Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Might makes maybe

In journalism, there’s a slippery slope to writing preview articles unless the writer can say with any formal certainty that the event they’re reporting is going to happen. That’s a tough assumption to make when writing advances on city council meetings. And given the nature of local politics, the safest bet for reporters is not betting at all.

Yet over at The Saratogian, there seems to be a veritable gambling ring, given the headline bets that are routinely placed on the city council meeting. Granted, some of them are safer than others. But when language like “might” and “vote” is used in the same sentence of an article that later states “will vote,” there’s a certain degree of shoddy reporting going on. This is compounded when a story’s one-source is fence-sitting Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe.

See, McCabe seems to think it’s a fiscally wise move to let the city barrow more money for “more ambitious” projects, according to the article. His main problem is there’s a paltry $9 million the city has left to barrow before someone has to pay the piper. For those unfamiliar with municipalities taking out bonds, this inevitably means more taxes –just spread out down the road so that taxpayers won’t feel the initial brunt of getting screwed in the end. As in journalistic gambles, the safest municipal bonding is to not bond at all.

Needless to say, this isn’t exactly a cut-and-dry issue the city council should be arbitrarily approving without a pretty significant plan for the future. Sure, it would be nice to have a recreation center. Sure, it would be nice to improve the cramped police department. But there’s a threshold where these projects should be postponed until the city can payoff some of its debts; it just so happens that the threshold is $21 million, which is more than enough scratch to build a building.

As for The Saratogian’s “Council could vote on increase tonight” headline, perhaps they should take a read from a pair of other small daily newspapers that have made the mistake of jumping the gun on stories and ended up eating crow.

Last month in wake of the Mohawk Valley flood devastation, both the Gloversville Leader-Herald and the Amsterdam Recorder published articles strongly suggesting that the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors would offer “bridge” loans to residents and businesses in immediate need. It was a great plan too, until they found out it was against the state constitution mere hours before the vote, meaning the plan was null and void. The result of the two misleading headlines was most devastating for the nearly 200 flood victims that showed up at the meeting after reading the articles, perhaps hoping to walk away with some survival cash.

After such a broad mistake, one would think that area editors would take heed and perhaps dissuade reporters from writing ambiguous preview articles or at least strongly urge copy editors to tone down suggestive headlines. But news of such egregious errors must not travel very far, or at least not down Lake Avenue.


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