- Special Projects
In the election aftermath, our democracy and our journalism – nationally and locally – both appear severely bruised.
On Oahu, for example, the two candidates for Honolulu mayor couldn’t (or wouldn’t) figure out a way to hold a debate in public during the general election. So instead of hearing directly about their differences in plans for the next four years, we were left with a bunch of crosswise talking points.
Civil Beat tried to address this issue by offering to the candidates a set of questions that each would answer separately on video, so the answers could be compared. But incumbent (and eventual winner) Kirk Caldwell, declined to participate. The other, challenger Charles Djou, agreed to do it anyway.
What seems like such a simple situation actually raises many complex ethical and procedural questions for journalists. In an ordinary story, if a key source declines to participate, then that usually is noted in the piece, but the story goes forward.
In this kind of side-by-side election story, though, half of the content is dependent on one source. If that source doesn’t participate, he (and his supporters) could argue that Civil Beat was being unfair by allowing the other half to be published. From the Civil Beat perspective, though, one candidate could not be allowed to control the coverage through lack of participation, a common strategy in Hawaii.
So Civil Beat tried something new. Reporter Chad Blair proceeded with the Djou interview, as planned. Djou was shown from the torso up, giving his answers while sitting in a nondescript room, with one of his campaign signs hanging on a wall in the background.
Ideally, Caldwell would have been given the same treatment. But since he didn’t participate, and Civil Beat wanted to do this comparison, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Caldwell draped with a lei was taken to a nearby beach. There, it was set up as a visual prop, to serve as the background of a video presentation of his ideas cobbled together with content from his website and previous statements.
Djou could have been interviewed at a nearby beach (preferably the same beach) or the Caldwell cutout could have been placed in an office setting.
Readers had mixed feelings about this approach. Michael Golojuch, for example, wrote in a comment on one of the episodes: “I guess Civil Beat has now become the TMZ of Hawaii. So is this going to be Civil Beat’s MO, if a candidate cannot make your deadline you will now make up an interview?”
Reader Annie Lee defended the practice, by writing: “I’m curious to find out where the candidates stand on other issues besides rail. Too bad Mayor Caldwell refuses to debate the issues. Doesn’t the general public have a right to know?!”
Here are a few points I think are critical to this discussion:
Experimentation is welcome: Journalists need to constantly try new ways to practice journalism in emerging technological forms, as a matter of research and development. Journalism has been very slow to adopt new media channels and experiment with new media forms, which has been to the detriment of the ideology, the industry and public discourse.
Everyone, from editors to readers, though, needs to accept failures that come with taking risks, like this, as part of eventually making better journalism.
Consistency matters: Just like the candidates should get the same questions, as a way to control the variables, they also should have received the same audio-visual treatment. In this case, by choosing to show one candidate in one way and the other in a dramatically different way, attention is drawn from the substance of the texts and focused upon the visual contrast between the office (symbolically showing a hard-working guy) and the beach (symbolizing a loafing out-of-place character).
To compensate, in this case, Djou could have been interviewed at a nearby beach (preferably the same beach) or the Caldwell cutout could have been placed in an office setting with one of his signs behind him. Also concerning were the differences in time allotted for each response and the differing typeface sizes (plus a couple of typos in the video texts).
Juxtaposition also matters: Either set of clips might have worked separately, but putting them together and emphasizing the contrast between the two presentations heightened a sense of unfairness. This perception of Caldwell being needled by Civil Beat is amplified by his cutout being leaned against a garbage can (not a tripod, or some other handy piece of video production gear), and the first video ends (wait for it after the credits) with Caldwell’s cutout falling over on its face.
Word choice connotes tone: The text of the first story states that Caldwell “refused” to participate, while the video itself says he “declined.” In typical journalistic writing, “declined” is the term of choice, because participating in journalism is a manifestation of our freedoms as Americans. “Refused” sounds like a person defying a higher authority, which I do not think accurately represents the dynamic at play. Journalists are the anti-authority Fourth Estate, watchdogs of the powerful in society.
False equivalencies are misleading: Some of the questions tossed to Djou were not answered directly or in the same way by the Caldwell content, which was acknowledged in general at the beginning as well as at certain points in the videos, such as “We don’t know what Caldwell would do if he could start the rail project over.”
Sometimes the approach worked, like when both views on term limits were explained. Other times, though, the answers clearly were not equivalent in tone, such as when Djou was asked “What is Honolulu doing right?” His response focused on culture, while Caldwell’s content, which could have been culled in innumerable ways, stuck to his political agenda.
So give Civil Beat credit for trying something new. A text-only version of this piece would have removed most of the troubling parts but retained the intent. Video, in this case, doesn’t add anything significant. But it certainly took away from what the journalists were really trying to do.
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 email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.