Parachute Journalism

By Marjie Lundstrom
2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow
Senior Editor, Columnist & Writing Coach,
The Sacramento Bee

Early in 2001, with California’s energy crisis deepening, Arthur O’Donnell was hard at work in his San Francisco office, patiently explaining kilowatts and megawatts and deregulation politics to befuddled journalists around the globe.


As editor of California Energy Markets, a respected trade newsletter, O’Donnell took a personal interest in helping journalists sift through the technical complexities and confusing acronyms that had defined the crisis and, essentially, his own job for the past 16 years.


So when the Feb. 10-16 edition of The Economist hit his desk, he was, to say the least, miffed.


A 1,100-word cover story, titled “California on the Couch,” was accompanied by a cartoon of a “fretting” California reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch — plus another photo of the newly split Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.


“Power cuts, the dotcom bust, a strike in Hollywood, Tom and Nicole splitting up: no wonder California is having a bout of self-doubt,” the piece began.


Oh, brother. Let the clichés and stereotyping begin.


And so it is in journalism today, where intense media competition and ’round-the-clock deadlines have made for some disturbingly predictable and often distorted accounts of places and the people who live there.


Politely, the practice is called “parachute journalism,” the dispatching of globe-trotting reporters and camera crews to the likes of Sandpoint, Idaho, and Kearney, Neb., and Union, S.C., to cover the latest breaking news.


There’s nothing polite about some of the outcomes.


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.


Put it together and … presto! A new reality, one even the natives can scarcely recognize.


“This issue goes right to credibility, and when you talk about ethics, you have to talk about credibility,” says Sacramento Bee executive editor Rick Rodriguez. “When readers read about a place in our newspaper and they don’t recognize something they know so well, you’ve got a credibility issue.


“It’s a huge ethical dilemma for the future of our industry.”


And it’s a pretty basic one: How can news people purport to be purveyors of truth — the guiding principle of ethical journalism — if personal bias and sloppy shortcuts keep getting in the way? If choppering into unknown locales is a recipe for sweeping conclusions, over-arching assumptions, and silly stereotypes, not to mention factual errors?


No wonder the public is dubious.


Rodriguez, a California native, looks with a mixture of bemusement and irritation at some national coverage of the Golden State. The slip-ups are big and small — like the time one “authoritative” piece on farmworkers referred to “lettuce picking” instead of “lettuce cutting,” he said.


“It showed such a lack of knowledge of how the area works, yet the story was cast as so definitive,” Rodriguez said.


 


‘Parachute Journalism’ Distorts


Most recently, the apparent urge to shoehorn California into the La-La Land formula — that tree-hugging, hot tub-loving, psycho-babbling oasis of fruits and flakes — has diminished the national significance of the state’s energy crisis, some believe. Last spring, as the threat of more rolling blackouts loomed and political acrimony mounted, a Knight Ridder wire story on Californians and their energy-hogging hot tubs got worldwide play — including the South China Morning Post.


So who gets hurt? Anyone who still can’t see that energy woes in “La-La Land” don’t necessarily begin and end at the California border, and that fixing this mess will take a lot more than unplugging an army of hot tubs.


“We in the West are certainly no island; we’re an interconnected energy system,” said O’Donnell, who surveyed about 150 reporters nationwide this year to track the dynamics of the energy crisis coverage. “You can’t build a wall around California. California’s problems quickly translate into problems for other states.”


Most would agree that scene-setting or contextual stories are important journalistic tools for helping orient readers and viewers to a locale — particularly a lesser known place such as Kingman, Ariz., which attracted widespread media interest after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was traced there.


But as journalist Sharyn Wizda pointed out in a 1997 article for American Journalism Review, the result is often one-dimensional or even twisted.


The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, described Kingman as having a “salubrious climate” for people with an “almost religious devotion” to the constitutional right to bear arms.


“By all accounts, McVeigh picked a place where he could feel at home: Distrust of the government runs deep here, and people’s love of firearms is almost as great as their fear that the government will try to take them away,” read the Chronicle story, excerpted in Wizda’s AJR piece.


In fact, Wizda found that McVeigh’s haunts had provided endless journalistic fodder. A Los Angeles Times story about Junction City, Kan., where McVeigh picked up the rental truck used in the bombing, described the community as a dreary Army town that “sits snug like a fattened leech up against Ft. Riley … drawing economic lifeblood” from the military compound.


“It is also a place where church socials and American Legion parades are complementary rites, where the Just For You bridal boutique offers frilly gowns to farm brides while, a few doors down, the Club Malibu features topless shake dancers for GIs out for a good time,” the piece said.


Local residents were insulted and incensed.


“Some of (the reporters) sought out the most unsavory places in town, so naturally they ended up with that kind of story,” one town official told Wizda. “If you want a bad story, you go out at 10:30 at night and you find a young soldier in a bar who’s disgruntled, and you talk to him.”


