Beware the Buried Lede

A reporter at one of the state’s larger newspapers recently requested comments for an article based on a news release. The topic: underemployment in North Carolina.

Since the journalist’s request eschewed specific questions and asked instead for “thoughts on this report’s finding,” it was important to read beyond the release’s headline and opening paragraph and delve into details.

Why? It would have been easy to fall victim to one of the communications world’s most cringe-worthy errors: burying the lede. It’s an all-too-common phenomenon in which a news story or public-relations puff piece hypes a secondary fact while paying scant attention to the most newsworthy item that ought to be addressed.

Ledes usually get buried for one of two reasons: The writer doesn’t understand what’s most important, or the writer wants to hide what’s most important. You can end up with a twofer if the writer doesn’t understand what’s most important but knows he’ll have to omit or downplay a fact — often the key fact — in order to preserve his article’s narrative.

Examples of the first kind of “lede burying” occur all too frequently in the world of journalism. Reporters with tight deadlines and small-to-nonexistent research budgets have to rely on experts to guide them through complicated stories. Using the wrong experts, or using those whose expertise gets lost in translation to plain English, opens the door to news reports that miss key points while emphasizing the banal.

We see this nearly every month with reports on unemployment rates. Most media outlets lead stories with what has come to be known as the “headline” rate. Stories then compare the new headline rate to the previous month’s rate. If the story focuses on the state, the media outlet typically offers a comparison of this state’s headline rate to those of its neighbors or to the national average.

Often, this information fails to tell the most important part of the story. John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood reports regularly on critical data behind headline unemployment numbers, emphasizing key information about job creation, labor force participation, and other factors left out of the calculation of the headline rate.

When reporters have time and space to devote to the topic, and when they consult sources with subject-matter expertise, their stories on unemployment tend to hit the most important information eventually.

For instance, seven paragraphs into the Raleigh News & Observer’s latest article on state unemployment, we learn that “the number of payroll jobs in North Carolina rose faster than the average increase nationwide.” In the eighth paragraph: “the state’s labor force grew 3.6 percent over the past year, compared to 1.1 percent for the nation.” These are certainly more interesting data points than the fact that the headline unemployment rate dropped by a tenth of a percentage point from one month to the next.

As for the second form of lede burial, any reporter who covers financial news knows that she ought to read press releases all the way to the end. Bad news often ends up near the end of the piece, included as an afterthought, even if that news is the most significant development.

And burying the lede extends beyond the world of business P.R. One of the most egregious examples in recent history involves North Carolina’s historic state tax reforms in 2013. A contractor for one of the political left’s loudest voices put together a study that suggested the reforms would lead to tax cuts for 49 percent of the state’s taxpayers, roughly no change for 16 percent, and tax increases for 35 percent. In other words, those who would benefit or see no change from the reforms would outnumber tax reform “losers” by a 2-1 margin.

(I’ll not use this space to question that study’s methodology. It’s worth questioning given conflicting analyses of the 2013 reforms, but that’s not the point of this column.)

Rather than point to the 49-16-35 numbers — the key findings in the report, otherwise known as the “lede” — the left-of-center interest group concocted a convoluted scheme designed to suggest that 80 percent of taxpayers would see tax increases. The group threw in the words “on average” to disguise the subterfuge but raised no objections when other left-of-center political operatives cited the 80 percent figure without qualifiers.

The claim was more than false and purposefully misleading. It was absurd.

The point is that it’s important to look beyond headlines and opening paragraphs for important facts that might be buried because of ignorance or concerted efforts to deceive.

As for the press release that prompted the recent media request, the headline read: “Recession May Be Past, But Underemployment and Low-Wage Jobs Still Define Landscape in North Carolina.”

That sounds bad … until the reader reaches the fifth paragraph. That’s where he learns that the release is based on an annual “assets and opportunity” scorecard in which North Carolina’s ranking improved over the past year from No. 41 to No. 38 among the states and the District of Columbia.

Rather than open with this fact and then explain why North Carolina still ranks among the bottom half of the states — though no longer among the bottom 10 — an interest group hoping to paint a bleak picture of North Carolina’s economy had buried the lede.

And that’s exactly what I told the reporter.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

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