When traditional media falls short in its responsibility to inform the public, a ritual invariably follows: Acknowledgement, apology and promise to improve.
The same old routines resume, however, after the rite– until the next breakdown.
That’s why I’m rolling my eyes at The Flint (Mich.) Journal. The paper failed to provide the most cursory of local election news coverage of a convicted murderer who ran and won a spot on the city council.
Wantwaz Davis will represent the city’s predominately African American fifth ward after beating the incumbent by 71 votes. Davis served 19 years for second-degree murder and was released on parole in 2010.
Although Davis had been open about his past throughout the campaign, the paper didn’t report about him until the day after the election. The story informed readers that Davis was one of two newly elected council members with a criminal record. On Nov. 8, the paper’s editor, Marjory Raymer, apologized to readers.
“We reported (Davis’ prison record) the same day we discovered it. However, we did not inform voters – the way we all wish we could have – of that information before they went to the polls on Tuesday,” she said. “We can’t change what is. What we can do is acknowledge we should have done better and pledge to you that we will do better.”
Raymer hasn’t responded to my request for an interview, but we see things differently. The newspaper’s failure is more than incompetence.
The Flint Journal’s debacle is just another journalism failure that minority communities have endured for years. Over and over we’ve seen minority coverage limited to spot news, usually short hits about crime or some other dysfunction. Longer stories are bound by a couple of narrative frames: Disadvantaged people overcoming obstacles; disadvantaged people overcome by obstacles.
Admittedly I’m viewing this situation from Cleveland, about 240 miles southeast of Flint, but my perspective isn’t shaped by location. It’s shaped by my experience as an African American news producer and consumer. The Journal’s transgression is part of a pattern that stretches past Flint to my town, which is served by the Journal’s sister newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and beyond.
That kind of disdain adds a ring of insincerity to apologies like Raymer’s. Here’s why: The paper may not have known about Davis’ past, but voters did.
He told them, over and over, in interview after interview, and at forum after forum.
Local radio host Tom Sumner says he interviewed Davis, as well as other candidates, during the primary and the general election campaigns. According to Sumner, Davis played up his past.
“It was his narrative. It was ‘I turned my life around, so I could turn the city around. I could be a mentor to young people to keep them from making the mistakes I made,’” Sumner recounts.
Local activist, Kathryn Blake says Davis spoke at numerous events that The Flint Journal covered.
“The Flint Journal knew (about Davis’ background) before the election,” she says. “We had candidate forums here. The Flint Journal was there.”
So why did the newspaper fail to do its job? Jack Lessenberry, a prominent Michigan commentator blames drastic newsroom cuts.
“To save money, Advance Publications, the parent company of The Flint Journal, laid off more than a third of the staff four years ago,” he writes. “They cut home delivery to only three days, later four days a week.”
Sumner concedes that the paper’s staff is thin and inexperienced. But he thinks the paper made a news judgment that came back to bite them.
“I think they didn’t expect (Davis) to win. I don’t think they took him seriously enough as a candidate,” Sumner says.
I don’t think the paper took the community seriously enough to cover it correctly. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time; sad to say, it won’t be the last.
Guest blogger Afi Scruggs is a freelance digital journalist and commentator