Skeptical Journalism

November 30, 2010

Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.”

In 230 pages, Farhad Manjoo’s “True Enough”, delves into and dissects truth or the lack thereof in society and news these days. People know longer NEED fact, they want it, but at the end of the day people are going to believe only what they want to believe anyway. Manjoo explores a number of similar principles and gives his readers the opportunity to step back, take a look at themselves and evaluate their trust in news organizations and whether or not they are biased in their news decisions.

Manjoo pointed out that “We all want objectivity, but we disagree about what objectivity is.” I found this point one of the most interesting in the book. The fact is that people watch the news because they want the truth. But many times when people are confronted with facts that do not agree with their own beliefs and ideals, they resist and automatically discard this new truth as impossibly wrong. They assume that someone else must not know what they’re talking about, never realizing that they are limiting themselves. Manjoo describes selective exposure as when “we simply steer clear of information that contradicts what we think we know.”And with this, it’s clear that as news consumers we need to be skeptical of the information we are presented with everyday.

In reality, the truth doesn’t always prevail. Everyone has opinions. preconceived notions, biases and agendas. Manjoo supports the principles in his book with examples that are both surprising and informative. Here are some of the other interesting and related principles in the book: selective perception is when we interpret facts and information to agree with our long held beliefs; media fragmentation is the breaking up of the once unquestionably trustworthy news sources because people are willing and able to get their news from various sources, no longer restricting themselves to the nightly news and newspapers; naive realism is basically the failure to realize that when you think you are unbiased you are actually too naive to realize that the bias already exists in the information you receive therefore creating a biased reality that you aren’t even aware of.

Overall, I was a fan of the book. I thought it was insightful, interesting, informative and surprising. For example, like the group of Swift Boat Veterans who single-handedly launched the 2004 attack on  John Kerry’s wartime heroism and patriotism and discredited Kerry and the medals he rightfully earned in Vietnam. Here’s a fact: not a single one of the men who went on this nationwide tirade actually ever served in Vietnam at the same time as John Kerry. People who actually served with him and documentation from his time in the service supported Kerry’s truth and what America already knew about it. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter because they knew that as long as they kept talking and selling their version of reality, that people would eat it up and it would be picked up by the media. And that’s exactly what happened. They worked diligently to destroy the reputation of a man for no better reason then they didn’t have their facts straight and with blatant and volatile persistence, they won. Kerry lost to Bush. Look how well that turned out. Thanks for nothing morons.

By the time I finished the book, I felt it was very redundant. It was clear that the theories stay the same but the name changed. One part kept me interested but maybe it was because I liked the personality behind the theory. Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of “truthiness” on the premiere of his show in 2005. “Truthiness”, he suggested, was the quality of something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually was. It may sound silly but I’ve thought about this with movies that are “Based on a true story or actual events.” For example, The Fourth Kind with Milla Jovovich; in the beginning of the movie she comes on screen as herself to warn viewers that the movie contains actual video from the events that took place and may be disturbing. I couldn’t decide whether it was merely meant to make the movie more dramatic or if the video would in fact be authentic. During the movie, they use “actual” video from cameras used to tape therapy sessions and video from the dashboard cam from a cop car. I found it had to believe that it was real, part of me chose to disregard it as movie editing. But part of me wanted to believe it because it more make it that much more interesting of a movie.

Seeing the way these concepts are present in my life every day made the Manjoo book that much more interesting to me. Good luck to those who have never read a book like this. You’d be shocked to find out what you believe because you’re made to believe it and what you believe because your mind deceives itself and filters your reality.

I went to court today…don’t worry…I’m not in trouble.

November 23, 2010

Clearly I’ve put writing this blog off for as long as humanly possible and every time I thought about it I thought my head just might explode.
Mainly because I was bored beyond words when I went to the Hillsborough County Courthouse in downtown Tampa earlier in the semester and I was mildly dreading having to spend more time there. In fact, the only thing I really like about being at the courthouse is people watching. It is amazing how many types of people from every walk of like come through those doors every day.

