Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Covering what some consider the 'fringe' demands our best

This story hit home with me. It's not a great narrative, or even a great feature story. It's The Washington Post's ombudsman explaining why he thinks the paper was doing its job when it did a takeout on one of the most visible leaders of the "Birther" movement.

The Post caught flack for story because many people -- readers (and journalists, too, I'm sure) -- think the "Birther" people are wackos, and giving them ink gives them credibility, and giving them credibility is wrong and could even be dangerous.

We caught the same kind of flack a couple weeks ago when we put a Twitter gadget online to pull in tweets from an anti-health-bill rally in D.C.

"why are you covering this like it's a legitimate story?" AdamBeck5 asked. I responded (on behalf of the YDR account): "There were York County voices in a national debate about a huge issue that might be resolved in a couple of days. Seemed timely."

The Twitter widget is its own animal; it's basically just a ticker of opinions and thoughts on a particular topic. But I think it's critical for us to remember that, when we report on controversial issues, people or organizations, we ask questions that need to be asked and answered, and we tell stories about why people are acting in the way they are. If we do those stories well -- if we have context, if the tone is right, if we aim to shed light on the issue and the actors -- we are doing our job.

In fact, in a way, we are doing the best work we can possibly do. People are doing things, trying to accomplish things -- why? what does it mean? who agrees with them? who opposes them? What does this tell us about our society and culture?

Sometimes we assess a policy stance or a line of thought or a course of action -- e.g., the "Birther" movement -- as being so off the charts that to treat it seriously is to undercut ourselves as serious journalists. My argument here is that we do exactly the opposite; we make ourselves indispensable.

The key is to get it right. And to do that, the reporting has to be deep; the writing must tell a true story, keeping spin and lies out; and the piece must not have, as its goal, to discredit its subjects. And to do all that, we have to shed the idea that we're wasting our time on a fringe element that we shouldn't be "legitimizing." We are, in fact, doing good journalism.