Facts of the matter
Recent articles in The Cavalier Daily would have benefited from more extensive research and context
Two contradictory impulses of the 24-hour news cycle have done some bad things to the news business. Or maybe they just amplified bad traits that were already there. In the rush to be the first to report breaking news, things that are simply wrong get published and posted and broadcast. When Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died recently, one network identified the astronaut on its website as Neil Young.
While speed can kill accuracy, the persistent need to fill space can confuse attention with importance. The clock is always running, but it never runs out. So news that deserves 10 minutes of attention gets discussed and debated and dissected until something comes along to take its place. Conversely, things that should be investigated and examined get pushed aside. Too complicated, I suppose.
That is why I was glad to see a couple of stories in last week’s editions of The Cavalier Daily: “The University: from ‘08 to ‘12,” (Sept. 5) and “Huguely trial leaves uncertain legacy,” (Sept. 5). The first one asked the classic presidential election year question: are you better off now than you were four years ago? But it asked it not of voters, but of the University. The second looked at whether the University and the University community have learned anything from the murder of Yeardley Love, one of the greatest tragedies in recent University history. They were good ideas and pretty good articles, but both would have benefited from a few more questions and a little more precision.
“The University: from ‘08 to ‘12” let readers know, “The 2008 financial crisis, which shook global financial markets, had a significant impact on the University before President Barack Obama even took office. The Capital Campaign, a University fundraising drive to generate $3 billion that was originally expected to have been completed by now, saw giving fall sharply following the crash. Campaign commitments in fiscal year 2008 came in at only $216 million, compared to $309 million in the 2012 financial year, following a slow recovery process.”
There is a lot of context missing from that string of numbers. When was the Capital Campaign supposed to end? When did it start? How close is it to reaching its goal? We know giving fell to $216 million, but from where did it fall? What was giving like between 2008 and 2012? Did it rise gradually or leap all at once?
The passive construction of the sentence, “Further complicating the financial situation, the University is expected to educate more and more students each year.” raises the question of who expects that and why. We learn the endowment “suffered a 21 percent loss in fiscal year 2009,” but we do not know where it stands now. The story offers information from Dr. James Turner, executive director for the department of Student Health, in a paraphrase, that “the health care bill allowed the University to preserve and enhance the student health care system.” The Affordable Care Act has not been a bill for some time now. It is a law. And, if it helped to preserve and enhance the University’s student health care system, it would be good to know how.
Ambiguity is not a good thing in a news story, at least, not when greater certainty is possible.
“Huguely trial leaves uncertain legacy” tells readers “some students are concerned” the University’s policy changes are not as effective as they could be and “certain students” say it is unclear when and how to respond to abuse in a friend’s relationship. Those are squishy terms. “Some students” and “certain students” could mean two or 2,000. A couple of actual students are quoted later in the article, but it is not clear whether they represent a few people or a hoard of concerned students. Both students are, according to the article, involved in organizations concerned about sexual assault, so it is unlikely they’re the only two students concerned. But what do folks outside those groups think? Do students less involved with the issue feel as adrift as advocates think they are?
One of the students quoted said, “The whole University community is making great strides toward higher reporting rates” of abusive behavior. But neither the students quoted nor the writer offered any statistics to show how great those strides may be. When Dean of Students Allen Groves said the criminal disclosure requirements are proving to be a useful tool for identifying students with alcohol or violence problems, the reporter should have asked how useful and how many such students had been identified and what had been done when those students were identified.
Reporters should not bear all the responsibility for these stories’ shortcomings. Editors are supposed to help reporters see holes in their stories and suggest ways to fill them. For both editors and reporters, it seems, there is room for improvement.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.