Sunday, November 30, 2003

Truth Must Trump "Balance": AP Misses the Mark 
This is interesting:

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) - Capt. Steve McAlpin, a 25-year Army reservist, spent most of last year deployed in Afghanistan and just returned home in January. Now his unit is about to ship out again, and he's facing insubordination charges for criticizing the quick turnaround.
McAlpin questioned the legality of a waiver that his battalion was asked to sign that would put his unit back in a combat zone after just 11 months at home. Under federal law, he pointed out, troops are allowed a 12-month "stabilization period."

Still, my sense is the reporter didn’t get deep enough into the story. There are still a lot of holes in the reporting.

Take the last sentence in the second paragraph, for example. Any time a reporter uses the construction “he points out,” -- as opposed to “contends,” “asserts,” “claims,” or “alleges,”-- the implication is that the reporter is buying into the source’s argument. But in this case, there’s no evidence in the text that the reporter actually researched the question himself. What law is it? Is Captain McAlpin correct in his interpretation of the law? Why not quote the relevant passage of the law itself? Why not pick up the phone and get an independent assessment from an attorney?

Second, McAlpin claims a history of ‘excellent’ performance evaluations, which, again, the reporter seems to take at face value. But McAlpin’s performance record can be checked out. McAlpin has access to his officer evaluation reports. The Army’s Human Resources Command posts them on the Web. If McAlpine’s claim proves false, then that certainly affects his credibility. On the other hand, if the problems in Afghanistan were severe enough to warrant disciplinary action, you would think they would show up on the evals. If they didn’t, then that would undercut the credibility of the unit.

Third, are the other 12 officers and the 4 enlisted soldiers who refused to sign the waiver being disciplined in any way? Will they be deployed? Will they be transferred into the individual ready reserve along with McAlpin? The article doesn’t say.

In sum, reader gets a glimpse of an interesting and informative controversy. Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t dig deep enough to unearth the whole story. He didn’t do any independent reporting. He was content merely to interview two opposing sides of a conflict, quote a bit from both of them, and call it “balance.” It is balanced, perhaps, but the article does not get at the truth. We are instead left with an unsatisfying ‘he-said, he-said’ argument. And without a concerted and focused reporting effort to independently establish the factual context, such arguments are too often engines which generate heat without light.

Army Times, batter up!

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