Monday, August 30, 2010

UPDATED, SEPT. 5: Cleveland Plain Dealer does what LA Times won’t: covers the foster care panic in its community


After arguing on this Blog that the way the Cleveland Plain Dealer has been covering child welfare has set off a classic foster-care panic, I began to hear rumors that the reporter responsible for most of the stories, Harlan Spector, was going to do a story about the panic. I assumed it really would be a story minimizing the panic and/or spinning it to suggest that it was a good thing that was somehow making children safer.

    I'm pleased to report I was wrong.

    The story ran Sunday, on the front page. It was a fair, straightforward account of the surge in entries into care and the disagreements over why it was happening and the consequences. No loaded language, no nonsense of any kind. There even were allusions, for the first time, to Child Welfare Gone Haywire, the Plain Dealer's landmark examination of the last foster care panic in Cuyahoga County.

    There certainly are flaws in the story, and, of course, the usual run of excuses from the child welfare agency for the panic. Anyone interested in a detailed analysis can scroll to comment #5 (if viewing oldest comment first) under the story on the Plain Dealer website.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that editorial writer Sharon Broussard will follow in Spector's footsteps. I expect Broussard's next editorial will minimize the notion of panic and stack the deck with the false claim that NCCPR opposes the paper reporting on child abuse deaths – as opposed to our taking issue with how that reporting was done – a distinction made clear in the earlier posts. (UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 1: I am pleased to report that, in an editorial today, Broussard does not, in fact, misrepresent NCCPR’s position.  She does, however, repeat all of her earlier mistakes, including the demonstrably false claim that DCFS recently had placed “family preservation above all else” and the Big Lie of American child welfare: that child removal equals child safety. UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 5: it turns out that while Broussard didn't make the comments I'd expected herself, she "outsourced" the job to the paper's "reader representative."  His column, and my response on the Plain Dealer website, are available here.) 

    The big question now is whether Plain Dealer coverage will pass the Ben Bagdikian test.

In 1983, The former Washington Post editor wrote The Media Monopoly, among the finest works of media criticism in American history and certainly among the most prescient. When I taught journalism I used it as a textbook.

    One of Bagdikian's important observations is how newspaper editors who have strong feelings about a story deal with the side of that story they don't like:

They cover it. Prominently. Once.

That's just enough for the editors to say to critics "Oh, we covered that. We even put it on the front page" – when they know full well that anything covered only once has almost no impact. It's what's repeated over and over again that leaves an impression.

    So the question now is: Will there be follow-up? Will there be stories about children victimized by needless removal from their homes? Will references to the panic become part of the "boilerplate" in Plain Dealer stories, in the same way the stories recap the cases that started the panic?

    That's step two. A lot of papers, notably this year the Los Angeles Times, never get to step one.

    OK, Garrett Therolf. Now it's your turn.