Thursday, July 23, 2009

Investi-ma-gative journalism

Avid Herald readers and the unemployed may have read this story in yesterday's paper, presented in true NZWW style: "'I worked hard but may lose my home'". It's the story of one Bruce Burgess, an engineer who fears he may lose his home after losing his job. The point of the article is that Mr Burgess cannot get the dole as his wife earns tuppence a week - putting the household over the threshold for eligibility.

Bruce Burgess, 60 years old and a qualified engineer, has been busy his entire adult life. Aside from a couple of years overseas in the early 1970s, he has worked, paid his taxes and saved his money.

His wife Jo has held down regular work as an office administrator and accounts person. Neither of them smoke, they don't take extravagant holidays, and drink only occasionally.

Oh, they don't drink or smoke? Read: white middle-class. Welcome back the Victorian concept of the 'worthy poor'. Anyway, the article, by David Eames, gives the impression of a bit of good old investigative journalism, something that, as I'm sure EtH readers will know, is sadly missing from a lot of the Herald's output. Even if it is presented as a 'women's' magazine sob story.

So far, so good. So imagine my surprise when I see the unemployed face of Mr Burgess staring out at me again, this time from a front page article. What now, I thought? Woman done left him? Nope. Hound dog gone and died? Try again. Implicated in a leftist plot to fool the media and influence government policy? Bingo!
An unemployed man put forward by the Labour Party as one who would benefit from its policy to pay the dole to people whose partners are still earning owns two properties worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to his lifestyle block.

[...] Labour had told the Herald about his plight, but did not mention that he and his wife own a house in Papakura and an apartment in Auckland City.
Wait, what? "Put forward by the Labour Party"? The article is entitled "Goff's jobless man owns other property", as though Burgess had pulled off a rubber mask to reveal the unmistakable visage of the Monopoly Guy. How is he Goff's jobless man? I thought this story was the Herald's scoop? In fact, I couldn't remember reading anything in the original story about the Labour party at all, so I decided to check it on the website:

But about four months ago, Mr Burgess - whose case was brought to the Herald's attention by the Labour Party - lost his Avondale-based engineers job - and with it a $750-a-week paycheck.

That's really odd, I thought - I'm sure I don't remember reading that before. Fortunately for me and, usually, the Herald, I buy the print edition, and it's still sitting on the musty pile of newsprint on my desk. 10 points if you can guess what that paragraph says:

Skullduggery! It seems that at 2.31pm yesterday, just as the Herald "learned" about Mr Burgess's burgeoning capitalist empire, David Eames or whoever the malevolent force behind APN is (in my mind's eye he looks like Dick Dastardly) edited the article to make it very clear that this was not the Herald's story after all. Hmm. What was the name of that other journalist who quietly changed the past to avoid embarrassment? That's right: Stalin.

'Dishonest' is one word that would describe this kind of journalism. Another is 'rubbish'. But it's not the only thing wrong with this story, an early frontrunner for 'worst article' in the 1st Annual EtH Awards. With my keen news-sense, I've become more and more aware of the phenomenon I have termed 'frowny-face journalism' in the Herald. A subset of the more general human interest story, frowny-face journalism takes some boring, abstract, impersonal policy change or social problem, takes a big photo of some sad children whose playcentre is closing, an old couple who are being forced out of their subsidised housing or, in this case, a recently unemployed man losing his home(s). This way, readers automatically know what to think about the story - generally 'awwwww'. This is bad enough in itself, but there is an added danger: that of taking the analogy between the sad individual and the social issue too far.

This is exactly what has happened in Eames's second article today. Goodness me, Bruce Burgess, aka Rich Uncle Pennybags, owns (with a mortgage) a second property! He doesn't need the dole after all! Therefore, no one who has been made redundant and whose partner is still earning needs any money. The Herald seems to be suggesting that everyone who is jobless with a working partner owns another property. One thing is for certain: this will be the last article in a while advocating a change to the dole structure.

One final point. Far from the quasi-investigative journalism that was implied in the original article, today's piece gives the impression that the Herald simply picked up the story at the behest of Phil Goff and ran it without doing any background checking. Is this really better? Personally, I would have thought that just running a story handed to you by a political party was sloppy, unethical journalism, but what would I know? I haven't been to journalism school.


  1. Reporting / investigative journalism, one of these things is not like the other.

  2. Well it's not exactly 'All the President's Men', but I don't think I implied it was.

    But that's ok, you're commenting anonymously so you don't really need a point. Right?

  3. Is it wise to have a "worst article" category in your Annual EtH Awards? There'll be so many contenders for the award, how will you ever pick a winner?

  4. This style of "journalism" is no different to taking a press release and practically relaying it word for word. Oh wait.....they do that too.

  5. A daily newspaper with investigative journalism content from cover to cover doesn't exist, purely because it would be completely unfeasible to do so. Blogging about impossible feats is such a constructive pastime.

  6. I don't think he's asking for investigative journalism cover-to-cover. But this is not exactly a 'breaking news' story that they couldn't have, say, fact-checked first.

