In the spring of 2001, Jeff Porter walked down what might charitably pass for a street in what might loosely be called a community nestled in Arkansas’ part of the Mississippi River Delta.
Walking through the grass sprouting on the dirt road, he slipped by one shack, and then another, occasionally peering in through the broken or loose boards at what should have been – 10 years after a significant increase in federal funding – a much better place to live.
What he found, however, was that despite an infusion of $3.7 billion over that period of time for the 42 Arkansas counties – about $2,650 for each man, woman, and child – few of the goals that had been outlined in government’s original plans for the area had been met. And now Porter, at the time a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, was knocking on doors, looking for the people of Pine City, a gathering so small that the 2000 census couldn’t find it, even if Rand McNally could.
It was here, amid the clutter of the abandoned homes and overgrown roads, that Porter found something he couldn’t with a phone call.
Or an official report.
Or a trip to a meeting.
He found the middle voices – the voices of those immediately affected by the issues journalists write about, but who don’t always turn up in their copy, experts say, because journalists don’t have enough time to find them – or simply don’t know how.
Instead, forced by deadlines, the need for comment and the idea that “balance” is defined by the presence of two opposing points of view, journalists write guided by the loudest and most accessible voices. And in the process, they leave the complicated middle, the sometimes-uncertain middle, and the almost always crowded middle, alone and silent.
“One of the reasons people gravitate to the extremes is they’re so visible and so accessible,” said Dr. George Kennedy, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “What we’re trying to teach here is the principle of civic journalism, including the necessity of trying to look for the complicated, muddy middle ground where most people usually are and where problems are most likely to be resolved. The tricky part is when a student or a reporter says, ‘how do I find such people?’”
For Porter, the problem was solved in part by the use of computer assisted reporting. With the help of federal databases and mapping software, he was able to pinpoint exactly what areas of Arkansas received the most money per capita for those initiatives, an area that included Pine City.
“We’ll just go see did they get their money’s worth?” he recalls thinking at the time. After his interviews, he didn’t need a talking head to tell him the obvious – that after 10 years, “in part of a county that got this huge increase of money, it had gotten worse,” he said. People had abandoned their homes, there still weren’t any sewers or businesses, and everyone in the area still was an hour away from a hospital.
In the end, after talking to all the experts about the computer analysis findings, he didn’t quote a single person who didn’t live in the Delta or had left the region. Porter is now the data library director at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.
What Porter was able to do is what Aly Colón believes is essential in the search for these kinds of voices: recognize their importance and get the training needed to find them.
“You should not accept your frame as the only frame from which the story can be told,” said Colón, who is on the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute. “Journalists, if they’re not careful, will find the facts that support [their view].
“The danger is that because [journalists] are well educated, they think they’re well trained and they may be, but they need to get more training,” he said. “It’s a continuing process.”
to find that middle – that constituency – requires time and effort. And to get the training requires money, something that many companies are struggling with in the current economic crisis. Layoffs and cutbacks only make more work for fewer journalists who are left with that much less time to get the job done.
“A lot has to do with the strict economic constraints on journalists,” said Dr. Linda Steiner, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “That’s what needs to be changed to make room for the middle ground in the two extremes.”
What she finds particularly ironic, however, is that “many audiences are willing to work harder and will read a more complex story rather than a battle between two poles,” she said. “Journalists don’t give the reader credit” for being able to get through a complex story.
When student reporters contact her for interviews about stories on campus, she encourages them to contact her via e-mail, and she tries to answer by e-mail. She believes the medium allows her to provide longer, more complex answers, and “chances are they’ll take more time” with the story, she said.
With the traditional interviews, she finds that more and more reporters are echoing back a source’s remarks – and reducing them.
“Views are reduced to more extreme views than may be articulated,” she said.
Of course, even with the best intentions, the middle can be difficult to find, experts say, if for no other reason than because they’re less vocal.
“They’re not as easily found because they’re not as vocal, and I think for some journalists they don’t sound as interesting or compelling as someone who is advocating something more extreme,” said Colón. “They don’t have the sound bite, they don’t have the quote.”
Jennifer Sandmann, a reporter at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, says that being vocal does pay off in terms of coverage.
“Often times one cranky person upset about something can prompt a news article and have themselves quoted, simply because they reflect an ‘opposing viewpoint.’ It comes down to weighing the merits of the subject matter – whether it’s really a valid news story,” she said. “Sometimes it is.”
But Dr. Susan Dente Ross, an assistant professor at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University, thinks journalists find the middle voices more often than not, and it’s precisely because of their training and education that they do so.
Yes, she agrees, journalists do quote extreme voices; they’re trained to write about voices making news.
