I have a little bit to say about a story this week, so let me start with that story — from the 26 November 2017 issue:
When a lone armed robber hit a Chase bank branch in Chicago, Ill., she was pretty clear on what she wanted the tellers to do: “Let’s go to the vault,” she ordered. That, and “If you look at me, I will shoot.” An employee said he couldn’t get into the vault, which required “dual control.” The robber, wearing an overcoat over a pink floral nightgown, wouldn’t accept that, and demanded he put in his access code. He complied, and the robber escaped with more than $126,000 in cash. When investigators arrived, employees said they were “70 percent sure” they knew who the robber was: a former colleague who had transferred to another branch. Detectives went to that branch, and Latasha Gamble, 24, arrived to her job late. She confessed to the robbery, and said she put the cash into a trash dumpster. The money has not been recovered. (RC/Chicago Tribune) Though police report a massive upswing in “dumpster diving” in the Lakeview district.
The story came to me via the South Florida Sun Sentinel. As I was writing it up for commentary, I was surprised that they didn’t give a city where it happened — just an address of the bank branch. It’s at that address in “South Florida”? Can they be a little more specific? I like having a town, so I went back to their story.
I read the story again very carefully, and never saw a city mentioned. Then I noticed the photo caption, where the newspaper noted it was in Lakeview. There is a Lakeview neighborhood in Pensacola, but that’s hardly in the south of Florida: it’s on the gulf coast in the panhandle — way north.
After researching it a bit more, I realized that the Sun Sentinel’s story was a verbatim copy of the original — in the Chicago Tribune!? I went back and searched the Sun Sentinel’s page for “Chicago” and sure enough, in light gray type, it notes the reporter works for the Chicago Tribune. The word “Chicago” was otherwise not on the page. As in Pensacola, Lakeview is a neighborhood (or “community area”) in Chicago. Nowhere near Florida.
This is an old, ongoing problem with newspapers. They forget that part of the very definition of news is proximity: something happening nearby means more to local readers than something far away. While the Sun Sentinel may have figured a robber that stupid must have been a Florida native, that’s a bad, bad assumption.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with running a distant story that the editor thinks readers will find interesting or informative, but they need to be clear on the facts — the classic “who, what, why, when, and where (and maybe why, if they know) — when they run any story. Clarity and attention to detail is what helps make news believable and helpful; being sloppy, like they were here, is what is slowly killing “legitimate, mainstream” news, opening it up to attacks that it’s not getting the facts right. In this case, the news media’s critics are right.
(If you’re not familiar with the term “dumpster diving” from the tagline, there’s an article on Wikipedia that explains all. “Some …do so professionally and systematically for large profits” indeed!)
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