‘Bell told to reduce property taxes’ (August 14)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

This was an event-driven story, and so the first, and primary, issued addressed was: What happened Friday?

The reporters’ conclusion was that the state controller, John Chiang, “said” that the city of Bell “illegally raised its property taxes in 2007 and must immediately give up $2.9 million it has collected since then” (1).

The evidence presented to support this seemingly straightforward claim was reminiscent of what Rupar (2006) called “unexplained.” In her research, she distinguished between “explained” and “unexplained”
forms of newsgathering:

All articles that clearly described the input of sources behind their stories were categorised as articles that “explained” the news- gathering process (such as “the Prime Minister said yesterday at a press conference in the Beehive that…”). Articles that only stated an opinion or gave quotes without indicating how the news was assembled were categorised as “unexplained” (example: “The Prime Minister thinks…”). (p. 130)

The reporters in this story provided no information to show how they know Chiang “said” anything, let alone that he said what he was paraphrased as saying. Readers probably could have intuited, as Rupar did in her study, that, probably, Chiang “said” nothing but issued a press release to the same effect and dispatched a press officer to discuss it (Rupar, 2006, p. 132). Chiang himself was never quoted, although his spokesperson was quoted several times making comments that would logically follow from the order that Chiang was said to have given (for example, “Taxpayers should not have had to pay that money” (3)).

In short, there was really no evidence presented to support the reporters’ claim. And yet, the structure and presentation of the claim looked perfectly normal to a regular reader of journalism. To take this story, observe its lack of evidence, and exit without accepting the truth of the claim would leave that reader seemingly unable to accept a great many claims made in daily journalism. Meanwhile, experience suggests that most of these daily claims are wholly, or substantially, true.

The conclusion of what Chiang “ordered,” then, might be easily taken as true, perhaps on the basis of the reporters’ authority. That argument would go: These reporters were experts on what public officials say; whatever the reporters said an official did was what happened; therefore this happened. The reason for thinking the reporters were such experts was that in the past their pronouncements about public officials turned out to be true, and so readers should have expected the current one to be true, too. Once the claim was accepted, of course, the use of the spokesperson or anyone else in the story to show a conclusion would cease to be circular.

It was difficult to determine whether the reporters meant to also address a second issue in their story. After presenting the claim by Chiang they jumped to several topics, including details about the tax in question, the reactions to the ruling by citizens, and the ongoing salary scandal. But in all of these topics there was not usually a clear statement of a conclusion to guide the discussion.

The closest to a claim the reporters made is that the finding by Chiang “appears to confirm longstanding complains from Bell property owners that they were being overtaxed” (4). There were a few ways to conceive of the issue that that conclusion would have attempted to address, but the fairest conception probably was, “Were Bell citizens overtaxed?”

This statement of the issue and conclusion left some important ambiguities unaddressed, including “overtaxed relative to what?” and “overtaxed in what time period?” That said, the interpretation was the most charitable because it was the one the reporters most clearly justified. By filling in the “relative to” ambiguity with “the law” and the “in what time” ambiguity with “after 2008,” readers could easily conclude that “yes, Bell citizens were overtaxed.”

Compare this approach to the issue with one that added citizen opinions to the issue, such as “were Bell citizens correct that they were overtaxed?” To interpret this second conception of the issue as that of the reporters’ would have put the reporters on the hook for showing that citizens in Bell actually had “longstanding complaints that they were overtaxed,” and that the citizens would have answered the “overtaxed relative to what?” question in just such a way that the reporters could correctly say that Chiang had “confirmed” the citizens’ beliefs.

But only one citizen was quoted saying anything to the effect that Bell citizens had tax complaints. Ali Saleh was quoted as saying, “This proves all the complaining we have done about the high taxes is true” (9). Saleh’s quote itself was, sadly, not easily interpreted — did he mean “justified” for “true”? Nor did it show that any complaints were “longstanding” or referred to the law.

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