The scourge of the written statement

September 9, 2022 9:38 am

News reporters rely too often on written statements from sources. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.One of the negative impacts of the reduction in newsroom staffing is what I call “the scourge of the written statement.”

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t read several instances of a newsmaker, often a public official, responding to a reporter’s question by releasing a written statement.  There are limited times when it’s warranted, and I’ll get into that.

The one that drives me nuts is when a national politician visits Iowa, as they often do.  The reporter will cover the visit, and in an effort to appear balanced, will call someone from the opposite party to get a quote.

In the July Des Moines Register there is a story about U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas campaigning in Iowa.  He’s considering a run for president. The Register includes a quote from Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn: “It’s because of Republicans like (Cotton) that Iowans have been left behind while the GOP continues to hand out billions in tax giveaways to corporations and the ultra-wealthy.” That quote has nothing to do with anything Senator Cotton said here.

Both sides do it.  A May 7 Register story quoted Gov. Kim Reynolds about wanting “my own attorney general, please.” “And,” she continued, “I need a state auditor that’s not trying to sue me every time I turn around.”

It seems to me the Republican side got in more than enough shots at the Democratic opposition in the story, but the reporter went on to quote a statement from Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann: “Iowans know how worthless our current state auditor, state treasurer and attorney general have been.”

Worthless? That is a cheap shot.  And letting Kaufmann say it in a written statement, with no opportunity to ask a follow-up question or challenge the comment is lazy journalism. A good follow-up question would be: “Why are you calling them worthless when Iowans have re-elected Tom Miller and Mike Fitzgerald every year since the Civil War? Are you saying Iowans are repeatedly voting for worthless candidates?” But that question didn’t get asked because the reporter simply accepted the written cheap shot, er, statement.

Part of the problem is the pressure journalists are under to appear unbiased.  So, they take the easy way to find a quote from the other side. But if a Republican like Cotton visits Iowa, the story should be about him. Period.  If Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar visits Iowa, the story should be about her. Over time, it all balances out.

The scourge of the written statement is not limited to political stories.  Recent examples include Wells Fargo Home Mortgage laying off 75 employees (“Reductions in staff are never easy…”), the Iowa Division of Labor discussing safety inspections at Adventureland (“The Division remains confident in the work of our inspectors…”), and the state combining two huge departments (“We are laser focused on sustaining, growing and building trust with Iowans…”)

These quotes highlight the real problem. The written statements are crafted by PR professionals to emphasize the positive as much as possible, no matter how much has gone wrong.  “We regret the unfortunate occurrence with the Hindenburg, but our dedicated team is laser-focused on providing safe, reliable and friendly trans-Atlantic service!”

I’ve quoted Register stories but all TV, radio and internet outlets do it, too.

There are times when a written statement is warranted and better than nothing.  I get it when employers release limited information about a termination or in potential legal situations. Law enforcement certainly wants to be careful about crime details it releases. A family suffering a tragic loss is certainly justified in releasing a statement to the media rather than answering painful questions from a parade of reporters. Those should be exceptions.

We all understand why this scourge is happening. Print newsroom jobs are drastically reduced.  Pew Research says newsroom jobs have been cut 26% since 2008. That includes television news and digital, which generally have been adding staff, so newspaper job cuts have been worse. And Gannett, the owner of the Register, laid off another 400 employees company-wide last month.

News staff members are under so much pressure to produce a lot of content, and do it quickly for online use, that they don’t have the time to look up a source’s phone number and ask some questions. So they take the easy way out and accept the written statement. We as news consumers need to be aware of it, read with a skeptical eye, and call out egregious examples.

This column was first published by “Dave Busiek on Media” and is reprinted here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Dave Busiek
Dave Busiek

Dave Busiek spent 43 years working in Iowa radio and television newsrooms as a reporter, anchor and the last 30 years as news director of KCCI-TV, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines. In that role, he planned coverage of the Iowa caucuses, the floods of 1993 during which 250,000 central Iowans lost drinking water for 12 days, and organized the first national debate between Democratic candidates for president in 2015. He served as national board chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In 2014, he was Broadcasting and Cable Magazine’s News Director of the Year. He was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2018 and is a recipient of the Iowa Broadcast News Association’s Jack Shelley award. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He retired at the end of 2018. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative and his blog, "Dave Busiek on Media" appears on Substack.