Let me preface this by saying that I grew up with a father and uncle who were police officers, a mother who worked in police departments, an aunt who works for a judge and an aunt who works for a lawyer. Needless to say, I can’t hide very much from my family. But their careers have given me a lifelong glimpse into various levels of law enforcement and the legal system.

As I stood in the courthouse I found myself being a little stereotypical but nonetheless very curious about why people were in the courthouse that day. Were they late on child support? Were they fighting a traffic ticket? Were they a juvenile runaway who got caught for truancy? Were they adopting a child? Were they suing an old roommate over a broken PlayStation? Who knows! Perhaps the most interesting thing that occurred to me after the endless list of random questions stopped speeding through my brain was that all of those things were handled under one roof. The courthouse is meticulously divided into a number of different courts. Ten to be exact.

So unless you’re looking for something completely ridiculous you should have no trouble finding it in the Circuit Court.

But just a word of advice…when you’re going to court…PLEASE don’t dress like you’re going out in Ybor City. If only least that much is taken away from this blog, I’ve done my job!

What do the Hillsborough County Commission and baseball have in common?

November 9, 2010

 

Ken Hagan

Ken Hagan

If you guessed Ken Hagan than you’re right! At this morning’s Hillsborough County Commissioner’s meeting, board member Mark Sharpe presented Ken Hagan with a token of appreciation for his leadership, integrity and excellent service over the last year. Hagan, who played baseball at the University of Florida and has played and loved baseball most of his life, was “blown away” by the gesture and seemed genuinely very honored to be receiving the recognition. Hagan was given a Louisville slugger baseball bat signed by each of his fellow commissioners. A few of the members said their bit of praise for Hagan, who just won another term on the county commission. Rose Ferlita, who is leaving the board at the end of her term to run for the Mayor of Tampa, arrived late but was quick to chime in with her appreciation and confidence in Hagan.

 

As the meeting continued, I found it a little hard to follow the Robert’s Rules of Order and I got distracted by my own thoughts. I started thinking more about the gesture of Hagan’s gift. A lot of politics these days, as well as politicians, seem to be dragged through the mud for one thing or another. Believe me, I understand that people do dishonest and manipulative things, but it was almost refreshing to see someone rewarded for doing good. With so much corruption in politics, it easy to forget that there are people who use their authority for good and after three years of loyal service, it was nice to see support and appreciation for someone who does their job with respect and integrity.

Which brings me to my next point and my basis for comparison. The last county commissioner’s meeting I went to was in March, when Pat Bean and Renee Lee were both suspended with pay pending an FDLE investigation into the sketchy raises she gave to herself and others last year. Once I started thinking about it, I started to compare the two. Hagan has served three years on the Board of County Commissioners and is being recognized for good, while Bean served 33 years in government and dragged her reputation and career through the mud with dirty deeds.

 


				

Another exhilarating School Board meeting

November 4, 2010

The Hillsborough County School Board meeting on October 5 started like all other school board meeting I have been to. They began with the Pledge of Allegiance, which was strangely nostalgic for me because I haven’t recited the Pledge since high school. Two board members, Carol Kurdell and Candy Olson were absent and April Griffin, who was probably out campaigning, was late to arrive. One thing I never realized that the members have to vote to approve the meeting’s agenda. Vice Chair Doretha Edgecomb read the conduct standards of the meeting, including length of time that each public speaker will have to speak aloud.  Two Philip Shore Elementary School students Lucy Frank, a first grade violinist and her sister Madeline Frank, a first grade pianist, were recognized at the meeting for performing earlier in the day for the board members. A lot of the terminology that followed was confusing to me. I tried to pay attention as best I could but my eyes were glued to the sign language translator. The board recognized a number of Exceptional students, one of which will be graduating from Middleton High School, as the fourth in her class. One of the girls did sign language as another girl read aloud. It blew my mind that she was able to keep up with how fast she was reading. The girls were there to enter a proclamation make the first week in October Disablity History and Awareness Week in Hillsborough County. Not surprisingly, the vote passed unanimously. Next, they heard another proclamation to adopt October 18-22, 2010 as National School Bus Safety Week. The speaker recognized five drivers, who have each been school bus drivers for more than 30 years and have no tickets and no accidents on their record. It was nice to see the people who take pride in their job as a bus driver because we’ve seen all too often in the news, bus drivers who do nothing to stop fights or bullying on school buses, drivers who aren’t genuinely concerned for the safety of the students that are put in their care.

