Thursday, September 13, 2012

Oops - here's how they spin you

Note to one of South Carolina's best-known PR firms: It's probably a good thing to mark the parts of the advice to clients that you don't want forwarded to the news media.

The case under consideration is that of a reporter for The Nerve, a reporting site run by the very conservative S.C. Policy Council. I've been vocal in my criticism of the site's prosecutorial tone and need for good editing.

But it is one of the few reporting organizations actually trying to hold officials', especially state officials', feet to the fire.* On balance, its flaws are more of overzealousness, and the former traditional media reporters working there tend to try to keep the policy council's politics out of it. (They're smart enough to realize their credibility would be less than zero if they did.)

(It is often argued by the targets of investigative reporting and aggressive questioning that the reporters are being political and biased, but I'd say the definition depends on whose ox is being gored.)

The story in question is a look at some of those behind the top salaries in state government, most of them at South Carolina's colleges and universities (all of the top 10 -- in fact, all those earning over $200,000 -- are in higher ed, according to the story; the governor, by contrast is No. 1,739).

Of course, the reporter -- a former student -- wants to talk to all those on the list he is going to cite as examples. In particular, he asks for an interview with Jay Moskowitz, the state's second-highest earner at $392,135. A phone call to Health Sciences South Carolina, where Moskowitz is CEO, produces the answer to email the questions. HSSC is a statewide biomedical research collaborative.

Unfortunately, the administrative assistant emailed back the entire response document from that PR firm I mentioned at the beginning. Here's the first page:

Always good to see the spin cycle in action. Reporters, if you had any doubts (and if you did, you've been in this business less than five minutes), here's how they like to spin you. (See the beginning of this piece for my thoughts that The Nerve has its faults but is not a partisan outlet.**)

The point, though, is just to illustrate the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on to spin a message, no matter what the outlet.

It's also a good reminder why you should push back hard against demands that you do an email interview. Email has become the best friend of the obfuscation brigade, and the answers are almost guaranteed to such the life out of most writing.***

Here, by the way, are those last two questions and the "suggested" answers. I thought the questions were pretty reasonable and represent what would be readers' questions too:

Also worth noting in the story is how the University of South Carolina is flouting the spirit of the state FOI law.

  * See Jay Bender's excellent column in the SC Press Association about how S.C. news media need to grow a pair.
** No more, and actually a little less so, than Fox News or MSNBC are.
*** You will probably disagree with me, but I think news outlets should run at least once in every story that is forced to resort to email interview, something like "Smith would not make himself/herself available to answer questions. These answers were provided through email, so we can't be sure who actually answered the questions." (OK, the last part's a bit snarky. Drop it, but it is a reminder to reporters not to assume.)

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