The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.
For a fairly straightforward, hard news peg — the leak of a draft audit from the state controller’s office — the reporters presented an unfocused story. An important ambiguity in the conclusion could cause confusion, and the pogo-jumping narrative never looped back to clarify it. Regardless, not enough evidence was presented to justify the reporters’ conclusion under any definition of the ambiguous term.
The issue addressed by the story, as the headline alluded to, regarded the results of an audit by the state controller’s office — specifically, the conclusion was “What does the state audit conclude?” There was a frustrating, though not fatal, lack of clarity throughout the story as to what kind of “audit” was conducted. Readers are told only that the controller’s office conducted the audit and that it was “based on a review … of Bell records” (8). The reporters didn’t say what else, if anything, the audit concluded.
The reporters’ conclusion was offered in the lede:
Apparently acting without City Council approval, Bell spent nearly $95,000 to repay loans that then-City Manager Robert Rizzo made to himself from his retirement accounts, a draft state audit reviewed by The Times shows.
Rather than claim that the audit “says” or “finds” that Rizzo used Bell’s money to repay loans, the reporters wrote that the audit “shows” Rizzo did so, which put readers in a bind. “Shows” is ambiguous. So are “says” and “finds,” but “shows” could be reasonably interpreted in a way that readers would then expect reporters to demonstrate exactly how the auditors “showed” Rizzo did what they allege. “Says” and “finds,” meanwhile, would place on the reporters only the burden of describing the audit’s conclusions. The use of “shows” could have also put the reporters on the hook for arguing that the auditors really did “show” what they claim to, much like how someone arguing that a medical journal article “shows” a cure for something faces a different burden than had they claimed only that the article “said” what a cure for something was.
All of the above wrangling is to say that readers faced an important ambiguity in “shows.” Did the reporters mean to claim that audit demonstrated its conclusions? If so, then readers should have expected the reporters to demonstrate how the audit proved what it alleged. Or did the reporters mean to claim only that the report “showed” anything about Rizzo in the sense that the report “said” it?
Although readers might have assumed at first that the reporters meant the weaker version of “shows,” so as to not seem as though they endorsed the audit’s conclusion, the reporters complicated this assumption by quoting Rizzo’s lawyer:
But Rizzo’s attorney said his client had done nothing wrong or illegal.
“Mr. Rizzo was paying off his own loans with his own money, he was not using public funds,” attorney James Spertus said. “I do know, and I confirmed with Mr. Rizzo, the loans were paid with salary and declared as income on his taxes, and it was done with city approval.” (6–7)
The lawyer’s rebuttal spoke to the truth of the report’s conclusions, not just that the report itself and its conclusion existed. Such a response would make sense only if the reporters were indeed arguing that the audit not just “said” but “showed” that Rizzo wrongly received public funds.
So, under which definition could readers proceed?
As it turned out, in either case the reader was left without much to use. If “shows” is understood as “demonstrates,” then the reporters presented only one item of evidence to support that the audit demonstrated what it is said to in the lede:
The auditors found no evidence that council members even knew about the repayments, which occurred in 2008 and 2009. (2)
The reporters thus used an argument from ignorance to demonstrate the first part of the lede, which said that Rizzo “apparently act[ed] without City Council approval.” However, nothing more was said about how the audit demonstrated, or could have demonstrated, its conclusions about Rizzo. Evidence that would have fulfilled this need might have included a description of the “records” that the audit was based on, or any testimony the auditors collected. The report itself was quoted only once on the matter, in paragraph 8:
The report, based on a review by state auditors of Bell records, portrays a different picture. “Public funds were used to repay [Rizzo’s] personal loans, apparently without authorization,” the audit says.
Which simply repeated the paraphrase given by reporters in the lede.
However, the quotation would go some way towards supporting the reporters’ conclusion if readers used the weaker form of “shows” meaning “says.” Clearly readers knew from the quotation that the report alleged most of what the reporters said it did. But no details were given about the audit’s claims regarding the amount of money spent or the source of the original loans, which the reporters also cited in the lede.
Without the additional evidence supporting these other parts of the lede, readers would have had to take the reporters’ conclusion about the audit on the reporters’ authority, which readers might or might not have been willing to grant.
The remainder of the story consisted of the reporters jumping to other bits of context, but most of them were isolated and only a paragraph or two each. None seemed meaty enough to rise to the level of “issue” for which the reporters would be said to offer a conclusion, and so this analysis will stick with just the main issue presented above.
But the reporters have already harmed readers’ ability to understand their world through the important ambiguity in story’s main conclusion. It was difficult to infer from the story which meaning of “should” the reporters intended, which was especially problematic given that the strength of their evidence shifted on one definition or the other. In any definition, however, the reporters omitted needed justification for their claim.
The reporters noted that Times obtained records under the state public records act detailing $100,000 that Rizzo borrowed from his retirement accounts in 2004 (13). The reporters did not explicitly say why they mention this fact, but it seems possible that they could be trying to tell readers why Rizzo would have needed to spend Bell’s money to repay his loans in the first place. They could also have been justifying why the audit would have found that Bell spent that particular amount of money. But even if the reporters intended to further their conclusion by referring to the Times’s records, the records didn’t benefit the story’s conclusion under either definition of “shows.” The records were evidence obtained outside of the audit, but the story’s conclusions were framed explicitly in terms of the content of the audit itself. At the least, then, this evidence suggested again that the reporters poorly worded their conclusion. At worst it could be called a fallacy of Using the Wrong Reasons: “Attempting to support a claim with reasons other than the reasons appropriate to the claim” (Damer, p. 88). ↩