Friday, August 20, 2010

Why don't journalists do good watchdog reporting? Because no one cares until there's anthrax in the mail or oil in your fishin' hole

I wrote a story for the Detroit Free Press once about the offbeat work of a state agency whose responsibilities included protecting Michigan citizens from chemical and biological terrorist attacks.

Editors hated the story. The believed it was needlessly hysterical and legitimized the work of a state agency that was wasting taxpayer money on a threat so remote to be laughable. They chopped it up and buried it on an inside page.

Then Al Quaeda’s 9/11/01 attacks and subsequent anthrax attacks sent shock and panic through the country. The obscure scientists in the story were suddenly Very Important People and the notion of exploring our readiness against chemical attacks suddenly seemed urgent and newsworthy.

A similar dynamic occurs with every high-profile disaster. No one – editors, citizens, politicians – no one, gives much of a rip about stories examining our readiness for disasters until the disasters strike. Then, it’s a free for all of blame and second guessing.

A good journalistic investigation might have unearthed – before the Gulf Oil Spill -- a pattern of corner cutting and noncompliance on the part of BP. But it would have been a real sleep inducer. No one would have cared.

Likewise, someone might have written or broadcast a story – before Michigan’s Kalamazoo River system oil spill -- noting that Enbridge Energy Partners has been warned about corrosion in their oil pipeline. Such a story might have quoted Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for an environmental group saying : “We believe corrosion in the pipeline needs to be corrected immediately, or we are courting disaster.”

It would have only been read by geeks and zealots with online identities like BAD*SSMUTHA, NO_TYRANNY, and AYNRAND. They would have written anonymous comments: “take your hippie ass and your Prius and move to Red China you spoiled jerk from the People’s Republic of Ann Arborstan” or “you’re an environmental wacko trying to kill the last jobs in Michigan that Two Penny Jenny Grandmole hasn’t already!.”

I thought of this dynamic the other day when I spoke with a reporter working on a story about oil pipelines in Michigan that may be completely unregulated. Apparently, there are certain sections of intrastate oil pipe that are not regulated or inspected for safety by any state or local agency. If there’s a federal agency that’s supposed to regulate them, they haven’t done so for decades.

But the reporter told me the story may never get reported. It would take a good month of digging for a story that’s complex and raises warning flags, but wouldn’t get much reader reaction even in the wake of the recent oil calamities. Meanwhile, there are plenty of stories that will get readers talking that can be reported in a week, a day, or a few hours.

There’s a lot of moaning about how the media doesn’t cover substantive issues anymore. But journalists know from experience that sober, lengthy analyses of important issues don’t sell newspapers, don't drive up viewership and never gets much feedback from readers. Until the public cares, media executives, editors and advertisers aren’t going to either.

Usually, sadly, that takes a disaster.


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