Election Day 2010

November 4, 2010

When I realized it was November 2, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I have to vote today.” It was never a question to me. It was just something that I knew I had to do. But when I walked into my polling place I realized that maybe not everyone felt the way I did. Granted, I went to vote around 3:30 while most people are still at work but I was surprised to be one of only three people voting at that time. Maybe it was my mistake, maybe I assumed too much, but I was expecting to see many more people there than I did. When I got done voting, I got my “I Voted” sticker and proudly stuck it to my shirt.

That night before the results started rolling in, I started to think about voter turnout. Personally, I expected a shift in party majority, which is exactly what happened. Republicans all but dominated this midterm election and to me, it’s no surprise. When people aren’t happy with the current administration, things tend to swing in a different direction. In this case, from Democrat to Republican. The Republican candidates in Florida won in almost every single individual race. I don’t pretend to understand political agendas or the seemingly endless number of intricacies involved in politics. However, I think it’s a fair assumption to make that now that Republicans have control in the House of Representatives and the Senate; this country is set to witness a huge power struggle in The White House. Since President Obama took office over two years ago, the Republicans for the most part refused to cooperate on a non-partisan basis. Their lack of support for most of Obama’s efforts led to several revisions of the health care reform, which Republicans demanded that abortion not be covered by medical insurance.

With control, Republicans will likely succeed in making abortion illegal in the state of Florida, even if a woman is the victim of rape or incest. Like my mom says, “The day a man can give birth, is the day he can tell me what I can or can not do with MY body.” There is a COMPLETE lack of concern for the woman/mother in these circumstances. Abortion IS LEGAL in this country! Therefore, it should never be made illegal on a state by state basis. I find it appalling and archaic that in 2010 we still have to fight for the right to take care of our own bodies as we see fit. Are we given the choice of what is put in our processed foods or what hormones are put in our milk? We live in a world of upside down politics and selfish personal agendas that will NEVER create a better country.

Well I WAS hungry…

October 27, 2010

As the last “field trip” for my Public Affairs Reporting class, we visited the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s office yesterday. My friend Amanda took the class last semester and said it was her favorite trip…while I don’t share her level of enthusiasm, I did find it interesting.

As with every field trip, we started with the pleasantries. Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Vernard Adams, gave us his introduction to the facility, what goes on there and so on. He told us that there are around 10,000 deaths in Hillsborough County every year…that’s roughly 27 deaths a day! That figure alone blew my mind. Of those 10,000 deaths only about 1,900 of them come to the medical examiner’s office. Huh? Maybe I’m ignorant and never really thought about where a body goes once a person has died but I’m pretty sure I assumed that everyone went their after they died and before they are buried, cremated, etc. Apparently, they are criterion your death/body has to meet in order for a visit to the M.E.

According to FSS 406.11 “when any person dies in the state:

  1. Of criminal violence
  2. By accident
  3. By suicide
  4. Suddenly, when in apparent good health
  5. Unattended by a practicing physician or other recognized practitioner
  6. In any prison or penal institution
  7. In police custody
  8. In any suspicious or unusual circumstance
  9. By criminal abortion
  10. By poison
  11. By disease constituting a threat to public health
  12. By disease, injury, or toxic agent resulting from employment.”

The medical examiner is also responsible for disposing of unclaimed bodies, which may be by burial, cremation, or donation to a state medical school for dissection.

After this delightful and vivid discussion, we met Operations Manager, Dick Bailey, who gave us the grand tour of the facility. Here we go…

First stop, a musty, 53 degree cooler in which they can keep up to 50 bodies at any given time. The back wall of the cooler had shelves upon shelves of plastic storage bins. What was in them you ask? Unclaimed skeletal remains… The facility has four of these identical coolers in case there is an incident of mass death. Lovely. Moving on. Next, we saw where the bodies are weighed, measured and assessed. We then walked through two large double doors into the room they conduct the examinations and autopsies. It didn’t help that I was the first one in the door and almost walked into a freshly used table with blood and bloody towels on it. Normally, blood and graphic stuff doesn’t bother me, it usually intrigues me. I’m not a squeamish person but something about the fact that it came from a dead body didn’t sit well with me.

