One of the most disappointing developments in contemporary journalistic practice is the increasing reliance on written statements from sources, ranging from text messages and Tweets to emails and press releases.

Whenever I see the line “according to a statement” of some sort, I know the adjoining part has been crafted, word by word, often by an invisible information handler, to sanitize and sell me on an idea. Rarely is that idea presented in this way for my benefit, and it often is used to mask or omit what I really want to know about.

For example, why was the Nazi version of the German anthem sung in Maui last month during a U.S. Tennis Association event? This global embarrassment was labeled a “mistake” that “will not occur again.” But don’t you really want to know how it happened in the first place? It’s not a common error.

German tennis player Andrea Petkovic, who was about to play a match, asked the questions afterward that journalists should have been asking, too. In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser report, she called the goof “the epitome of ignorance.”

She added, “How can something like that happen? It’s not Timbuktu.”

The press needs to reject carefully crafted statements issued by newsmakers and ask their own pertinent questions instead..

Civil Beat

Did reporters take the not-so-subtle cue? No. Star-Advertiser freelancer Ann Miller instead shifted immediately into how “tearfully happy” the American opponent was to beat Petkovic in the ensuing match.

Reuters provided this additional bit of editorializing and mystery: “Unfortunately, the male soloist on the Hawaiian island of Maui somehow sung the wrong version.” Unfortunate? Somehow?

We don’t know much at all from these accounts, except the authors’ sympathy for the mistake. Who was this soloist? And how can we be sure it was a “mistake” without asking this particular singer about it and identifying the error in the process? If we don’t know what happened, how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?

The statement swapping in this journalistic coverage then included the German tennis federation chief, Ulrich Klaus, who said: “The fact that in the year 2017 a wrong anthem can be played that is associated with the horror of the past was for players and staff and the officials present both shocking and disturbing.

The USTA issued an apology, also through a statement: “In no way did we mean any disrespect. This mistake will not occur again, and the correct anthem will be performed for the remainder of this first-round tie.

Civil Beat, Hawaii News Now, KITV and KHON either didn’t pursue this story or didn’t pursue it any further than the wire report they were provided. No one seems to have asked the basic questions that the tennis player raised immediately, presumably acting without any journalistic training. How could something like this really happen? Without knowing the details, how can we process and make sense of this story? With the rising nationalistic wave in the U.S., I want to know if this is related to such sentiments.

In similarly mystifying ways, the Star-Advertiser’s story about the recent development of the Grand Islander timeshare property in Waikiki read more like an advertorial than a news product, primarily because no tough questions were asked and some of the core information came from a statement.

In short, Hilton has been expanding its Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort campus and its timeshare opportunities in the state. This expansion includes a new $420 million tower that opened this month. The dollar figure alone makes such an event newsworthy (even Honolulu doesn’t pop up a new $400 million tower that often).

The report by Allison Schaefers had quite a contrast in tone to a piece written less than a year ago by a different Star-Advertiser reporter, Andrew Gomes, in which owners at another one of Hilton’s nearby timeshare properties in Waikiki suffered through a $5.7 million interior-decorating scam, led by the owner association’s board president.

When a reporter is interacting with a statement, or statements, the text simply can’t be questioned. It’s just a piece of paper with words on it.

In the fawning coverage in Schaefers’ story, Mark Wang, Hilton Grand Vacation’s president and CEO, was quoted via a prepared statement, which read, “The Grand Islander provides an elevated vacation experience in one of the most sought after destinations in the world. Our expansion in Hawaii is reflective not only of our dedication to providing our owners and guests with new properties where they want to travel, but also our commitment to supporting the state’s economy.”

Yes, really. That appeared in what otherwise is packaged as a journalistic newspaper story.

For comparison, Gomes’ piece in June began with this description of the subpar interior furnishings of one of these timeshare towers, charging visitors $400 a night, as: “Tipsy tables, split sofa cushions, short-circuiting lamps and tacky artwork.” The timeshare owners had been charged millions for the new furnishings, but what they were delivered was not what they were promised.

The association’s former board president, a Connecticut banker named Mark Barra, was held liable in court for the scam. Terry Revere, a local attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the award was the largest he’d seen nationally against a director of an association of property owners, but it definitely, he claimed, was the largest in Hawaii’s history.

So maybe that was worth a mention in this most recent Hilton timeshare story? It was kind of a big deal at the neighboring tower a few months ago. What safeguards have been put in place, we might wonder, so it doesn’t happen again?

Wang also is oddly paraphrased and quoted later in the story, as if interviewed, signaled by the attribution line, “Wang told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.” So why quote from his earlier banal statement? His non-statement statements included the assertion that demand for timeshares in Hawaii is “growing” and that “HGV” owners are “high-income, highly educated, more than 90 percent own homes, and travel for leisure an average of 25-35 days per year.”

Wasn’t that exactly what you wanted to know?

He wasn’t asked, though, about the timeshare problems of the nearby Lagoon Tower and how those ultimately were resolved or not. He wasn’t asked about the potential impact of the tower’s new residents on traffic, beach crowding and city infrastructure. He wasn’t asked about new protections for timeshare owners, or the impact of the court case on finding new board members to serve.

That’s because when a reporter is interacting with a statement, or statements, the text simply can’t be questioned. It’s just a piece of paper with words on it. It’s a script that everyone is reading from, including the reporter. The statement addresses only what the author wants and ignores the rest.

In other words, the statement – not the independent journalist – sets the agenda, and that’s a troubling dynamic for both journalists and readers.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard
    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.
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