When the parachute has holes

  • Sunday, July 12, 2015 9:48pm
  • Opinion

There is an unwritten rule in Alaska journalism: Don’t publicly criticize the other guy.

Alaska is a small place, especially so when it comes to the media. The person you criticize today may be your colleague tomorrow. More likely still is they’ll be someone you need for a story, photo or news tip.

All of us working at an Alaska newspaper, radio station or website face the same challenges — covering a geographically vast area with limited resources and time. That’s true whether you work at the Alaska Dispatch or KBRW-AM in Barrow.

Those challenges provide a natural excuse for mistakes to which no one, the Empire included, is immune.

Nevertheless, two instances in the past week have given us cause to break that unwritten rule. Both were examples of what we call “parachute journalism.”

As Sacramento Bee columnist Marjie Lundstrom wrote in 2002: “While news operations have focused mightily in the past decade on eliminating racial, ethnic, and gender bias from their coverage, a less apparent but equally stubborn bias persists: Geographic bias. In the pressure-cooker climate to get in fast, get the story first — and, by the way, explain What It All Means (by 10 o’clock, please) — the assumptions, short-cuts, and stereotyping can be rampant. Even without pressing deadlines, some journalists’ biases about certain regions simply go unchecked.”

Early last week, Vice published an unflattering look at Nome by photographer Alec Soth. What he turned in was a classic case of “Alaska exploitation,” to use the words of KNOM-FM reporter Jenn Ruckel.

It chose to focus only on the worst Nome has to offer. It was as genuine as an episode of “Alaska Bush People.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. It might be too much to expect someone from Outside to come into Alaska for only a few days and report a complete story, especially when they already have a goal in mind.

Unfortunately, just a few days before the Vice article published, the Alaska Dispatch News proved that living in Alaska doesn’t make one immune from poor practices.

In a followup story to the Ketchikan flightseeing crash, two ADN reporters expressed astonishment that flights were still taking place afterward: “floatplanes were buzzing in the skies like almost nothing had happened.”

The article painted Ketchikan as an uncaring town where the death of nine people meant little to residents amid a hopping tourism season. Unfortunately, the article ignored the memorial services that took place in Ketchikan after the crash, or the outpouring of support from Ketchikan residents.

More than unflattering, the article was unfair to the thousands of people who call Alaska’s First City home.

To ask why Ketchikan planes are still flying is to show absolute ignorance of it’s economy, people and culture. One might as well have asked why Alaskans continue to fish even after a fishing boat sinks, or why Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is still open, even though the Soviet Union no longer exists.

It’s not only the reporters at fault but a system that puts them into an unwinnable situation. Asking a reporter to parachute into a post-tragedy scenario more than a thousand miles away, without adequate research and understanding, does little good for the publication, other journalists, or the community being reported on.

What it does amount to are online clicks, which these days have value to advertisers and too often are a motivating factor in what gets reported and how. There’s a difference between reporting on a crisis or situation and exploiting one.

It’s a fine line for those of us in the media, but it does exist.

The questions every media organization must ask itself before parachuting into a crisis are: “Why are we covering this, and who benefits once the story runs?”

If the answer comes down to online page views and the organization itself, the outcome will be of little journalistic value to anyone.

— Juneau Empire

July 12