It can be difficult to decide what’s worse: Reporting that’s ideologically biased, or reporting that’s just terrible journalism. Luckily, local TV news outlets frequently make that decision easy by combining both into one toxic mix.
The latest example comes from the team at KGW, turning in a “report” about alleged fraud in the food stamp program. It’s a textbook example of bad reporting being used to push an ideological agenda.
The biggest problem: The segment opens with an anonymous source (“John”), who “works with” Portland’s homeless, and who claims that “more than half” of the city’s homeless population are selling their food stamp cards for cash. This claim sets up the frame for the rest of the piece.
Not only is “John” anonymous, but he’s also being used to establish a “fact” that he’s clearly not qualified to make. It seems highly unlikely that he has any way of knowing how many food stamp users sell their cards. It’s just a guess on his part. Using “John” as a centerpiece of this segment appears to be a violation of basic journalism ethics. Here’s what the Society of Professional Journalists says about the use of anonymous sources:
To protect their credibility and the credibility of their stories, reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources.
Reporters can ethically use anonymous sources, according to the SPJ, but only if they’re delivering critical facts that can’t be found elsewhere and if the reporter makes every attempt to confirm the facts independently.
In this case, the news crew at KGW actually got official information that directly contradicts “John’s” guess, but it’s buried in the middle of the piece. The Department of Human Services’ official fraud estimate is… one-half of one percent.
The official estimate from the agency that is tasked with investigating food stamp card use is buried briefly in the middle of the segment. A wild guess from an anonymous source we know nothing about gets featured in the opening, where it frames the entire story.
As you might have suspected, it gets even worse.
After the KGW investigative team provides viewers with the official stats from DHS, they immediately dispute those stats through an interview with… a politician.
Not everyone’s convinced the rate is that low.
“There’s got to be more fraud out there,” said State Representative Andy Olson.
What evidence does Rep. Olson (R-Albany) base this claim on? What expertise does he have on the issue? We have no idea because the reporters don’t say, but it sure sounds like another wild guess. Could it be driven by partisan ideology, rather than fact? And where is the counterpoint to Rep. Olson? Why is this story completely lacking any balance?
Attacks on public assistance have been a part of the right-wing political narrative for decades, even while the impacts of The Great Recession are still being felt in communities across the state. The highest rates of hunger and poverty are in Oregon’s rural counties and other places where people have literally nowhere else to turn.
Thanks to the Wall Street meltdown, middle-class families have found themselves having to turn to public assistance in order to eat and keep a roof over their heads. And even though corporate profits are now at an all time high, the jobs haven’t come back (at least not to America), keeping the economic recovery out of reach for too many Oregonians.
So we have continued high demand for these basic safety net services. THAT’S the story KGW should be reporting on. Instead, they’ve joined up with the right-wing to gin up a grossly exaggerated story about fraud, abetted by some deeply terrible journalism.
BONUS MEDIA WATCH:
On Tuesday, a small handful of Tea Party members protested outside of the IRS building in downtown Portland.
KOIN Local 6 was on the scene reporting on the protest—conveniently forgetting to report on the tiny number of protestors who actually showed up. They did the same thing at an anti-Obama, pro-coal Tea Party rally last summer, where they sent a three-person crew out to cover the sparsely-attended event and treated it as an Honest To Goodness Political Rally.
Even better (worse?), their one interview Tuesday was with Victoria Taft, yet the station failed to mention that Taft is the former conservative talk show host who was just fired from KPAM.