Wednesday, January 28, 2009

American News Project's "investigation" not truly investigative journalism

My investigative journalism professor, Joel Campbell (aka the Mormon Media Observer), wrote this piece for that I thought you'd all enjoy:

Investigation, secrecy, documents, Oh My!

The American News Project is promoting a news video "investigation" of the LDS Church's support of Proposition 8. While this film could be called an advocacy documentary or simply propaganda, please don't call it quality journalism or even "news."

It's produced by Steve Greenstreet, who identifies himself as a former Mormon missionary who produced the documentary "The Divided State" about Michael Moore's and Sean Hannity's visits to Utah Valley State College.

Set to the drone of sinister music you might expect in a spy thriller, Greenstreet lays out his case about "two contradictory stories" that have emerged after the Proposition 8 battle. In essence, Greenstreet implies there is a cover-up by the LDS Church.

Having revealed "undisclosed" audio tapes and transcripts, he points out the LDS Church helped provide Web sites, phone banks and a satellite broadcast that were never accounted for in campaign contributions. Of course, the writer emphasizes twice that the California Fair Political Practices Commission is also "investigating." Greenstreet doesn't explain how he obtained the undisclosed documents. Such transparency is a hallmark of good reporting. He also does not say where the California inquiry has gone.

This kind of framing, coupled with a steady stream of anti-Mormon signs and footage of protests at LDS temples, is propaganda rather than balanced news reporting. So, first is this latest work news or investigative journalism? No, there is not much new in this report. Investigative journalism, by definition, means reporters bring something new to light. Most of the report is simply a rehash of things previously reported in the press.

A quick Internet search yields stories with the same information weeks before this report.

However, what Greenstreet does is skillfully juxtapose sinister music, the propaganda of Mormon critics and stereotypes about Mormons. By definition, "propaganda is a one-sided, biased presentation of an issue, trading on emotional appeals and a widerange of rhetorical devices in order to override critical assessment." Producers certainly allowed no room in this report for a dialog about how and when religion can participate in the public arena and even a discussion from both sides about the vagary of rules that govern such things. Instead, viewers are offered implied indictment instead of public-service enlightenment.

The report does not meet the standard promoted on ANP's Web as "dedicated to defending and promoting the public interest through high-quality, investigative video journalism."

One only needs to look at the first two canons of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics to find Greenstreet's shortcomings. The code says: "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible."

The way this news report is produced is a deliberate distortion, first in making the audience believe the reports has uncovered new information and second it's format filled with photographs of anti-LDS signs, protests and innuendo. The only two sources interviewed for the report questioned the LDS Church's motives. The report is alsodismissive of the LDS claims about their position based on spirituality.

The second SPJ canon is to "diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing." There was no evidence of diligence here. Why no LDS voices? There was nothing to indicate Greenstreet contacted the LDS Church, Mormons or others inside the Proposition 8 movement forcomment.

Greenstreet has had some history with this kind of reporting. He's even been lauded for advocacy. Instead of calling this kind of work investigative journalism, please label it advocacy and commentary. The SPJ Code says: "Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context."

Greenstreet was contacted for response, but did not return a phone call. Space will be provided in a future column if he chooses to respond.