An Example of the Type of Journalism I’m Looking For

Mitchell has heard me grumble about the quality of reporting, especially in Hawai’i. Specifically, I feel like journalist provide superficial reporting, tantamount to gossip and innuendo, leaving out critical contextual information that would allow readers to draw conclusions. I found a Huffington Post article–Seeking Context for “Hillarygate”, examining whether Hillary Clinton’s handling of the emails was a serious crime. To do this, the author, Scott Lilly, raises four basic questions that he feels need to be answered before answering the larger question of the article:

1. When the word classified material is used, what are we talking about?

2. What are the procedures for those who must deal with classified information to communicate with one another about its meaning for the policies they are responsible for shaping?

3. How often do officials violate the best practices for handling classified material?

4. How significant were the Clinton violations?

5. How has the government responded to significant mistakes in the handling of classified material in recent history?

In my opinion, some variant of these four questions should be answered in article involving potential corruption, impropriety or act of incompetence. And contextual information of this nature is often vital in almost any news story. Yet, this is the type of information I find lacking in stories I read. Indeed, I felt great enthusiasm and excitement while reading this piece.

By the way, if this article appeared at the beginning of this email story–and if journalists understood the points brought in this article–I really doubt that this would have gotten as much coverage as it has. Indeed, I can’t help suspect that this story didn’t get written, until now, because it would have prevented the MSM from covering this story as much as they had, and that would have hurt their profits.

11 Responses to “An Example of the Type of Journalism I’m Looking For”


  1. Mitchell

    I’m curious about how your feelings about Civil Beat’s publishing the state salaries translates to this story. You felt that it would have been more responsible (less dangerous) for Civil Beat not to have published the facts at all if it wasn’t going to offer context. Do you feel the mainstream media would have served the public better by not publishing the facts of the email situation it published, if it were going to do so without the context suggested by this writer?

    This is a story I didn’t pursue much. As soon as I knew the basics, I felt pretty good about my position about it, which over the months were mostly confirmed (although I have to admit it’s probably a bigger deal than I first surmised). This was based largely on my understanding of technology, of file/email servers, and of the huge disconnect that exists between people who run tech and the people who use it. When the FBI director said “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring suit, I felt I knew enough for my purposes. And maybe that’s what you would say is the problem: I based my position on what I considered enough info without actually having enough info.

  2. Reid

    Do you feel the mainstream media would have served the public better by not publishing the facts of the email situation it published, if it were going to do so without the context suggested by this writer?

    Absolutely! In fact, I’m surprised that you would ask me this (unless you’re asking just to make sure. That is, you would assume the answer would be yes, but you don’t want to assume that’s the case). Without the contextual information, the email stories make Clinton seem like see committed crimes and perhaps put our country in danger. According to this, the network news covered the email story more than all other issues combined. I can’t help but think that this is major reason many people don’t trust Clinton, think she’s a crook, etc. And, yet, if the Lilly’s article is accurate, I think extensively covering the story would have been more difficult for responsible journalists. Or, network news made a greater emphasis on explaining the contextual details Lilly writes about, this would be less of a big deal.

    And maybe that’s what you would say is the problem: I based my position on what I considered enough info without actually having enough info.

    I don’t know what you know. Maybe you had enough information to arrive at a sound conclusion. All I know is that for me, I’d want the type of information that Lilly mentioned–and without it, I couldn’t really come to a conclusion on my own, not with a lot of confidence. I’d also say that the vast majority of voters probably couldn’t really judge the story properly without the information Lilly writes about. Assuming you read the article, do you agree with that?

    I’ll give you an example. When I hear that some of the emails were about classified information, I think of top secret information–information that should be protected because it could harm the country if it got into the wrong hands. But the article suggests that’s really not the case–that a lot of classified information doesn’t warrant that designation. And there are many other mitigating factors mentioned, which I won’t go into, that make this situation seem like not a big deal. Again, I can’t help but think that the main reason the story had legs was that it fell into a that corporate media seems to love; and they cover this story without providing the contextual information precisely because doing so would kill the story, and thus shut off a potential moneymaking story.

  3. Reid

    I forgot to add that Comey’s recent announcement about finding emails on Huma Abedin’s laptop seems to have single-handedly made this race much closer that it was previously. Had voters known about the contextual information regarding classified information, other instances when government officials mishandled this type of information–Comey’s announcement and this entire story wouldn’t be making this race as close as it is. If Clinton loses or if this race is close in large part because of these emails, that would be a major failing on the press–and a big part of the failure involves a failure to understand and report important contextual information.

  4. Mitchell

    I’m surprised that you would ask me this (unless you’re asking just to make sure. That is, you would assume the answer would be yes, but you don’t want to assume that’s the case). Without the contextual information, the email stories make Clinton seem like see committed crimes and perhaps put our country in danger.

