Slanting The Story To
Fit Socially Approved Mindsets
By James Donahue
A recent New York Times
commentary by David Pogue noted the following: “A few years ago a parenting magazine asked me to write an article about
the dangers that children face when they go online. As it turns out, I was the wrong author for the article they had in mind.”
Pogue went on to explain
how the magazine editor expected a sensational piece about pedophiles that stalk, rape and even kill innocent children via
the Internet. After doing his research he said the story revealed that “tales of pedophiles luring children out of their
homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere.”
After being prodded by
the editor to dig deeper and find an anecdote about a child being killed by a chat-room stalker, Pogue said he was unable
to “find a single example of a preteen getting abducted and murdered by an Internet predator.”
The pressure by an editor
to force a particular news report from an honest researcher and writer in the field is not an uncommon occurrence. In my years
of reporting for various daily newspapers I had similar experiences that sometimes forced me to stand up to my editors and
even put my job on the line.
It was in the late 1960s,
when I was working for a newspaper in Southwest Michigan, when a reporter for one of the Detroit newspapers
pounded out a series of exposes about poor living conditions endured by impoverished Mexican migrant workers who came to the
area each summer to pick fruit and vegetables. The stories depicted entire families huddled in dilapidated shanties lacking
hot and cold running water, adequate cooking facilities or screens on the windows. The articles also told of pending state
legislation that would force farmers to provide improved living conditions for migrants.
My editor then sent me
out into the field, with an assigned photographer, with orders to develop a similar series of stories. I spent a week traveling
from farm to farm, across a three-county area, talking to fruit and vegetable growers and migrant families working on these
farms. I even interviewed social workers and Christian mission leaders. The story I got was very different from the one delivered
by that Detroit newspaper.
What I learned was that
migrant families traveled in packs, following the harvest, because there was good money in the work for them when compared
to the meager wages available to them in Mexico.
They were not complaining about the money they received. In fact, they were concerned because area farmers, threatened with
possible state legislation that would force them to provide temporary housing with hot and cold running water, clean bedding,
adequate cook stoves and windows with screens on them, were moving to develop mechanized harvesting equipment to replace migrant
labor altogether. The workers did not want to lose their jobs.
As one father explained,
he closed his television repair shop every summer and brought his family to Michigan
to pick fruit because it was comparable to camping out and making good money at the same time.
The land owners I talked
to noted that the small structures they provided for summer migrants were only occupied for a few weeks each season and were
not designed for permanent family living. They were merely temporary shelters. The camps all had a public toilet facility
and a single cold water tap to cover basic needs. Rustic camp grounds offer little more.
The story I wrote warned
that the proposed legislation forcing farmers to provide improved housing for migrants would force an unwanted life-style
change for the migrant families because farmers would simply invest in harvesting machines and stop using the Mexican workers.
The story caused a storm of controversy, brought volumes of hate mail and put me in the hot seat for several weeks. Needless
to say, the legislation was passed and farmers did exactly what they threatened to do. Migrant farm workers no longer pick
the cherries, blueberries, strawberries and melons grown in that part of Michigan.
The work is all done by machine harvesters.
Some years later while
working for a Gannett newspaper I was sent out to develop a Sunday feature about how million and multi-million dollar lottery
wins were changing lives in the state. I interviewed about five different families that cashed in on the state jackpot lottery
draws and discovered something interesting. In nearly every case the family was incapable of dealing with sudden wealth. All
but one of the families were struck with some form of tragic consequence ranging from divorce to wild spending sprees that
led directly into bankruptcy.
The only case that avoided
bad circumstances involved a cantankerous old railroad station agent so set in his ways he refused to change much of anything.
Even though he was suddenly very wealthy, he did no more than buy a new but modest home for himself and his wife, and a new
car. He kept his job and put the rest of the money in the bank. Life went on for him just as it had before except he no longer
worried about paying his bills.
My story focused on the
impending tragedy associated with suddenly acquiring the wealth of a lottery win. While I admit that I was surprised at the
results of my research, my editors apparently refused to believe the story. When my piece appeared I found that it was completely
rewritten with extreme changes added so that it appeared that everybody lived happily ever after winning all this money. I
was so angered by what the editors did to my story I recall a violent shouting match that went on the following day in the
office. I didn’t quit the job, but got a promise that if my stories were ever rewritten like that again, my byline would
This is how it was in
newspaper offices in the 1970s and 1980s. Imagine what is going on there today as the papers fight for mere survival.
My point is that there
has always been a need for honesty in research and writing in the field of journalism. When the writer is pressured by editors
to envision something that doesn’t exist, and write the article as an editor expects it to be, there is a great danger
of altered facts that sway public opinion in the wrong direction.