Local News Plugs Agenda and Misses the Story

On a recent local newscast, KXLY cub reporter Caroline Rourke presented a story headlined, “Business Owners Attest to Benefits of Paid Sick and Safe Leave.”

The ordnance referred to in the story is a new Spokane city ordnance mandating paid sick leave for employees of Spokane businesses. Just to be clear, the ordnance will have no effect on SIGMA; we’re far outside city limits, so we don’t have a dog in this fight. Still, the story struck a nerve with me; and in a small way it represents a slice of what is wrong with news media today.

First, the basic facts:

  • The ordnance goes into effect on January 1, 2017.
  • As originally passed, it mandates that employees will earn 1 hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked.

Rourke interviews two business people for her story. But only one of the business people operate a for-profit venture. The other person is the executive director of a non-profit organization that also operates a thrift shop; and that organization, Global Neighborhood, receives a substantial amount of its funding from donations and grants.

Question: Does an executive director of a non-profit qualify as a typical business owner? Many would say no. So Rourke technically only interviewed one business owner. The headline for the story should therefore be “One business owner attests…” But then that wouldn’t create the impression of wide-spread acceptance of the new ordnance, which was the obvious intent of the story.

Also in order to convey the story’s intent, Rourke must create some plainly illogical statements:

Global Neighborhood has provided their employees with sick leave since their doors opened.

Many Spokane businesses worry about the financial impact of the ofdinance (sic), now coupled with even more policy changes following the passage of Initiative 1433. But, Global Neighborhood says it has actually proved better for their business.Caroline Rourke, KXLY Cub Reporter

There are two obvious logical problems with the above:

  1. How is it possible for the ordnance to improve Global Neighborhood’s business if the ordnance hasn’t even gone into effect yet? Does Global Neighborhood also offer time travel services along with gently used socks?
  2. If “Global Neighborhood has provided their employees with sick leave since their doors opened” according to Rourke, then how is Global Neighborhood able to gauge how paid leave has been an improvement? They’ve never been without it, and have nothing to compare it to.

The answer to both questions seems obvious: I think Rourke just made it up. The statements aren’t specifically quoted, therefore they are likely interpretations offered by Rourke.

Now it is perhaps possible that the ordnance will be a good thing. It’s also possible that it will hurt some businesses and even force some to close or move. Since it has not gone into effect, there is simply no way to know for certain. And it’s perfectly fine to have a news story reporting on potential positives of a new ordnance. But to ignore the obvious counter arguments, and to present the conclusions as plainly evident based on such a tiny sample is to violate the principles of journalism and instead slip into advocacy. That is not Rourke’s job.

Or is it?

Rourke starts with, or, to be kind, is handed an assignment with a clear agenda: Find businesses that are already offering leave and experiencing success. Being a good cub reporter she launches her search, but in the end she can only find one business (the other being a non-profit substantially funded by donations and grants). So she goes with that story, and in the process ignores the many other sides of the issue. In the end this story isn’t so much about paid leave; it’s more a story about pushing an agenda.

But here’s the story Caroline Rourke missed, and it was right in front of her face. Both of the business people she interviewed (the for-profit and the non-profit) made the decision based on their own self-interest to offer paid leave to employees. They didn’t need the government to force them to do this. They saw that it was in their own best interest to do so, and they found a way to make it work without government coercion. But not all businesses are in a position to do the same. Some operate on very slim margins, where the difference between a good month and a bad month, a profitable year, or closing their doors is razor thin. Forcing a government mandated one-size-fits-all solution on such a wide range of businesses is potentially unwise, and quite possibly foolhardy to the local economy, especially when the market has shown a willingness to make these sorts of changes on their own terms, and within their own timelines. It may not be happening fast enough for everyone, but that’s life.

Look, I know Caroline Rourke is just a cub reporter (her bio indicates she’s fresh out of GU and with KXLY for less than six months) so I don’t expect her to fully understand the nuances of each story that comes her way, but I hope that she, and all the other cub reporters I’m seeing on the local news these days, would approach each story with more of an open mind. I know deadlines are tight, but they owe it to the public and to themselves professionally to look for the story beneath the story.

If a local news reporter can’t get these little stories right, what faith can we have that the bigger stories are covered fairly? Life is not black and white, and things are never as simple as portrayed on the evening news.

Postscript:

In case you think I’m being too hard on Ms. Rourke, or singling her out unfairly, here are a couple previous blog posts in which I heap scorn on local newsies who aren’t named Caroline Rourke:

  • Why I don’t watch local news. A pie graphic. Actually I still watch local news, or else I’d have missed the above gem of a story. However, I try to only hang around for the weather, then go do something worthwhile.
  • Bad News. In which I offer the facts of a story I knew about as opposed to the misinformation offered on the local news.

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About the Author

Steve Merryman

Almost Daily is a blog by Steve Merryman, who is not all that impressed with you or your full, luxurious head of hair. He writes about things that make him tick, and things that tick him off.