    Actually, I would assume your answer would be no, which is why I asked — I thought it would lead to some kind of line-drawing between when it’s better not to provide the facts vs. when the facts should be given with context.

    You say the mainstream media didn’t provide context. So the public would be better served if that story hadn’t been shared even in the way that it was? This seems unreasonable, because then we have a presidential candidate (and former secretary of state) doing irresponsible stuff with communications and a mainstream media who doesn’t even report it. How is that better than what we did get, which according to you was facts with no context?

    Without contextual information, what we would know is that the FBI investigated and its director said, “No reasonable prosecutor would bring suit,” which actually states that she didn’t commit crimes, no context needed. Right?

    Assuming you read the article, do you agree with that?

    I may read the article later. I’m not sure it’s necessary, because I feel confident that I understand where you’re coming from, and I’m pretty okay with where I am on this issue.

    I know you don’t know what I know, but if I’m telling you right now that I don’t know the answers to any of the questions offered by this writer, I don’t know enough to make a responsible judgment. Right?

    Just re-read everything and I’ll also say that I knew about different levels of classified information — my father had the highest level clearance, but that didn’t mean he was allowed to see whatever; there are specific designations within that high level (or something like that), but that’s only part of an answer to question 1. I can’t answer question 1 in any way that sounds like an answer.

    I reiterate what I’ve already said: that I do think it would be better if mainstream media sources would give us something akin to the kind of context you’re asking for. But there’s a shade of something in your position that I need time to think about before I can put my finger on it, an implication that the media should give info that influences people to see things the way you see them, in this case that Hillary Clinton is a better choice for president.

    Your frustration comes from the response of the people to the information they have because they seem to be drawing conclusions you disagree with. If their response was more like mine (which is that it’s not even relevant in choosing a candidate), would you be as frustrated? In other words, if the poll numbers didn’t tilt away from Clinton in response to the email stories, you wouldn’t be as frustrated, right?

    I bring this up because I suspect we will never find a place to agree on this, even while we kind already agree. I think it would be better if context something like this list of questions were offered, and so do you, but I don’t agree with your reasons, and I don’t think you’d agree with mine, if I ever finished articulating them.

  5. Mitchell

    I’m concerned that my tone is more challenging than I intend. Sorry if it reads that way. I understand that you’re expressing what you want to see in news reporting, while I’m hearing it from a different concept of what ideal journalism is. Anyway, at least I agree with you that context would be better, even if I disagree that without context, the facts shouldn’t be reported at all.

  6. Reid

    Actually, I would assume your answer would be no, which is why I asked — I thought it would lead to some kind of line-drawing between when it’s better not to provide the facts vs. when the facts should be given with context.

    Oh, I see where you’re coming from. However, I was responding to a specific situation (i.e., the Clinton’s emails), not about whether journalists should report facts without context in a general sense.

    You say the mainstream media didn’t provide context. So the public would be better served if that story hadn’t been shared even in the way that it was? This seems unreasonable, because then we have a presidential candidate (and former secretary of state) doing irresponsible stuff with communications and a mainstream media who doesn’t even report it. How is that better than what we did get, which according to you was facts with no context?

    If we can reasonably anticipate that leaving out contextual details will create a false impression or cause citizens to draw the wrong conclusions, then wouldn’t this be a situation where the press shouldn’t publish the facts–without the critical details? Remember, the specific context here is a presidential election–with a story that can influence the election. I think it’s wrong and irresponsible for the press to simply present facts, leaving out crucial details, which will likely result in creating false impressions. To me, it seems very irresponsible.

    And I want to make something clear: my issue isn’t simply doing one story, reporting the facts without context. I’m talking about the amount of stories–more coverage than all other issues combined. The amount of coverage creates the strong impression that this is a big deal. If the contextual information provided compelling evidence that this was not the case, wouldn’t that be scandalous of the press?

    And here’s the other question: why can’t the press include those details? The information doesn’t seem hard to acquire; indeed, I suspect many experienced Washington journalists already know about this contextual information. I can’t see see any good reason for not including. (I can think of several bad reasons, though.)

    Let me also add that the contextual information could have made Clinton look bad–confirming the impression that she did something really irresponsible and dangerous to the country. I would have been crushed if this were the case, but I still think this is the type of information the press should include.

    And I’ve been pretty consistent about calling for this type of reporting–in local stories, and even with documentaries. Does this not ring a bell? So I’m surprised that you think my position is just based on my bias for Clinton. (I’m enthusiastic about the article, not just because makes the email scandal seem less scandalous, but because it’s exactly the type of reporting that I want generally. This is why I wanted you to read it, so you have an idea of what I’m looking for when I complain about journalism in general. In my experience, the type of contextual information that Lilly provides is almost never included in the reporting I come across.)