Wizda, now a writer and editor with the Austin American-Statesman, was tempted to expose this side of journalism while working in Grand Junction, Colo., and watching coverage of Boulder and the Jon Benet Ramsey murder.


“I thought if I saw the phrase ‘nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains’ one more time, I was going to come unglued,” she said. “Nestled, nestled, nestled. Everything was nestled. But Boulder is so much more than that.


“When there’s no actual news to write about, reporters are always charged with that almost impossible task of doing a well-thought-out, nuanced, portrait-of-a-town for Sunday,” she said.


Trouble is, even some of the most seasoned national correspondents acknowledge that 24 or 48 hours isn’t generally enough time to adequately plumb the depths of a community or region.


 


Just What Is the ‘Heartland’?


The Midwest is especially susceptible to stereotypical coverage.


Last year, when President Clinton decided to finally visit Nebraska, his last unvisited state — and a leading state Republican publicly held his nose — Anne Boyle of Omaha found herself across from NBC’s Matt Lauer for a lengthy interview in her home. As then head of the state’s Democratic Party, Boyle lives in a trendy loft space in Omaha’s fashionable downtown Old Market.


So she was more than a little surprised when the morning news report zeroed right in on the farmers, the folksy folks, and the buzz around the barbershop.


“I was aghast when I saw the coverage,” she said. “They portrayed Nebraskans as a bunch of hayseeds.


“Omaha is a pretty with-it city that comprises easily one-third of the state. I was terribly disappointed by the portrayal of us as a kind of hick state with a bunch of old people sitting around playing bingo and hanging around the barbershop.”


Iowans experience a similar phenomenon every four years when the national press corps descends for the presidential caucuses — and the all-too-predictable romps around farm country. Yet as Randy Essex, metro editor for The Des Moines Register, puts it: “Farming and farmworkers don’t drive political decisions in Iowa.”


“Rural Iowa is essentially de-populating,” he said. “There aren’t that many votes out there.”


In fact, the five counties in the center of the state comprise about a sixth of the state’s population, and Des Moines is among the world’s busiest insurance centers, in league with London and Hartford, Conn.


“But you won’t see people in shirts and ties interviewed in downtown Des Moines,” said Essex.


Iowa’s urban dwellers may wield the political clout in this state, but what readers and viewers generally get is a steady diet of cornfields, barns, and hogs. Last year, in a Register news story with the headline “Iowa Is a Corny Cliché in Visitors’ Reporting,” the paper cross-referenced the phrase “Iowa caucuses” with other language in one month of newspaper stories and broadcast transcripts in Lexis-Nexis, a commercial database. The newspaper counted that the phrase appeared in the same story with cornfields (11), barns (26), hogs (32), and Des Moines Art Center (0).


The candidates themselves play into this, routinely stumping at the Country Kitchen in Marshalltown, the obligatory country breakfast and chicken-fried-steak lunch spot. So pervasive are these folksy images, said Essex, that CNN persisted in showing footage of a rippling, ripe cornfield a week before the caucuses — despite the fact that a cornfield in January is actually frozen stubble.


 


Which Came First?


It is a classic chicken-or-egg argument. Are journalists simply following the candidates where they go? Or are candidates going for the fresh images and rural backdrops they believe reporters crave?


The lengths some journalists will go to wedge an image into a geographic stereotype was made abundantly clear years ago to Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News. During the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race, he recalled, a network television reporter did a piece on Texas that included “beautiful film footage” of the obligatory cowboy dance hall.


All well and good, except the place selected was not a rural Texas dance hall at all but a popular night spot in South Austin where “very sophisticated people go to pretend to be cowboys,” he said.


More recently, with George W. Bush’s successful bid for the White House, Texas has been especially susceptible to over-the-top color stories and broad-brush stereotyping. The opening earlier this year of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin gave the nation’s press a chance to zoom in on a handful of choice items in the museum’s first temporary exhibit, among them a rhinestone-covered Cadillac and a mechanical bull from Gilley’s in Houston.


“The problem with all stereotypes is that they’re stereotypes because they have a basis in fact,” Slater said.


Yet often, he said, it’s not what reporters choose to show about a place that creates the distortion, but rather what they don’t show.


So does that mean a competent correspondent must be deeply knowledgeable about each and every locale to produce quality journalism? That good on-the-scene reporting is borne only of the familiarity exemplified, for instance, by Southerner Rick Bragg of The New York Times? Or by Tom Hallman of the Portland Oregonian, another Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Portland native who seems able to capture the very essence of his subjects?


Not necessarily. In fact, a little geographic diversity in a journalist’s own background goes a long way toward quelling an inclination to stereotype, particularly on the journalism road-show circuit, argues John A. Farrell of The Boston Globe.


Farrell, who was raised on Long Island, attended college at the University of Virginia and worked at The Denver Post for five years before joining the Globe, considers his time away from the East Coast his “most valuable, because of the perspective.”


As a national political reporter, Farrell escaped Iowa’s journalistic pitfalls in 1988 — not only because he knew it wasn’t “all farmers,” but because he accompanied Michael Dukakis to every single county.


