken in for repair came from Politico and The Wall Street Journal, respectively.
There are a host of reasons why we might want to perform repairs on an article. For example, there are articles that can’t or won’t imagine or report on anything beyond a narrow menu of policy positions (on the grounds, explicitly or implicitly, that the acceptance of one policy or another is “inevitable” or that a broader range of choices are “impractical”). These articles effectively conceal from the public not only specific policy alternatives, but, often, the very fact that a policy direction represented a choice in the first place. In the end, the articles serve—even if unintentionally—to perpetuate assumptions about the limits of “realistic” policy options that might or might not prove true were those assumptions placed under more intensive scrutiny.
Then there are the articles—many articles—that fail to push policy makers and policy advocates to explain and defend their positions. There are just as many that put forward a story in “he said, she said” format, without helping the reader understand which assertions are evidence-based, and without bringing the contentions of the various sides of a dispute into contact with one another.
Some articles fail to recognize the news importance of what is not said or acknowledged. There are those articles that just ignore anyone who deviates from one point of view, and then announce that everybody is in agreement about the appropriate resolution to a particular policy issue.
We think that Story Repair can play an important function; we invite our readers to be our eyes and ears and suggest candidates for Story Repair to us.
That said, the selection process will not always be easy. While some ground rules are fairly straightforward (like not using information that wasn’t available at the time the original story was reported, or not putting in a ton of time reporting a piece that was a quick take for the original publication), there are more difficult decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.
If the story only purports to be an abbreviated stenographic rendition of an announcement, it probably won’t be worthy of Story Repair. But, sometimes, especially where a piece doesn’t “have to be” published on a particular day, it is fair to ask: “Was it responsible to publish the article in its original form?” If our answer is no, our Story Repair may well involve our putting some more time into the reporting than was allotted by the original publication.
There are cases where a story is inadequate, but a subsequent story in the same publication helps repair the first one. Thus, a piece in last Thursday’s New York Times highlighted charges that President Obama has inaccurately “filled in his own details” of Republican proposals “as if they were in the Republican plan,” even though the story acknowledges that “Mr. Obama’s general points about the scale of Republican spending cuts and fiscal effects of high-end tax cuts have a solid factual basis.” The story’s focus was justified with the statement that “Mr. Obama is employing the biggest megaphone in politics, and his words are parsed like no other politician’s.” While the article referenced the vagueness of Republican proposals, that vagueness was not understood as the key piece of news to be explored.
Before we got to it, however, yesterday’s Times carried a page one story entitled “As G.O.P. Seeks Spending Cuts, Details Are Scarce.” That certainly made it less necessary to repair the previous piece. On the other hand, the more recent story manages to go from beginning to end without asking a single Republican politician to speak to the issue of the lack of details. Posing those questions (and not settling merely for single sound-bite answers) would have either confirmed or debunked the charges of vagueness and failure to account for consequences—an important element to the story either way.
So perhaps we can describe the state of play as “partially repaired.” In any event, having discussed them here, these pieces will not be among those featured in upcoming installments of Story Repair.
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It is time to turn Launch Pad over to reports from another new venture. I’m grateful to CJR for having given us the opportunity to tell (the beginning of) our story, and we’ll be looking to our colleagues and readers to provide us with guidance and criticism.