Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Florida foster care: Another error in Sunday’s Miami Herald story

In addition to the errors of interpretation and lack of context in Sunday's Miami Herald story about the Florida child abuse hotline (discussed in detail in the previous post to this Blog), there also is at least one important error of fact. In discussing one of the cases the hotline allegedly wrongly screened out, the story refers to a child who later died as an infant. But that term is defined as a child in the first year of life or a child before the age when she or he can walk. This child's tragic death occurred when he was about two years old and walking. The Herald made the same mistake in an earlier story devoted entirely to this case. (I made a similar error in my post yesterday, referring to the child, incorrectly, as one year old; the post has been corrected.)

The mistake may seem trivial, but actually it is important in judging DCF's handling of the case, as will be clear in what I expect will be the next post to this Blog in a day or two. The post will deal with that particular case and the handling of it by both DCF and the Herald.

In assessing the stories I apply two tests which I apply to all major in-depth reporting that is presented as news coverage rather than opinion.

The first test I learned in J-school. It's on a wallet-size card I've managed not to lose in 33 years, less because of its content than because one of the legends of broadcast journalism, the late Fred Friendly, handed it out to all his students. But every once in awhile it comes in handy. It's a description of what news analysis – that area between straight news and opinion – should be, that goes all the way back to 1939. It's from Ed Klauber, then the President of CBS News, who wrote:

What news analysts are entitled to do and should do is to illuminate the news out of common knowledge or special knowledge possessed by them or made available to them by this organization through its news sources. They should point out the facts on both sides, show contradictions with the known record, and so on.... It is the analyst's function to help the listener to understand, to weigh, and to judge, but not to do the judging for him.

The second test comes from many reporters' favorite fictional City Editor – Lou Grant. In the first episode of that iconic television series, he reads a draft of a story exposing police corruption. Then he turns to the reporter who wrote it.

Lou Grant, smiling: "You're really mad at these guys, aren't ya?"

Reporter (also smiling) "Yeah."

Lou Grant, still smiling: "I can tell." (No longer smiling): "I shouldn't be able to tell. … Rewrite it!"

Both Sunday's Herald story, and the one I'll discuss in the next post, flunk these tests.