Still, Farrell, who is The Globe’s Washington editor, acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to break free of pack mentality and “escape the clichés.” In the most recent presidential election, for instance, Farrell was uneasy about the hype surrounding a Bush appearance at a convention of Iowa Hispanics.


“It struck me that it was almost like ‘Bush Finds Contingent of Martians’– there was this gee-whiz (press) mentality about it,” said Farrell, who recently completed a book on Tip O’Neill.


In fact, as with many other states, Iowa’s population is rapidly diversifying. The Hawkeye State was one of 14 states in which the percentage of Hispanics doubled in the 1990s, according to the census.


 


‘I Learned a Lesson…and It Was Humbling’


For some, eschewing stereotypes and writing honestly — and with depth — is a matter of journalistic seasoning and maturity.


Before joining the San Jose Mercury News in 1998, Julia Prodis Sulek was an Associated Press regional writer whose career was devoted to parachute journalism. Based in Dallas and responsible for a vast region, travel on big stories was frequent and deadlines especially brutal.


Admitting that she hates to tell this story, she described how she once wrote a story from deep in East Texas — a “backwoods, ‘Deliverance’ kind of place.” Arson fires were breaking out , and authorities suspected that a group of locals who liked to run their hunting dogs in the woods was responsible.


Sulek interviewed the men. “And these guys, I’ll tell you, they were tobacco-spitting, long front teeth — sort of your ‘Deliverance’ image,” she said, recalling how they wore overalls without shirts and drove a two-tone pickup.


So enamored was she with the “color of the place,” she said, she realizes now that the story may have tipped toward condescension and ridicule.


“I was chuckling to myself as I was writing about them, thinking ‘great color!’ And the editor loved it, too,” she said.


But the calls later from readers suggested otherwise. One woman felt she had held the men up to scorn. Then one of her subjects called.


“He said, ‘This story made fun of me,’ ” she recalled. “I just gulped.”


Initially, Sulek was defensive.


“But when I really got to thinking about it, I began wondering how I might have written it otherwise,” she said. “I think I could have been a little more sophisticated. This was the first time I really got sensitized to that kind of thing.


“I learned a lesson,” she said, “and it was humbling.”


Later, while working at the San Jose Mercury News, Sulek was sent to cover the torture and murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left to die in a desolate Wyoming field. As it happened, Sulek had once been based in Cheyenne, Wyo., for the AP.


Unlike many other reporters, who found homophobia to somehow be a natural byproduct of the state’s isolation, Sulek resisted the urge to draw such sweeping conclusions — but still asked residents the hard questions.


The result was a balanced and focused story on the terrible death of one man, woven with a mix of comments from residents and a authoritative, almost insider’s understanding of the setting.


“Wyoming is an unforgiving state,” she wrote. “Jagged rocks that erupt from the earth are beaten down by relentless winds until their edges are smooth, their corners round. Trees across the southern plains are stunted from growth in the rocky soil. In autumn, temperatures plummet and the winds blow so strong and cold they take your breath away.


“It was in such a place and on such a night that Shepard, just 5-foot-2 and not much more than 100 pounds, was brutally killed.”


How all national reporting can eventually rise to a higher level — providing context without fueling clichés — really comes down to establishing newsroom standards, says David Hall, former editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bergen Record, and The Denver Post. And that task lies with editors, says Hall, now the Eugene S. Pulliam Visiting Professor in Journalism at DePauw University.


“No reporter ever put a story in a newspaper,” he said, emphasizing that shoddy, stereotypical reporting ultimately “cheats the readers” — and not just those whose communities or regions are misrepresented.


The message that editors send to reporters about their expectations may well be key.


Does a reporter feel pressured to file a complex color story in too short of a time period? How much depth and perspective is realistic under the time and news-cycle constraints? Will we allow competition to affect our own news judgment?


Rodriguez of The Sacramento Bee worries that today’s financial constraints on news operations may also drive editors to ratchet up demands on traveling correspondents — perhaps to the detriment of fair and balanced coverage.


“There’s pressure from us as editors to get reporters to produce quickly because you’re trying to justify the expense,” he said. “I hate to say it, but it’s true. And that puts pressure on reporters.”


Deborah Howell, Washington bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News Service, followed a concise, three-word strategy during the presidential election fiasco last year in Florida: Keep it simple.


Her wire service, which does not generally try to compete with the AP or other up-to-the-minute news organizations, was already sending a reporter to Palm Beach County on an election-related project. As the Palm Beach voting mess erupted, Howell asked the reporter to get off the plane and file a story.


The assignment: Go to the courthouse and write about what you see and hear in the next 45 minutes. Basic journalism.


“He didn’t try to draw any political conclusions,” she said. “He didn’t try to place Palm Beach County into any more context than what he could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears.


“I didn’t ask him to do more than he could do.”


In other words, Howell asked for the staples of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, and how.


Maybe that’s “just the basics,” but maybe — more often than some journalists think — that’s just enough.

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