It was not only great news that the Washington Post‘s new Executive Editor, Sally Buzbee, has just announced that the paper will hire 41 new editors. It’s urgently needed news, as made painfully clear by this September 13 article on rising crime in Atlanta, Georgia – which violates one of the most important rules of good journalism: Don’t try to shoehorn an article into a certain narrative when you’ve presented almost no supporting evidence.
The narrative chosen by reporter Tim Craig and evidently approved by enough editors to warrant publication is plainly stated in the headline: “Brutal killing of a woman and her dog in an Atlanta park reignites the debate over city’s growing crime problem.” It’s hardly unheard of for headlines to clash with the body of their story, or to exaggerate the findings. After all, nearly news organizations are private businesses, they need to make money, and what better way to generate the kinds of eyeballs that will make advertisers pay top dollar than clickbait – which of course is journalism’s version of flashy packaging.
And sometimes, headline writers just make innocent mistakes, and place such labels on stories too late for the reporter to object – or even an editor to spot it. That’s not a capital crime, especially when we’re dealing with a form of communication that’s often necessarily hastily composed.
But the claim of a “debate” on crime convulsing the city wasn’t confined to the headline. Craig himself wrote that Atlanta’s crime rate is dominating the political debate in Georgia, a state that is expected to be key in next year’s midterm elections. Georgia Republicans believe a tough-on-crime message offers them a chance to win back suburban Atlanta-area voters after the party suffered punishing losses in last year’s presidential and U.S. Senate contests.”
Meanwhile, “many Democrats,” readers are told, dismiss [such] concerns as a partisan effort to rally conservatives to the polls by stoking fear….”
The above link documents that Atlanta crime is definitely influencing city and state politics. But what’s weird about Craig’s story is that it per se offers almost no examples of such clashing opinions.
Toward the end of the article, Craig quotes a single resident fretting that “state Republicans will use the city’s crime problem to their political advantage.” But even she both acknowledges a “crime problem,” calls it “unbelievable” and “said she thinks some of the city’s Democratic leaders went too far last year by embracing calls to shift resources away from the police.”
The only Democratic politician whose views are presented – Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, told Craig that Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who’s up for reelection next year and has focused on the crime issue, “is right to be concerned” because “the city’s criminal justice system is overwhelmed amid a shortage of police officers and ballistics experts needed to help solve crimes.”
This is a debate on crime? Or even close?
In fact, the rest of Craig’s article is devoted almost exclusively to a wide variety of Atlantans emphasizing how serious the city’s crime problem is and worrying that if some dramatically different strategy to fight it isn’t adopted soon, its economy could suffer and its “community cohesion, vitality and civility” could be damaged. (One exception to the head of a local business booster group – who’s basically paid to be optimistic.)
Just as important, no one mentioned in the article voiced any support for defunding police or “reimagining public safety” to focus on non-coercive ways to reduce crime or any of the other police reform proposals that mushroomed following George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
Spotting such internal contradictions isn’t the only editing problem experienced lately by the Post (or other major news organizations). As known by RealityChek regulars, the output of these outlets regularly contains major factual mistakes, ignores crucial context, presents too narrow a range of opinion, and relies on experts plainly not worthy of the title (to name just a few of their leading shortcomings).
So let’s hope Buzbee’s hiring decision stems from a recognition of these problems (rather than a desire to add new bells and whistles to their websites and the like), and that lots of other news organizations follow suit. Her newspaper’s latest motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” spotlights the essential role journalism plays in protecting Americans’ freedoms. She and her peers should also remember that the trust on which this role is based will weaken further in incompetence.