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Altering Reality
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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 be removed.  

 

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.