    PS Awesome zoom effect there Jamesian

  7. As they say on the internet - 'LOL'.

    Criticising my use of terminology is slightly missing the point, n'est-ce pas?

    It's ok, most people seem to get it.

  8. "A daily newspaper with investigative journalism content from cover to cover doesn't exist, purely because it would be completely unfeasible to do so. Blogging about impossible feats is such a constructive pastime."

    Funny how so many other newspapers in other countries manage it so, so, so much better, though, isn't it? Ever picked up a copy of The Times? The Independent? The Guardian? The New York Times? No? You surprise me.

    And if blogging about impossible feats is unconstructive, what does that make commenting on them?

  9. Fact checked - How? Oh I know, maybe they could've rung up the guy and said; 'are you lying to us?' before printing the article. Slight problem with that though, can you spot it?

  10. "Funny how so many other newspapers in other countries manage it so, so, so much better, though, isn't it? Ever picked up a copy of The Times? The Independent? The Guardian? The New York Times? No? You surprise me."

    NZ population = 4 million...

    It doesn't surprise me at all to be honest

  11. Anonymous #3: ignoring for a moment that you seem to have missed the point...
    " would be completely unfeasible to do so. Blogging about impossible feats is such a constructive pastime."

    A government/opposition that always made the right decisions would be completely unfeasible. Writing newspaper articles about what they are actually doing would therefore be a waste of time.
    (sorry, I couldn't bring myself to duplicate your sarcasm)

    Anonymous #3: Are you David Eames?

  12. Oh because options are a) asking the dude if he's lying or b) waiting for magical fairies to deliver the information?

    For example, I found out that Mr Burgess is the director of Kauri Ridge Enterprises, of which he and lovely wife Josephine are the sole shareholders, in about 1 minute. I'm sure if I cared a bit more I could find out a lot more about the doings of Kauri Ridge etc. etc.

  13. Gwan: I had a different reading of Anonymous #4.

    The "slight problem" anon #4 refers to could be that:
    1. the person lied in the first place so would just lie again. {ok...}

    2. They are asking WHO should be asked if they were lying, Mr Burgess or the labour party person who kindly gifted the story to the Herald?

    I'd like to think Anon#4 meant the latter but they posted anonymously so they probably meant the former.

  14. Anonymous #1-5 - the point here is that the Herald ran a story without sufficient fact-checking, and then when they discovered they'd be conned, hid their mistake rather than issuing a retraction or follow-up story. It's that they're covering up that's an issue, rather than their sloppy research (everyone makes mistakes).

    If you think the job of a newspaper is to paraphrase press releases, you'd be right. Every major newspaper in the country can't be wrong, right?

  15. Surely the main point is that:

    i) the Herald ran a lazy 'frowny-face' story gifted to them by a political party with an axe to grind

    ii) the particular frowny individual proved less than ideal as a symbol

    iii) the Herald proceeded to cover up and not own up to their screw-up

    The Labour Party comes out looking dodgy, but no less dodgy than the Herald, in my opinion. Surely the lesson, one that I imagine is taught to all journalists, is that you don't run stories given to you by interested parties unless you KNOW THE FACTS. The retconning afterwards is just the equivalent of 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman'.

  16. Scooped by (Garth) George above.

  17. It's quite clear that the Herald can't see the error of it's ways, but I'm surprised by the amount of people defending it. Why are they so passionate about unverified facts and misinformation?

    Speaking of Garth 'Curious' George, have you seen the new photo they are using? I feel smarter just looking at it.

  18. James,
    Well done. This one's going to sting.

  19. This is SCANDALOUS! I am scandalised.

  20. good work, James.
    about 5 years ago, i used to spend about an hour a day reading the herald web site. lately, about 3 minutes a day, on average.
    i wonder why?

  21. Busted! But not really surprised.

  22. This guy, Bruce Burgess, is my blood uncle. He is my mums brother. I see him every year at Xmas.......and let me say, I had no idea he had two properties.

    I can say, however, they love the left, those family o mine. I know exactly who contacted labour about it, I can tell you, it wasnt him. (It wasnt me or my mum either) and this whole thing has backfired BIG TIME for labour....

    AND I LOVE IT. Its so funny, and so very close to home literally, for me, and when I was showing my friends the changes to the article online, I could not believe how stupid the Herald are.

    Well, I knew that already anyway.

    Soo - yes, har har!! Good stuff.

  23. Frowny-face Journalism on Urban Dictionary! The link won't work till tomorrow, but go here to vote it up when it becomes available.

  24. I'd be interested to see the production steps on this one. I've got a suspicion that the Labour element may have been subbed out for the newspaper, but made it online. I've seen it happen on newspapers I've worked on, with disastrous effect.

    Not that that really helps anyone.

  25. With the added parenthetical statement, The sentence is a very clumsy one (dashes are being used for two purposes). Which makes me think that it was almost certainly altered after the fact. That said, I wouldn't want to be on record as saying that these clumsy journalists are necessarily above clumsy style!