All in a day’s work

At a time of shrinking circulation and advertising cutbacks, newspapers don’t often experience the kind of day that journalists at the St. Petersburg Times had on April 17.

First, a grand jury credited one of the newspaper’s reporters with discovering that a former House Speaker had falsified documents for the benefit of a private developer. The jury said the issue would have gone unnoticed without the work of the reporter.

Back at the office, a team of reporters was finishing a special report on decades of abuse at a North Florida boys’ reform school. The series began running on the newspaper’s website that day.

That same day, the board of the Pulitzer Prizes announced that the Times had won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Not a bad day for the Florida newspaper that prides itself on quality work and a devotion to investigative journalism.

The newspaper has a fascinating and unique history which positions it to do excellent work. Former publisher Nelson Poynter died in 1978, and left the controlling stock of the company in the hands of a non-profit institution that was charged with teaching journalism and promoting excellence. The Poynter Institute provides training to many journalists annually, and also conducts research that is valuable to all practitioners.

One of the newspaper’s Pulitzers was awarded to PolitiFact, a website that was created in August 2007 to check the accuracy of statements made by the presidential candidates. Today, reporters and editors fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups. Then they rate them on a “Truth-O-Meter”. They are also tracking more than 500 of Barack Obama’s campaign promises and recording the results on an Obameter.

It’s an innovative way to sort through the noise that political discourse often creates. Instead of merely being content with reporting who said what, and collecting opinions from different sources both pro and con, the newspaper tries to figure out the truth of the statements.

For example, Michelle Bachmann, a Republican member of Congress from Minnesota, recently said:  “I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

Politifact points out that the scare started in February 1976 at Fort Dix, N.J., when the president was Republican Gerald Ford. And Bachmann also forgot to mention a 1988 swine flu death under another Republican administration. Having noted the truth, the PolitiFact journalists aren’t afraid to voice their opinion.

“So Bachmann is wrong about a Democrat being in charge during the 1976 outbreak and she fails to note the swine flu death in 1988. Hmmm. Two swine flu incidents during Republican administrations. By Bachmann’s logic, we should find that ‘interesting.’ But we don’t. It’s ridiculous for her to suggest a partisan link with a deadly disease. That’s not just a mistake, that’s absurdly false. So we’ll get out the lighter (after we wash our hands!) and set the Truth-O-Meter ablaze. This one’s a Pants on Fire.”

It’s a simple example of the journalism of reminder, and it also shows a devotion to getting “the real story” on a political assertion, something not every media outlet has the time or inclination to gather. If the St. Petersburg Times can afford to devote the time and resources to projects like these, it’s reasonable to assume other media outlets could arrange their budgets to do likewise.