Don’t trust, verify!

This week my former colleague Ira Glass joined the chorus http://www.thisamericanlife.org/blog/2015/05/canvassers-study-in-episode-555-has-been-retracted of those backing off of stories on apparently bogus social science research. The original study, in the respected journal Science, purported to show that canvassers could change the minds of survey subjects initially opposed to gay marriage if they spent a mere 20 minutes talking to them. The data behind the study was more than flawed—it was fabricated, and has since led to a rare retraction by the lead author http://tinyurl.com/luqvdg5.  Inquiring minds want to know: should journalists have smelled something fishy?

Let me lead the chorus of critics in saying that I, for one, would never have been so gullible. Journalistic hindsight is better than 20/20, it is full of shadenfreude: I’m so glad I didn’t do it!  But slow down. This is not the Rolling Stone article, where reporters and editors simply failed to ask hard questions. When it comes to science pieces reporters are at extreme risk. Typically they trust the data is correct. Journalists can’t be expected to climb inside the cyclotron and verify a physics experiment, right? We have been schooled to trust the peer review process, which depends on the scientific community to validate the evidence before it is published.

That trust puts us at an important disadvantage when it comes to science. Would we trust a defense official to interpret data about spending, or would we examine the figures ourselves? Statistically, fraud in science is pretty rare, so it’s hard to identify harm here. But when it happens, as it has here, it exposes our helplessness when it comes to complex material.

The sad thing here is that it took an enormous effort from other scientists, not journalists, to ferret out the fraud. Stanford’s David Brockman et al went to great lengths to validate the study, and found they could not. Brockman’s group applied a level of statistical acumen that few daily journalists can match. This fact underscores that science journalism is in a strange category. It exists in a twilight zone where few journalists dare to question or even examine underlying data. So maybe it’s time to question to absolute trust many journalists have in their science sources.

Remarks by David McCumber to Butte Press Club, delivered Friday, May 8, 2015

Good evening. First of all, thank you. I’m really pleased and honored to be invited here tonight.

Now I’d like to confirm that I’m not related to anybody in Butte and there was absolutely no nepotism involved in my getting this job. So obviously my hiring was a terrible mistake, but we’re going to make the best of it.

The next thing I want to do is recognize and thank Carmen Winslow, who is absolutely everything that the long-honored title of city editor symbolizes, and who has kept the wheels turning in the Standard’s newsroom through editor vacancies and all manner of other fortunate occurrences. She is my partner going forward and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Now, as for the rest of you: What the hell are you still doing in this business? Seriously, thank you for continuing to fight this fight.

Any of us who have been journalists over the past decade in particular all have PTSD and or survivors guilt to some degree. It’s been a rough ride as the granddaddy of all disruptive technologies has interfered with, among other things, publishers’ margin expectations.

We all have friends who have lost jobs. Maybe you’ve lost one yourself in that time. For me, the nadir came when I was forced to shutter a great newspaper in 2009, throwing nearly 200 amazing journalists out of work and turning Seattle into a one-paper town.

It was brutal, and nothing can ever make it okay.

But in terms of my personal journey, I realized a couple of weeks ago, as I walked into the Standard office in the morning, that for the first time since that dreadful day in Seattle when the print dried on the last P-I, I felt good again about what I was doing, where I was doing it, and what was possible to accomplish.

Certainly, Lee and the Standard are not immune to the same financial pressures that all newspapers face. But community papers never had the enormous revenues, particularly in classified, that the metros had and lost. Beyond that, they have, pound for pound, a more passionate and committed audience than most of the big papers.

I’ve written for, and edited, newspapers of almost every size. But I’ve never been more rewarded than when I’ve served a community that depends on its news source to the degree that Butte depends on the Standard.

A great thing about this business is that it is, as our newsrooms all should be, a meritocracy of ideas, and their execution. Every day, how imaginative we are, how diligent and hard-nosed in our inquiries we are, how reflective of the community we are, how well we photograph and write and how well we showcase the results – all of that is on display. In pixels and on paper. The old line that doctors bury their mistakes and we show ours to thousands of people every day has never been more apt.

Indeed, millennials have grown up literally drowning in the news. They are the first generation to grow up with the “crawl” – that headline ribbon at the bottom of CNN or ESPN – and the first to have grown up online. What does it mean to compete in such a news-saturated environment?

To me, it means that in order to excel at what we do, no matter what platform we do it on, we have to provide memorable journalism. Of course it’s essential to provide the “fast food” – the quickly consumed breaking news and daily coverage. But it’s not enough. To be relevant – and indispensable – to our readers we also have to provide news of substance, depth and style, which is high-grade stuff, mined at a much greater cost.

During what’s been called the time of cholera in our profession, many newspaper editors and publishers have stopped talking about “the public trust” that newspapers have, almost as though the concept has gone out of fashion because finances make it less convenient. It hasn’t.

Readers still expect newspaper journalists to root out wrongdoing and corruption, to crusade for the public good, to find out the things that the institutions we cover don’t want us to find out.

Also, research shows us that readers are bored with wire-service, inverted-pyramid stories written according to the old-time formula we all learned. They want stories that engage them with character, with the place they care about, and with lively, detail-rich writing.

