Journalists, stop validating Republican spin on voter ID

Later today, Iowa Senate Republicans will give final approval to a bill that could prevent thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots. A broad coalition of groups oppose House File 516, because common sense and research on similar laws in other states overwhelmingly point to one conclusion: voter ID and signature verification requirements will create barriers to the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right, disproportionately affecting students, the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Republicans don’t acknowledge any of the expert testimony. They pay no attention to the conservative judge who regrets his ruling on Indiana’s voter ID law, having concluded that such laws are “a means of voter suppression.” They keep insisting their so-called “election integrity” bill won’t block a single citizen from voting.

They offer up false equivalencies, saying in their newsletters and on the Senate floor that Iowa Democrats also passed a voter ID law when they controlled both legislative chambers.

These tactics can be effective because most news reports on contentious issues give equal weight to both sides, even if one side is not credible. The “he said/she said” frame with no effort to evaluate competing claims is one of my major journalism pet peeves.

But I realized last Friday that when a politician stretches the truth, a reporter’s incompetent fact-check is worse than no fact-checking at all.

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Shorter Paul Pate: Iowa elections clean, but let's make it harder for people to vote

Following the standard Republican playbook, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate announced a series of steps today that would make it harder for thousands of Iowans to exercise their right to vote. He produced no evidence of any fraud problems his proposals would solve, which isn’t surprising, because Iowa is already one of the most highly-rated states for electoral integrity.

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The 16 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2016

For the first time last year, I put some thought into what posts had consumed the greatest amount of my energy. I realized that some of those deep dives were among my most satisfying writing projects. That new awareness informed my editorial choices in good and bad ways. Unfortunately, some election-related stories I would have covered in previous cycles didn’t get written in 2016, because I was immersed in other topics. On the plus side, those rabbit holes led to work I’m proud to have published.

Assembling this post was more challenging than last year’s version. Several pieces that would have been among my most labor-intensive in another year didn’t make the cut. A couple of posts that might have made the top ten were not ready to go before the holidays. Maybe they will end up in a future collection of seventeen posts I worked hardest on in 2017.

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Blurring the lines between news reports and press releases

The Des Moines Register ran a lead editorial two weeks ago about “Blurring the lines between news and public relations” in Iowa’s third-largest city:

But rather than create a website to issue press releases or connect directly to the public, the city of Davenport went a step further, creating a site called Davenport Today and packaging the information as if it was independently produced journalism rather than information crafted and disseminated by the same public entity that was being “covered.”

[…] From the outset, Davenport Today was criticized for being nothing more than a taxpayer-funded propaganda machine — which it was. That meant all of the information it shared with the public, no matter how solid, was tainted in the eyes of some readers. Even the articles that appeared to present an unvarnished look at city operations were viewed as self-serving since they emanated from City Hall itself.

At least the now-defunct Davenport Today site openly published material authored by official sources.

Over the weekend, the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette ran a barely-rewritten Iowa State University press release under reporters’ bylines.

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Cedar Rapids Gazette lets reporters grab other people's scoops without attribution

Attribution such as “first reported by” is an appropriate way for journalists to acknowledge another media outlet’s role in breaking news. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Ethics Guide states,

Any information taken from other published or broadcast sources should receive credit within the body of the story. Reporters and editors also should be aware of previously published/broadcast work on the same subject and give those news organizations credit if they have broken new ground or published exclusive material before any others.

One of Iowa’s leading newspapers doesn’t hold its reporters to the same standard.

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