Along the Tracks

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

More media scrutiny

In Tuesday’s Boston Globe, columnist Tom Oliphant has an important op-ed on the slacking standards of journalism, demonstrated by the recent “controversy” over jockey Jose Santos’ purported use of an illegal foreign object to drive Funny Cide to victory in the Kentucky Derby.

As Oliphant writes, the entire fiasco started with a photo of the final charge in the race. A dark spot is noticed in the hand of Santos. No other photos from the race show this, and there was no other reason to question Santos’ integrity in guiding Funny Cide to the win.

Nevertheless, a reporter from the Miami Herald sent the photo to some Derby stewards, who decided it (the photo) should be looked at more closely to determine what, if anything, was shown. The more detailed study found the “object” was an optical illusion.

In the meantime, the Herald had continued to pursue the story by “interviewing” Santos. The jockey is a native Chilean, and speaks Spanish. The reporter speaks only English. Somehow, this garbled communication became the basis for a story, in which Santos said he was holding a “cue ring,” according to the reporter. Tied with the innuendo of the photo, this became a national story. Santos reputation was suddenly in question.

Well, it turns out what Santos was quoted as calling a “cue ring” was in fact a “Q-Ray,” those copper bracelets which are supposed to minimize arthritis pain. And the photo study results released the next day eliminated that initial piece of “evidence.” The Herald duly reported all this in “second day” stories.

Those are the facts, but as Oliphant points out, the relaxed standards now widely followed in journalism allowed there to be “questions raised” about Santos, tarnishing the name of a man who did nothing wrong. This kind of thing happens far too often. Scandal hunting becomes scandal-mongering. Getting the scoop trumps getting in right.

As Oliphant states, these routine smears do damage to both the subjects and to journalism as a whole. “Raising questions” is what properly goes on in interviews and research - or on the op-ed page - not what goes into supposed “news” stories.

The public’s right to know is not served when the media isn’t telling it anything.

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