I believe that investigative and narrative work are part of the solution to our business issues, not part of the problem.

We can’t just be prospecting on the surface, looking for a little color in the pan. We have to dig deep. It takes more to truly reflect a community than you can get scratching the surface. And that’s why this kind of journalism is not and cannot be the sole province of the larger papers. Community journalism doesn’t just mean running the school lunch menus and the meeting times for the quilting club, although we need to do both of those things.

Obviously the biggest enemy of enterprise at a small paper is time. When reporters are at a minimum and daily beat responsibilities are ultra-demanding, it’s easy to give in and provide the readers with the minimum daily requirement.

But we can’t. We have to find the gumption and the organization and the determination to do more – to go deep, find the hard stories, the stories that aren’t just on the surface.

Yes, small papers can do this. I was privileged to be a Pulitzer Prize juror in the local reporting category in 2011.

Since then, the Pulitzers have modernized, and the entries are now all submitted in electronic form. But four years ago this last March, as I began to wade through the hundreds of prize notebooks mounded high on the Local Reporting table at Columbia, a small, plain, un-elaborate entry caught my eye, and I picked it up – perhaps I even thought, I’ll make short work of this one.

For the next 90 minutes, I was mesmerized. The entry was from a tiny paper, and I mean tiny – the Concordia Sentinel, a 5,000 circulation weekly in Ferriday, Louisiana. The longtime editor of the paper, Stanley Nelson, read an FBI news release in 2007, listing unsolved civil-rights-era murders. One of the victims, he noticed, was local – Frank Morris, a black shoe repairman who died when his Ferriday store was torched in 1964.

So for four years, Nelson dug into the unsolved murder of Frank Morris.

Which, as you might imagine, was not universally appreciated in the little Deep South town of Ferriday, where many were content to let bygones, even things as horrible as the Morris murder, be bygones.

In the face of such criticism, Nelson just kept digging – all the while continuing to write a column, edit the newspaper and cover the courts, the school board and the police beat.

Soon, the FBI took notice and officially reopened the case. A lot of journalists would have stopped there, and rightfully felt proud of what they’d accomplished. But Morris kept digging, at times butting heads with the feds, who wanted everything he had but would divulge nothing of their own investigation.

He kept going, writing some 150 stories, and continuing to interview anybody he could find – which wasn’t easy since potential witnesses were growing old, and many had already died.

But eventually, Nelson developed information that led him to a suspect. The FBI asked him to hold the story until they could complete their investigation. Nelson waited for a few weeks. But then he went ahead and published his story. We on the local reporting jury were proud to make Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel a finalist for a Pulitzer, right alongside the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Do stories of such magnitude exist in Montana towns? I can guarantee you from personal experience that they do. When I worked with Pulitzer-winning journalist Andrew Schneider in Seattle to reveal the horror of asbestos contamination in Libby, papers in the state had already had chances, long before we came along, to break that story.

Sometimes the greatest stories are the least plausible on their face, and Libby was one of them. I think of it as a prime example of the big lie theory – tell a lie that’s big enough, and tell it long enough, and you will be believed.

For years, nobody thought there was any problem in Libby, Montana. Oh, people knew that some folks who worked at the mine had gotten sick, and even some who didn’t work there got sick too. But of course the company controlled the hospital board and therefore the doctors, and the words “asbestos-related disease” never appeared on Libby death certificates. And people got used to seeing their friends and neighbors lugging oxygen bottles with them as they shopped in the grocery store or ate at the Libby Café.

A few days after the story broke in the P-I, the town held a public meeting – 600 people packed into the tiny high school gymnasium. And the oxygen tanks were everywhere. Person after person got up and told their own story of fighting the disease, or told of losing family members. One widow spoke of her husband and four of their five children, all dead of lung disease.

Tears ran down faces as Libby collectively confronted its tragedy for the first time – an unforgettable moment and the product of Schneider’s journalistic expertise and persistence.

Every story isn’t that. But deep in the crevices and veins of a community’s quiet lives, great narrative stories wait to be mined. And in the institutions we cover, secrets are hidden in file cabinets and hard drives and occasionally consciences, waiting for the light.

I don’t know about you but my journalistic suspicion goes into overdrive when public officials tell me that a paper’s role is to bind the community together, not tear it apart, to emphasize the community’s virtues, not run it down by reporting the bad news.

I’ve already received several versions of that admonition here in Butte.

Sure, part of a paper’s role is to celebrate a town’s progress and all the good works that are done. But the watchdog role is just as important. And it’s not like you can’t do both. You must do both.

As somebody who drives a 43-year-old truck, I can tell you that if I spend all my effort waxing the shiny side, and pay no attention to the strange noises coming from the greasy side underneath, the truck won’t run for long.

So when people ask me what aspirations I have for the Standard, I tell them that my biggest hope is that we can look up often enough from our daily tasks to see our own potential, to aim high enough, to report hard enough and write and photograph and edit well enough to give Butte the newspaper it truly deserves.

Thank you, and I’ll be happy to try to answer some questions.