Monday, March 20, 2006

Setting the record straight on NASCAR

Am I the only one who believes our local daily newspaper has compromised itself ethically over its coverage of the NASCAR issue? It appears to me at least, that the Kitsap Sun opposes the project and is systematically abusing its position of community trust by attempting to influence public opinion against it.

No matter where you stand on the NASCAR issue, a newspaper’s job is to report the facts — who, what, where, when, why, and how — in a clear, concise, and unbiased manner, and allow the reader to use those facts to make up his or her own mind on a given subject. Journalism 101 teaches it’s professionally unethical to use inflammatory headlines or manipulate the reporting and positioning of news stories as a vehicle to express editorial opinions.

Some recent examples: The front page, lead story headline on Jan. 19, read, “Group: EPA should test for racetrack lead.” The subhead reads: ”A study finds elevated levels of the toxin in the blood of NASCAR crew members.”

This certainly sounds ominous, and if NASCAR is going to bring that here, we sure don’t want it. Right?

However, the real facts of this story are hidden in what’s called the “jump,” — the continuation of the story on another page — in this case the bottom of page five. The majority of readers never turn to the “jump.” Editors know this.

In the “jump” a representative of an environmental activist group called Clean Air Watch, confesses just 47 people were studied — and only minimally. He admits, “We didn’t take any air samples. We just looked at the associations between exposure and blood lead levels. We’re hoping NASCAR will see the light, so to speak, and fund us to do a larger study.”

So what’s this so-called “front-page news” really about? It’s about an environmental group trying to intimidate NASCAR into funding a “study” the group could use against it. But if you didn’t read the “jump,” only the headline or the first few paragraphs, you could be led to think because race cars burn leaded gas, everyone attending a NASCAR race is routinely exposed to lead poisoning, and they’re hiding that fact from us.

Meanwhile, a story about the “Back The Track” event being held that very same evening at the Tacoma Dome was buried back in the sports section.

Also hidden in the sports section, under the fold, on Jan. 21, was a story about NASCAR switching to unleaded fuel for the 2008 racing season. Do you think that should have rated equal coverage, or that the original story wasn’t “front-page” quality news to begin with?

The main front-page story the next day, Jan. 20, talks about the task force made up of supposedly “undecided” citizens, studying impacts of NASCAR tracks in other communities. Since the committee is finding primarily only positive news when cold-calling members of racetrack communities, the story makes a point to say, “The feedback has left task force members mining for nuggets of possible negatives.”

Excuse me? In spite of being stacked with at least three members vehemently opposed to the track, “mining for negatives” isn’t the task force’s job. The group is charged with polling racetrack community citizens, collecting data, and simply compiling and reporting the results — positive or negative.

But such positive news about the track couldn’t possibly be left to dominate the front page, so right next to the story about the committee was a companion piece about how ISC’s funding proposal hasn’t garnered any legislative support yet. Except for a brief comment by Commissioner Jan Angel, the story failed to mention that with the entire House and one third of the Senate up for re-election in November, legislators won’t align themselves with any issue that could be used against them at election time.

Meanwhile the story about the previous evening’s “Back The Track” event was again buried on the sports page — in spite of the fact it drew over 5,000 supporters, according to turnstile tallies.

Do you see a pattern here?

Then there’s the Letters to the Editor. The anti-track letters, which run almost daily, have been rife with misinformation, distortions and outright lies. Supportive letters are either ignored, or the most illiterate-sounding ones run — those perpetuating the elitist stereotype of the uneducated, beer-swilling, redneck race fan. Employing often-unfounded scare tactics about traffic, noise, the environment, and especially increased taxes, has seemingly been elevated to an editorial art form.
For example, on Jan. 20, a letter appeared accusing the Kitsap Economic Development Council (KEDC) of pushing an agenda, “…hitting up the citizens of Washington State to fund the track.”

Although it endorsed the concept of the track, and supports the ISC funding plan, the KEDC has no “agenda”; and has certainly has never advocated, “hitting up” anyone to “fund the track.”
On Jan. 22, there were two letters stating the authors didn’t want any of their tax money used to build the track. Neither do I. The proposal calls for no new or increased taxes — unless you attend a race. It’s a true “user fee” if there ever was one. It doesn’t cost anything if you stay home on race day. Meanwhile taxpayers did fund Qwest and Safeco Fields — whether they ever attend a game or not.

It’s the editorial page editors’ job to know the facts behind the financing package — and I believe they do. So in my view, providing letter writers with an ongoing forum to blatantly perpetuate misinformation and continually allow the truth to be distorted without correction is irresponsible. Correcting the letter writers about the cold, hard facts isn’t censorship, because not doing so betrays community trust.

Finally, is it just me, or does anyone else see a conflict of interest having the mouthpiece for C.H.E.C.K., the track’s main organized opposition group, sitting as a newly appointed Kitsap Sun editorial board member? Why isn’t there a member from the Checkered Flag Club too?

This isn’t about being for or against the track. All this is about, is doing what’s right and telling the truth. Sadly, many track supporters have come to view the Kitsap Sun’s reporting and its Letters to the Editor on the NASCAR issue as a joke. Unfortunately, it isn’t very funny.

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