    I know you don’t know what I know, but if I’m telling you right now that I don’t know the answers to any of the questions offered by this writer, I don’t know enough to make a responsible judgment. Right?

    Let’s put it this way: I’d want that information, and without it, I don’t think I could arrive at a conclusion, on my own, that I was confident and comfortable about. Generally speaking, I think this applies to most people. If this doesn’t answer your question, I’ll try again.

  7. Reid

    The following reminds me a lot of the discussion Mitchell and I had about whether facts should be presented without context. Below, Norm Ornstein decries many covered Hillary’s emails. I totally agree with Ornstein. Some journalists respond, which sounds like Mitchell’s position.

    Scott Lilly’s piece, that I mentioned in the original post, provides compelling evidence that Ornstein’s characterization of the email story as “embarrassing gossip” is fair–especially given that most reporting don’t include the context details that Lilly mentions. Actually, if they knew about those details, they would have a harder time making a big deal of the Clinton’s emails. That’s why I think, anyway.

    What’s frustrating is that the truth or accuracy of the information being presented (the emails themselves, I guess) is all that seems to matter. Never mind that if you publish them, without context, they could be highly misleading. I suspect Ornstein is especially angry because a CIA report confirmed that Russia was trying to help Trump win the election. The justification, without any sense of regret, that the emails were “true information” drove Ornstein crazy. It drives me crazy, too.

  8. Reid

    A tweetstorm about why Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, is disqualified from the position:

    I bring this up, for what it’s worth, because I also think contextual information, in this case, is also important. The same type of questions that Scott Lilly asks about HRC and her emails should be asked and answered about Flynn.

  9. Reid

    Nora Ellingsen, from Lawfareblog writes another piece about the attitude of FBI agents towards Jim Comey. (Ellingsen worked at the FBI for a short time.) The article is a great example of the kind of thing I’m looking for. It not only provides contextual information, but it also the author to be reasonable and measured. Here’s one example of this:

    I was hesitant to post on the subject. I am no longer an employee of the FBI, and even if I were, I would have concerns about presuming to speak on behalf of the more than 35,000 employees. I wasn’t sure I could write a fact-based post that would be able to capture or do justice to the mood of a massive and diverse organization. I’m not a pollster, after all.

    Ellingsen is correct to feel this way, and her admitting this right off the bat, while also mentioning other pitfalls for writing this piece, went a long way in earning my respect and trust. She had my full attention.

    However, I soon became impatient because I wanted to know how many people she spoke to, at least a ballpark figure. It seemed like she wasn’t going to mention this, and I started thinking about sending an email suggesting that this would strengthen the piece–but she did eventually get mention this.

    I don’t know if this is journalism, but it’s top notch writing on current events. I should say that this is indicative of the writing there at the site as well. The writing is extremely thoughtful, well-reasoned, measured, and detailed. (In a way, they remind me of the writing at The Economist.)

  10. Reid

    Here’s a CBS piece about EPA director, Scott Pruitt, spending public money on non-commercial air travel. This isn’t an example of the type of journalism I’m looking for–it’s the opposite. The article provides no information about previous practices of other government officials. Is it really unusual to spend public money on non-commercial flights? What has been done in previous administrations? Were there exceptions made in the past for this type of travel? If so were the circumstances similar?

    There are two ways that Pruitt’s actions could be inappropriate. For one thing, he could have done something that is not the norm. That is, previous officials didn’t behave in the same manner. Or, maybe others have behaved this way, but it is still not appropriate. (In the article, it did mention that the EPA’s ethics office gave approval. I would have liked to see some people questioned from that office or individuals who worked in that office previously.)

    Edit

    From former Obama officials on the Pruitt and Price’s use of public funds for travel:

  11. Reid

    Simple Example of How Contextual Information is Important

    I saw this tweet and felt appalled:

    That seems really bad. To be fair, I’m reading this with some knowledge about the extent to which the Trump administration isn’t filling positions at the State Department. Still, there’s an obvious way this could be not as bad as it sounds–and yet I didn’t think of that, and just reacted negatively. In this case, that possible explanation seems to be true:

    And now I feel a little foolish. The point is that it’s easy to be mislead and jump to the wrong conclusions without crucial information. What worries me is that journalists seem to think that their job is to primarily present facts. This is incomplete. Facts without proper context and explanation can be misleading. Now, I don’t think journalists intentionally leave out facts to mislead, but you know who does? The Kremlin, and maybe other foreign adversaries. If this is the case, and given our current information landscape, if journalists get better at explaining and providing crucial contextual details, the public will remain vulnerable to information warfare waged by adversaries like the Russians.

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