But reporters frame these voices in such a way as to provide the reader with contextual clues that their ideas are not in the mainstream.
“Look at the adjectives and verbs of attribution. These people ‘claim’ things or ‘assert’ things,” she said. These are “subtle clues to the reader that they’re on the fringe” and that they do not speak “the truth,” said Ross.
“They’re used as counterpoints so the mainstream ideas are legitimized,” she said.
In short, she believes research shows that the more extreme the voices the reporter quotes, the harder the reporter works to find a balancing middle to rebut them.
AN EXPERIMENT IN THE MIDDLE
Framing or providing a context for the information was at the heart of a project Steve Smith championed at the Colorado Springs Gazette several years ago during a heated municipal referendum involving a school bond issue.
Instead of covering the story in the traditional manner, writing stories carrying comments from all of the constituencies, Smith assigned two reporters the task of writing four stories – two each – from the point of view of four groups. The stories ran on consecutive days.
The project was “not an experiment in balance or fairness, although it ultimately has major implications in that area,” said Smith, who’s now the editor of the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon. But rather, the stories were intended to reflect the complexities of the public discussion, the process, the positions and history of the issue in the community. Using the more traditional method, they’d found, “had not gotten to the heart of the debate.”
Working with the same set of facts for each story, the reporters interviewed 50 to 60 people for each article – far more than they would have normally for a bond issue story.
“The idea was to write almost from the first person for each constituency,” said Smith, who identified those groups as the students, teachers and administrators, parents with children in school, and voters without children in the public school system.
“We were universally told it was fair coverage,” said Smith. “The stories did reflect the complex nature of the decision-making process. For example, parents with kids in school weren’t universally supportive of the measure.”
Smith said the approach – to start at the middle and work out – helped to clarify the issue for the voters. The community ultimately passed the bond measure, something they had not done in previous elections.
FINDING THE ‘BEST’ SOURCE
Framing. Point of view. Working from the inside out. Searching for the best voice. All seem to be ways of trying to achieve objectivity and balance, without necessarily stating that as a goal. In fact, it’s an approach that gained favor in science and environmental reporting in the early ’90s, said Glynn R. Wilson, who teaches in the Communication Department at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“In these environmental stories, if you’re trying to be objective and balanced, you end up finding one source within the industry to quote saying whatever the problem is isn’t a problem, and an environmental source who says it is a problem,” he said. “You have two extreme positions … what’s the truth? You end up losing the truth sometimes when you try to be objective.”
Wilson said the approach in science journalism is to find the “best” expert. He concedes this leaves out some voices, but said it also avoids the “he said, she said” battle of the sources.
“Journalists really have tools like we’ve never had before to get at the truth without relying on the sources on two sides,” he said.
Indeed, in his pilot study in preparation for his dissertation, William Sutley, an assistant professor at Auburn University, found that 60 percent of journalists agreed that e-mail was helpful to them, that it provided good feedback and even the criticism was helpful.
“The overall feeling I get is that, for some people, this is a great way to contact sources that are beyond the usual suspects, if you will,” said Sutley.
“I’m hearing story after story of how journalists are able to reach out to these e-mail correspondents when certain stories break to seek alternative, reasoned opinion,” he said. “This new brand of interactivity … is changing the dynamics between the media and their audience.”
The technology has its limits, because reporters won’t reach everyone through e-mail. But the use of e-mail, bulletin boards, and e-mail listservs to reach sources – and for sources to reach journalists – is a growing trend that Sutley said is facilitating journalism.
EXPANDING THE SOURCE LIST
So how does one find the middle?
“I’m in favor of looking at the whole spectrum,” Colón said. In doing so, reporters will naturally find what has come to be called the middle.
“In surveys, that’s where most people are. Your goal and desire should be to get the most representational views of those on a particular issue,” he said. “Recognize that you should speak to as many different people as possible.”
Another way, said Kennedy, is “to talk to people who are visible and ask ‘who do you know, is there anybody on the other side you trust? Is there anyone you know seeking compromise?’”
But in the end, experts say, the search for the middle, for balance, should simply be motivated by two things: It’s where the most people and answers can be found.
“The great majority of people are not clustered at either end, but are wandering around the middle wishing to be heard, and wishing desperately someone could turn the volume down on extremists, and then start looking for compromise and discussion,” said Kennedy.
And the way to find them is in some respects old fashioned, even if it involves the use of technology.
“No matter what you call it,” said Sutley, “journalists have to do more digging to show how some issues are multifaceted, and it does them a disservice to portray only the conflict aspect of the debate.”
Elizabeth Birge is an assistant professor of journalism at William Peterson University. She can be reached at BirgeE@wpunj.edu.