How dangerous is offshore oil drilling? What are the facts concerning the risks of more spills like the one now heading toward Louisiana? That is what journalists now should be drilling down to learn and tell us. There are huge implications for the Obama administration’s energy policy, as some news organizations are starting to report. We cannot assume that the administration will give us the whole story, if drilling is so dangerous that their plan to do more of it is now at risk. And we cannot assume that the oil industry will give us the whole story. Nor can we assume that environmentalists will give us all the facts, including any facts that might indicate drilling is not as risky as it seems. It is journalists who are needed now to sort out fact from opinion and give us the data we the public need to form our opinions, which in turn will drive policy.
Monthly Archives: April 2010
While I share the outrage that many people feel about Arizona’s new law requiring police to question anyone they think looks like an illegal immigrant (mainly Mexican), I still feel that journalists need to try to be as objective as is humanly possible in reporting this story. I don’t mean creating a false balance between those who support and oppose the law. Journalists can still quote experts on the law’s potential for civil liberties abuses. But reporters shouldn’t let their own animosity toward the law cloud their thinking and distort their coverage. News organizations need to tell us what the fact are — what does the law say, what problem is it supposed to address, what is its context, what do the best experts on either side say are the main arguments for and against it, and how are ordinary citizens responding? There is always a danger of overreaction by either side when emotions run high. Journalists need to keep calm and stick to the facts, and let the chips fall where they may.
Now that Goldman Sachs is accused of fraud and its head, Lloyd Blankfein, is to testify Tuesday before Congress, journalists need to keep up their hard-hitting investigative reporting. We still don’t know all the details. Exactly how much money did Goldman make by shorting the same mortgage packages they were encouraging clients to buy? How much double dealing like this was going on? News media need to keep up the pressure, so Congress and the public don’t lose interest. There is always the danger that the passage of time, the complexity of the subject, the power of lobbyists, the short attention span of editors and the temptation for politicians to think only about the next election might all combine to let Goldman off the hook, derail substantive Wall Street reform, and leave us once again vulnerable to another economic collapse. After the 1929 crash and depression, Congress enacted real reforms and we need that kind of action now.
According to the Roanoke Times, police raided the student newspaper of James Madison University on Friday and confiscated hundreds of photos of an off-campus riot. If the story is true, this seems to be a deplorable violation of press freedom. A state attorney claimed the seizing of photos was designed to identify culprits and get dangerous criminals off the street, but there are laws protecting newspapers from having their reporting materials confiscated by police. In my journalistic ethics class we talk about the importance of the press being independent and protected against government intrusion. With very few exceptions, journalists should not be forced to turn over to police their notes, field tapes or other materials gathered while reporting. Otherwise government officials could seize anything they don’t like, to prevent stories being published about them. And journalists would lose the trust of the public, who see them as independent watchdogs on government, not lapdogs of the police.
Coverage has been extensive and well deserved for the volcano ash problem. Although it seems like something out of a cheesy sci-fi movie, it is all too real, with thousands of air travelers including President Obama affected, and news media have covered it well. They have provided good maps to show the extent of the dangerous cloud, and have added human interest anecdotes about stranded passengers.
The news that the SEC is suing Goldman Sachs for alleged fraud in a mortgage deal is an example of an important story that is difficult for news media to cover, partly because it is so complex, but they need to make the effort to tell the full story nevertheless and not degenerate into dumbing it down because it’s hard to understand. A lot is at stake. Although this is a civil suit, it could put pressure on the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against the Wall Street bank, and it could provide support for the administration’s efforts to regulate Wall Street more tightly. Not to mention the implications for Goldman Sachs itself, whose stock took a nosedive today on the news. With so much at stake, it’s important for the public to have a clear understanding of what exactly is alleged by the SEC and what the implications are. Although the public may be tired of hearing about obscure and bizarre financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations and other mortgage-related securities, news media need to keep explaining what these are, how they worked, and why they were incredibly risky and opaque. A story last December by the New York Times did a good job of explaining what Goldman Sachs had been doing — peddling bad investments to clients, then making money by betting against the very investments it had been peddling. The Times story said SEC investigators wanted to know if Goldman Sachs and other big banks deliberately helped put bad mortgage-linked assets into these investment packages, knowing that they were likely to tank but peddling them to clients anyway. Today’s SEC lawsuit says Goldman Sachs in fact did so, and that this constitutes flat-out fraud. The key legal issue here is going to be the state of mind of the defendants — whether Goldman execs knowingly set up their clients or had no idea how disastrous these investments would be. The Times and the Wall Street Journal have done a fairly good job trying to explain all this, but they could do better, and more news organizations need to explain it clearly and show readers and viewers what this means. They need to strike a balance between showing the public how despicable Wall Street bankers can be, on the one hand, while also being fair to Goldman Sachs — these are still only charges, and there is still a presumption of innocence. A lot is at stake, and journalists need to get it right
Update to my earlier post: I bought an iPad yesterday and love it. And I think it really can help save quality journalism. The price needs to come down ($499 for cheapest model now), and it needs to be lighter (1-1/2 lbs. gets to feel a bit heavy if you keep holding it in your hands), but otherwise it makes reading news reports and viewing news photos and videos such a pleasure that people will be willing to pay for subscriptions. Some news organizations such asUSAToday and the AP already have a full iPad version, which looks much better than using a browser to go to the regular website. For others, such as the Washington Post, there is not yet a full iPad version, but you can use the iPad to access their browser version or their iPod version. I’m sure that more and more news organizations will develop special iPad versions that will look great and make reading and viewing news reports even more enjoyable and enlightening. They will do this because the market is so great. Already Apple says it has sold a half million units this month, and has to delay introduction of the iPad on the international market because it can’t meet the U.S. domestic demand. A market that big will encourage news organizations to develop very attractive iPad versions of their news reports, and that will benefit both them and us news consumers. I could be accused of being a Pollyanna, but I have to say I’m now more optimistic about the future of journalism.