Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Help Is On The Way

Via the Kerry Christmas in Cambodia story and our efforts to find out why the local press isn't covering it, we've learned a couple of new things about the media. (And if this stuff was widely known already and I'm exposed as a naive hayseed, then so be it).

First, it's completely acceptable for reporters to cut and paste verbatim items from other sources (in this case, the AP) and dump it into their own articles, without direct attribution. I had no idea this was going on, but according to the reporters in question, it is standard operating procedure. How many other professions allow this to occur? Besides maybe academia, I don't know of any. And I'm envious, since this marvelous short cut to actually working isn't available to me.

Secondly, the researching efforts of the mainstream media (at least the Pioneer Press) are pathetic. They can take weeks to unsuccessfully find background information that's widely available elsewhere, via common sources.

The common thread between these two points seem to be laziness. Reporters blindly rely on certain resources to do their jobs for them. And when they fail (AP Wire copy, Lexis/Nexis), the story, and the facts, are lost forever. Although I suspect these are more often ills of smaller papers and less commonly afflict the more ambitious news gathering engines at the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.

These issues have resulted in some great reader emails, all of them offering helpful advice to the gang at the Pioneer Press on they can do their jobs better. Vicki Gowler, if you're out there, listen up:

Regarding the Pioneer Press's inability to find the Kerry 1986 speech in the Congressional Record, Brad from Iowa points the finger at Lexis/Nexis:

I spent the better part of two hours the other day trying to track down Kerry's speech - the one Glen Reynolds posted- on my firm's Lexis/Nexis database access. I wanted to find it so I could read the entire speech so as to get the context he was talking in. Especially since he was using the example to try to influence votes in the Senate to defeat a proposal of President Reagan's. But I could not locate it. I used many variations of key words, as per the Reynolds post and no luck. I don't think it is on the Nexis/Lexis website.

I have a guess as to why Lexis does not include the speech. It was related to a defeated amendment to the Resolution that was eventually passed. I have reviewed the CR-Digest for 3/27/86. It notes the Senate passed SJ Res 283, relating to Central America pursuant to the International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985 (Nicaraguan Resistance Assistance), after taking action on amendments proposed thereto. The cite for this is 132 Cong Rec S 3564.

There were 7 amendments to the SJ Res 283 that day. By 33 yeas to 67 nays (Vote No. 48), Sasser-Gore Amendment No. 1718, in the nature of a substitute was rejected. Cite 132 Cong Rec S 3584. I ran both the cites mentioned above, as well as the cites for the other 4 amendments. None appear in the Lexis database. Lexis apparently does not include 100% of everything in the CR.

Interesting to note that Al Gore sponsored the amendment that Kerry spoke on.

If the Pioneer Press was relying on Lexis Nexis for their research, they now know it's not a comprehensive resource and they may have to consider other options.

Brad from Colorado has some more questions about reporters’ use of Lexis/Nexis:

Just read your most recent posts. A couple of questions have been brewing in my mind for quite some time with regard to reporters and research: Is there a restriction most news organizations have when it comes to use of Google? Are those organizations in some way contractually obligated to using Lexis/Nexis as a sole Internet database for research purposes?

I consider such an exclusive agreement unlikely. But their failure to use Google as a primary resource is very strange. If they're not contractually forbidden to use it, their reason for not doing so must be an appalling lack of awareness or pure laziness. That is, they've always used one resource in the past and they see no reason to try something new.

Jim writes in to tell us that Google isn't the only alternate resource that could be used by reporters:

The craftsmen at the Pioneer Press are probably justified in blaming their tools if they use an inferior product like Lexis/Nexis for their online research. A quick search in the Congressional Record database on Westlaw (a homegrown, longtime nemesis of Lexis/Nexis) retrieves the full text of 132 Cong. Rec. S3564-02, containing Senator Kerry's delightful Christmas fantasy.

Another tip for the Pioneer Press, expand your horizons and go with local heroes Westlaw next time.

Finally, Kent has some other tips on successful media researching:

It's possible that they're looking in the wrong place. Vicki Gowler's email says “I know the allegations center around Kerry testified before Congress in 1986, but so far our KRT researcher can't find anything in congressional testimony records to that effect.”

In fact the statement was not made in "testimony", but on the floor of the Senate. It's possible the "KRT researcher" (they have only one?) has been diligently poring over the archives of each Congressional committee looking for such "testimony" for the past week and coming up empty. But as Glenn Reynolds found out, finding a Senate floor speech is a relatively easy matter.

Interestingly, the same day that you posted the correspondence between "The Kernel" and Vicki Gowler, the Pioneer Press' sister Knight Ridder publication in Kansas City published this article dealing specifically with the Cambodia allegations.

But it also makes the same mistake, quoting Kerry "in 1986 at a Senate committee hearing during a debate on U.S. policy toward Central America."

There are other minor quibbles with the KC Star story, but on the whole it's a reasonable article on the substance of the allegations specifically about Cambodia, rather than a smear piece on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Unfortunately, the story was buried on page A10. I glance at the Star every day, and Saturday had a chance to read it in more detail than usual, but still missed that story until I saw a blog reference to it.

Yesterday, the Kansas City Star's Reader's Representative had this to say:

"The Star had been waiting for credible sources to move stories over the news wire, which is how most of the news about national politics gets in the paper. When these sources were slow to act, editors felt they had to."
She says Scott Canon wasn't assigned the story until Friday, and it was published Saturday. So much for Vicki Gowler's "the next week or two".

Reviewing today's Pioneer Press, there's still no coverage of the story. The clock on their credibility continues to tick.

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