Then, I saw it. Around the corner, there was an autopsy going on. Once again, since I was the first person in the room, I was likely the first person to see it. Mr. Bailey noticed it too and attempted to steer us away from it…but everyone’s eyes were glued. He took us in the x-ray room and just as he began to describe the process of peeling forwards someone’s scalp and cutting off their skull in order to remove the brain, in walks a man with a blood-covered apron, blood-soaked towel and the entire upper half of a human skull in his hand. Needless to say we were all more than mortified. In case we hadn’t seen enough, we stood next to the body being autopsied which looked like a Halloween prop. It hardly looked real to me! It was almost funny how appropriate this field trip was the week of Halloween. We finished the tour in the toxicology lab but the things I had seen were burned into my retinas. I give these people a lot of credit because I could never do what they do everyday.

This is officially the longest blog I’ve ever written. I had no idea the medical examiner’s office would leave such an impression on me.

Be ready for anything

October 22, 2010

As I drove to the News Center in downtown Tampa I thought to myself, “This is it. I’ve been looking forward to this all semester. I’m finally going to meet Steve Andrews.” In case you didn’t know, he’s one of the best investigative journalists in the country. The man has an Emmy for Pete’s sake! Not to mention he’s the father of ESPN sports reporter, Erin Andrews, who when every time I saw her reporting from a sideline made me want to be a journalist more and more. Now, here I am. Thanks Erin!

He began talking to my class about a story he had done involving former Hillsborough County state prosecutor Harry Lee Coe. Andrews had uncovered that Coe used the government computers at his office to bet on greyhound racing and borrowed thousands of dollars from  “lifelong” friends and a number of his employees, which is clearly a HUGE conflict of interest. To make matters worse, Coe began to delete files and websites from his computer when he learned Andrews had made a request for those very records. Mind you, tampering with public records is a crime. Coe vehemently and publicly denied the accusations, even when confronted with his user name and password from the gambling sites!

Several attempts were made to track and follow Coe, who Andrews and his photographer describe as a “maniac” behind the wheel of a car. They vividly remember trying to follow him as he drove 100 mph down Bayshore Blvd and ran stop signs will no regard for anyone elses safety. One day, Andrews and his photographer waited outside Coe’s house, hoping for a chance to talk to him. Unfortunately, Coe was nowhere to be found and one by one, his closest confidants and business associates entered and left his house to no avail. Where was he?! So Andrews thought a drive around the block might be a good idea. Then they noticed someone that appeared to be a homeless man sitting on a bench, Andrews jokingly suggested it was Coe. So, they decided to take a closer look…the way Steve Andrews went on to describe what he saw was so vivid and unimaginable. He went on, “At first, I couldn’t tell if it was him but I saw a gun in his lap. I walked a little closer…I saw blood running down his face. I walked a little closer…I saw ants crawling in and out of his mouth. Coe had shot himself in the head.” I sat there thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” It sounds like a terrible twist in a movie but this was real life.

He had lead the investigation that drove a man to take his own life.

After they ran the story of his suicide, Andrews said he received 1,500 emails of negative backlash including numerous death threats that resulted in heightened security of Andrews and his photographer. Like a bad game of telephone, the facts got skewed and the story got twisted. So, Andrews answered every email and set things straight with anyone who had been misinformed.No matter how much experience you have, there are somethings you can never prepare for. This story is a perfect example of the ironic and sometimes fragile relationship we have as journalists with our audience.

He finished this story by reminding us to stay within your realm as a reporter. Never cross a line that you can’t come back over.

