By: Jack Cox
Columnist Says Media Must Better Educate Reporters
If you were tuned in to the major TV networks last Tuesday night,
you saw the Achilles’ heel of journalism: leading TV news
reporters who didn’t understand the story they were trying to
It was a critical moment for journalism – a moment that
demanded authoritative reporting to explain a complex U.S.
Supreme Court decision that would determine the outcome of the
presidential race. Many journalists were not up to their task.
From network to network, reporters and anchors stumbled in their
interpretation of the court’s decision, adding more confusion to
the nation’s uncertainty over the election. The scenario
reinforced once again the critical need for news organizations to
invest in the education of their journalists.
The Supreme Court brought this story to a conclusion when it held
that the method for recounting of votes in Florida violated the
equal-protection provision of the U.S. Constitution. It held
there was not enough time for the Florida Supreme Court to devise
fairer standards to count ballots that could be implemented in
time to meet a Dec. 12 deadline for Florida to choose its
On a cold Washington night, reporters were camped out on the
marble steps of the Supreme Court building waiting to hear the
decision of the nation’s highest legal body. Shortly after 9
p.m., court clerks began distributing the 65-page decision.
Millions of Americans watched their TV sets as network reporters
attempted to quickly disclose the findings of the high court.
Print journalists also were trying to digest the complex legal
language for their organizations.
The job of dissecting this complex legal document was challenging
for even the most experienced reporters. Roger Cossack, a lawyer
and co-host of CNN’s “Burden of Proof,” and Charles Bierbauer, a
CNN correspondent, were struggling with the legal language on the
air. Several reporters erroneously reported that the Supreme
Court had sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court without
mentioning that it had closed the door on any more recounts. One
news service reportedly rushed out a bulletin reporting the same
One reporter who shone in this difficult time was Dan Abrams, an
attorney and legal reporter for NBC News. Tom Brokaw was careful
to explore what the decision meant on live TV with Abrams and
Pete Williams, an NBC reporter.
Gregory Favre, vice president of news for the McClatchy Co., said
the best thing for these reporters to do was to quickly look at
the dissenting opinions in the case to understand the decision’s
impact. That is exactly what Abrams and Williams did.
The lesson in the coverage of important stories is that Abrams
had the education to understand the complex legal language placed
in front of him. It was probably as taxing as any final exam in
law school. He passed the exam.
What can editors and publishers learn from how this story was
First, the American public is hungry for news that tells them
what information means. If NBC had just reported the viewpoints
of the two political camps, it would have missed the story. What
Abrams did was to explain the real meaning of the case in an
Second, there are many complicated stories that cry for this type
of analytical news coverage versus journalism where reporters
just present two conflicting points of view.
Third, in this era of “new Internet media” the competitive
advantage of newspapers lies in their ability to tell people what
information means to consumers. The challenge faced by Abrams and
other reporters last week was a supreme test – and many
passed it, but they passed it because they were intellectually
prepared to do the job.
Robert Giles, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, concluded
his presidency of the American Society of Newspaper Editors with
a 1997 speech asserting, “The price of protecting our freedom
includes meeting our obligation to educate our readers by first
It is the job of media to help citizens understand the critical
issues facing society, whether they involve biotechnologically
created food, education, or land use. Each topic is complicated.
A reporter needs the knowledge to confront these stories in a way
that really edifies readers. They need background in science,
economics, business, social sciences, and the law. This doesn’t
mean a reporter needs an MBA to cover business, but it does mean
he or she needs to know how to read a balance sheet.
As the Commission on Freedom of the Press said in 1947: “It is no
longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary
to report the truth about the fact.” That was exactly the
challenge facing our nation’s press in the past five weeks.
This is a perfect opportunity for newspaper managements to commit
themselves to new efforts to better prepare their reporters to
cover the complicated issues facing our nation. It is an
opportunity to ensure that the press not only reports the facts
but also tells readers what the facts mean to them and the
Jack Cox is CEO, president, and founder of the Foundation for
American Communications (FACS), a 25-year-old national
organization based in Pasadena, Calif., that provides news-
content education for journalists and operates the online service
for journalists FACSNet (http://www.facsnet.org).
Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.