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By And Another Thing

UPDATE BELOW

This election season, Trenton voters seeking to become or stay informed about local election goings-on are at a severe disadvantage. Our two local newspapers, on which Trentonians have traditionally looked for information, are taking two very different approaches to covering this campaign season.

The Trenton Times, by and large, is ignoring the election. In fact, they seem to be ignoring most things in Trenton not sports-related. Perhaps if our candidates wore jerseys and hats??

The Trentonian, on the other hand, is providing a lot of coverage, on or pretty close to a daily basis. The trouble is, it’s pretty near impossible to figure out who writes their reports. Because of that, a reader cannot know whether an article is reported news or campaign propaganda.

For the last several weeeks, the Trentonian has been featuring a frequent column called “Trenton Election Rumblings” and consist of mostly short vignettes, policy announcements, or news about individual campaigns and candidates, mostly the mayoral ones. The pieces are never bylined – attributed – to specific Trentonian writers or editorial staff. That’s the first warning sign that there may be something up with these. If you browse the “Trenton Elections” page of the paper’s website, you can see that these “Rumblings” are variously credited to “Trentonian Staff,” or “TRENTONIAN STAFF REPORT,” or “For the Trentonian.”

What do these various bylines tell us? Who knows! The newspaper doesn’t provide any explanation for these various credits, frankly making it difficult for the casual reader to evaluate what it is they are reading. Is this a report story based on actual research and reporting by a Trentonian writer? Or is this simply a press release written by a specific campaign, with who knows how much spin, slant, exaggeration or outright lies baked in? There’s no real way to tell, and the Trentonian doesn’t help the reader in not providing any notes or disclaimers.

Unfortunately, there’s no common journalistic industry standard for credits and attribution. This link will take you to a piece on the website of the Poynter Institute, a well-respected journalism school in Tampa, Florida, in which several newspaper editors from around the country describe how their papers and news services handle their policies for things like Bylines (authorship attribution), Datelines, and the like. They’re all roughly similar, with some variations on a theme.

I like Caesar Andrews description of the policy used by the Gannett News Service. For him and his colleagues, Bylines go to the reporter or reporters who contribute significantly to story. Other credits may be used when someone else participates in gathering the news.” [Emphasis in the original.]

OK, that seems pretty clear and uncomplicated. Let’s apply it to “Election Rumblings.” In an installment I’ve already described, from March 16, Councilmember and mayoral candidate Duncan Harrison is extensively quoted on the occasion of the passage by Council of his proposal to allow Trenton citizens and customers to use credit and debit cards to pay for City services and charges. Except, as you know from reading this space, all that Council actually approved was the method by which vendor proposals for those services would be sought and evaluated.

That article included several remarkable claims, not in quotes, so not directly attributed to the candidate. By not being in quotes, the author – in this case “By TRENTONIAN STAFF REPORT” is implicitly presenting these claims as reported fact. Take this one sample:

Accepting credit and debit card payments will cost the city nothing and will make it more convenient for Trentonians to pay bills and fees. It will also expand the city’s budget by making it easier for those who live outside Trenton to pay their bills and fees on time.

There’s nothing in that quote to indicate that these features of credit card processing are only wishes by the Councilman, that don’t yet appear in any actual proposal by potential vendors, let alone features specified by an actual negotiated, signed, approved contract. There may never be an adopted proposal, and even if there is one – eventually – iot may not feature all of these items. To be frank, these are only Wild-Assed Campaign Promises, nothing more. But the Trentonian, by placing it in its newspaper with no individual byline and no disclaimer of any kind, lends this its journalistic endorsement.

So, who wrote this? The Trentonian, or the campaign? You can’t tell! There is simply no way to know just who has “participated” in gathering this “news.”

Take a more recent example. This one “By Trentonian Staff,” datelined yesterday at 5:22 PM. The piece leads off, “The campaign headquarters of Mayoral Candidate Walker Worthy Jr. has been burglarized three times in recent weeks. The incidents took place the night of March 29, Easter Weekend and April 5. The campaign filed police reports and is in the process of purchasing surveillance cameras.” The article goes on to include a lengthy quote, actually more of a lengthy statement, by the candidate, and finishes with the advisory, “For more information about Worthy and his campaign, visit” followed by the URL of his campaign.

This piece frankly reads like a press release written by the campaign, and published by The Trentonian verbatim and without any effort by the paper to verify the claims made with any other sources, including Trenton Police.

A HUGE clue to this is this line: “When Trenton Police complete their investigation, Worthy intends to share the information publicly.”

So, The Trentonian will rely on a Candidate to directly provide to the newspaper further information from the Police!

That’s not how this is supposed to work!!! A real news article, written by a real reporter, would include lines such as, “When contacted the Trentonian, a Trenton police spokesperson had no further information but promised to provide it,” or “This reporter visited Worthy campaign headquarters and saw evidence of forced entry.”

You know? THAT is what reporting reads like. “Election Rumblings” reads like unfiltered, unedited campaign propaganda.

What has really been going on at Walker Worthy campaign headquarters? I don’t know, because I do not trust one word in this article.

You shouldn’t either.

When you come to this page (Thank you!), you know who writes it. There’s no vague byline like “By ‘And Another Thing.’” My name is on my website, and I stand by what I write. That’s the standard I hold myself to.

That’s the standard you should hold our local “professional” media to, as well.

It’s sad that the Trenton Times seems to be largely Missing In Action during this election season. The sole remaining daily reporting this election in detail, The Trentonian, by default needs to work to a higher journalistic standard. It should openly disclose the sources of the “Election Rumblings,” whether the work of a specific staff individual, or of a partisan campaign office. It should explain the meanings of their various bylines.

In the absence of those things, you simply cannot trust what you read in this newspaper when it reports on Trenton’s candidates and campaigns.

- By Kevin Moriarty

UPDATE: 2:30 PM, 11 April 2018

Thanks to reader Dennis Waters, the Walker Worthy piece in the Trentonian discussed above, bylined “By Trentonian Staff” has been found. It can be read on the website newjerseyglobe.com, and the Worthy campaign spokesperson Dan Knitzer is listed as the Contact. Presumably Mr. Knitzer or a colleague actually wrote this piece.

Folks, it’s the exact same article published in the Trentonian and bylined “By Trentonian Staff.”

At a time when legitimate journalism is being unfairly attacked as “Fake News,” it’s very disheartening to see an actual example of it.

Shame on the Trentonian!

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