 

 

Journalism you can feel

October 21, 2010

Instead of going to my TV News class today, sorry Neil, I’m sitting at the APME convention at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. I’m excited to be among so many talented and innovative  journalists and photographers who work all over the world. While everyone else in the room was eager to get to lunch, I was eager to see who and what was going to receive APME awards. And once the first photo hit the screen, I knew this is what I had come for. The nominees and winners reminded me exactly what I want out of my own journalism one day- I don’t want people to just see my work- I want people to feel it. One by one, photos from around the country went up and one by one they gave me chills. The first thing I saw was a dramatic and emotional piece about the shooting at Fort Hood, the largest mass shooting at military base in American history.  Every photo carried so much emotion and pain, you could not help but to feel the agony for those there that day. The presentation continued with The Oily Pelican, a gut wrenching photo of an oil

covered pelican struggling in the Gulf oil spill, pictures of the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake, opium addiction in Afghanistan and a photo that nearly brought tears to my eyes-a high-speed chase that ended in the death of  California State Patrol Tom Coleman.

The photo of his fellow officers standing over his flag-covered body, mourning his death touched me at my deepest level. My dad has spent my entire life as a motorcycle officer so this story, let alone this photo pulls at my heart as a reminder of how lucky I am that my father has done his job and come home every night to do it all over again the next day. The time I spent at the APME conference today has given me a renewed sense of direction and what I want out of my own career one day.

Now I Have A Reason To Be Nosy

September 30, 2010

I always tell people, “If I ask a lot of questions, I’m just nosy. It’s the reporter in me.”

Now I actually have a way and a reason to be really nosy…and I like it.

Preston Trigg, from the Hillsborough County Tax Collector, came to speak to my class this week and I was far more engaged than I thought I would be. It was a presentation on the Tax Collector’s Office after all.

During the presentation my professor, Gil Thelen, made the comment that the first two questions you should ask about anyone running for an official position are: Did they pay taxes? Did they vote? Then, I thought about what he said. He was right, why would I want to vote for someone who is fiscally irresponsible or doesn’t even vote themselves?

I was immediately interested in finding out what types of information and details I could find on the Tax Collector’s website.

I started my search by looking up some of my favorite people. Here’s what I found:

Ryan Malone, forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning: My future husband (just kidding…kind of) lives in the Westshore Yacht Club with his wife Abbey. Their home was valued at nearly $760,000 in 2009. I’m guessing they have a spare room I could live in. Just a thought.

Evan Longoria, third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays: His condo in the Towers of Channelside was valued just shy of $250,000.

I’m single and I LOVE sports…I’ll see you guys later…after all, I know where you live.

Better Safe Than Sorry

September 23, 2010

Let me begin by saying that I grew up as the only daughter of a police officer. Needless to say, I didn’t date much. In fact, most of the men in my family have worked in law enforcement my entire life and my dad retired after 31 years of service for the Davie Police Department in Broward County. When I was little, my dad put me in a jail cell to remind me to never do anything to get locked in one. You may think that sounds a little drastic but at least it worked.

My dad always told me the same thing, “Use your head. I have to knock on doors and wake up parents in the middle of the night to tell them their child is never coming home. You can’t even imagine what that’s like Melissa. I don’t want someone knocking on my door to tell me you’re never coming home.”

Thanks to my dad and uncles there are very few aspects of law enforcement that I’m not already familiar with. Walking around a jail in close proximity to people who have been arrested is one of those things. It was unnerving to be within arms length of these people when we walked through the booking area. I didn’t assume that they were all dangerous necessarily but then the officer told us that 80% of the people in the jail were repeat offenders. Some of my classmates were shocked…not me. My own experiences have taught me that there is a lot to gain from having a “better safe than sorry” mentality.

In October 2007, I was robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot of my apartment. A man twice my size thought it was necessary to put a gun to my head in order to steal my purse. Really?! Because all 100 pounds of me are pretty threatening right? At 4 A.M. I had to make the most devastating phone call my dad would ever get, “Daddy, I got robbed…he put a gun to my head.” Writing this now brings tears to my eyes. I couldn’t imagine how my father felt hearing that someone made the choice between the life or death of his baby girl only minutes earlier, but as I expected he remained calm in order to calm me down.

From that moment forward, I have felt differently toward people who commit and are arrested for violent crimes. Walking through the jail was surreal for me because I wondered what these people had done to get themselves there. Had they robbed someone like me? Had they hurt someone? Could one of these men be the man that robbed me? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t breath a little easier when I walked out the front door.