The best and worst journalism of August 2016

Illustration by Jeff Drew Pictures

The dog days of summer brought many a moist subway ride to CJR’s office in northern Manhattan. We’re as ready as you are to cool off this Labor Day weekend. But before then consider some of this month’s hottest journalism, good and bad.

Best Journalism of August 2016

Secrets of a global supercourt

BuzzFeed, a blog known for listicles and cat GIFs, turned its supposedly nearsighted Millennial gaze this week to exposing legalese buried deep within many international trade agreements that gives corporations carte blanche to play by their own rules. “Imagine a private, global super court that empowers corporations to bend countries to their will,” reporter Chris Hamby begins the first piece of his multi-country, multi-part investigation. He details how companies wield an opaque legal process as a bludgeon to extract cash and concessions from governments around the world, often leaving citizens holding the bag. Those among us who don’t consider BuzzFeed a legitimate news organization aren’t watching closely enough.  

Manaf-out

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Associated Press essentially forced the ouster of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, with back-to-back stories unveiling what it called a “covert influence campaign” in Washington on behalf of a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party. The latter report suggested Manafort broke federal law and gave him little room to slither away from scrutiny. The AP scoops, which came days after a New York Times report linking Manafort to millions in cash payments in Ukraine, are a victory for hard-nosed reporting. He resigned within days.

Where did the bullets go?

Whereas The Guardian and Washington Post have taken on the yeoman’s work of tracking police killings nationally, an effort by the Texas Tribune is at once narrower and deeper. In “Unholstered,” the nonprofit attempts to count every time cops in the state’s 36 largest cities fired their weapons between 2010 and 2015. The topline conclusion, expanded upon in a slick data presentation and a half-dozen text stories from various angles: No one else is really trying to keep tabs on where all the bullets go. “Sporadic record-keeping across the state—and no uniform requirement to capture data on all shootings—further complicates use-of-force discussions and debates about the dynamics of police shootings,” the Tribune writes. Another question mark for us all.

 

The Fight for Falluja 

The New York Times provided as good a blueprint as any for how to tell a compelling story in virtual reality. In an 11-minute feature, viewers get a close-up look as Iraqi militias mount an assault to retake a city from ISIS; a momentary glimpse of the inside of a cage for the terrorist group’s prisoners; and a chilling view of the empty streets and fearful refugees left in wake of the violence. “In America, people talk of ISIS as a distant menace,” the Times’ Ben C. Solomon narrates as he stands among allied fighters. “But here, in this vast and hot desert, they are an army. And these are the men sent to fight and kill them.” It’s a frightening reintroduction to a war typically confined to newsprint; virtual reality magnifies the horror.

Peep the story below, though data gleaned from CJR’s in-house test group suggests it’s best viewed through a VR-headset while sitting on a swivel chair.

How about that Olympics coverage!

The game is up. Corruption has become a sad norm of international sports, yet The New York Times and Indianapolis Star broke new ground with their respective investigations of state-sponsored doping in Russia and USA Gymnastics’ checkered history of sexual abuse allegations. An Associated Press study of Rio pollution warned athletes to keep their heads above water, while USA Today made sense of whatever it was Ryan Lochte did that night. Such takeouts came in addition to sustained coverage of inequality in Rio—and whether the Games might have any chance at shrinking it. It’s almost as if focused media attention can be a force for good.

We’d be remiss to overlook coverage of the Games themselves. The Times in particular stood out for its visual and interactive pieces—can you beat Usain Bolt out of the blocks? And journalists did a characteristically good job with the human interest features that fill so much downtime during athletic competitions. The best sports stories often aren’t about sports.  

 


Worst Journalism of August 2016

…about that Olympics coverage

The World Championships of Content also bring out the worst in us. Too often did media explorations of Rio follow exoticized tropes, masking the city’s complexities and contradictions. A prime example came when a number of outlets initially bit on Lochte’s too-crazy-to-be-true retelling of his drunk night out. I only wish we could blame it on the alcohol. Then there were the age-old storylines—The Cold War is back! Athletes have sex! Swimmers eat a lot!—content farms periodically harvest according to biennial Olympic crop rotations. I devoured them just as you did; we’re all animals.

Cringeworthiness wasn’t relegated to Lochte. The Parade of Nations was accompanied by a stream of awkward geopolitical commentary from NBC. The Daily Beast potentially outed gay athletes in a feature about hookup apps in the Olympic Village, a story for which it later apologized and removed. And there were undertones of sexism in some of the analysis of the competitions themselves. (Behind every world-class female athlete, there’s apparently a man bun.) Luckily, we have two years to sit in a five-ring-shaped timeout and think about what we’ve done. 

Never tweet

The Associated Press made an unforced error while overhyping its story about Clinton Foundation donors:

That is wrong—and with 26 characters to spare. Clinton Foundation donors comprised more than half of Clinton’s meetings with private individuals listed in incomplete State Department records the AP (rightly) sued to obtain. In a Reliable Sources interview worth watching, AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said the social media post was “sloppy” but didn’t concede its inaccuracy. Chalk it up to being in the tweet of the moment. It’s true that every news organization oversells its stories on social media at times, though topics of this magnitude are few.

False balance

We thought mainlining the Trump cocktail would flush this from our system. Yet here we are, reading stories equating Clinton’s accurate descriptions of Trump’s racist rhetoric with Trump’s baseless accusation that Clinton is a bigot. On the question of who is stoking hate in this odd presidential campaign, there is a right and wrong answer—just as there is a right and wrong answer on which candidate is routinely spreading conspiracy theories. This is Trump; there is no pivot. 

*****

Pivot into my DMs at Uberti.David@gmail.com. This is the digital continuation of our long-running print feature, “Darts and Laurels,” and we’d like to include your suggestions and feedback going forward.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.