A Little Phrase, Inconsistently Applied

May 31st, 2014 · No Comments · journalism

By Denise Tessier

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation Friday was no surprise, especially after reading in Friday morning’s Albuquerque Journal that all five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation were – in a rare show of consensus – calling for it.

What was a surprise, however, was a phrase inserted in the Journal’s story about that resignation call.

VA patients in ABQ parked in ‘phantom’ panel” was a straightforward story, reporting the state’s congressional delegation joining the cry for Shinseki’s resignation, and including revelations from VA records obtained by the Journal.

The phrase that jumped out of that story was inside the paper, atop the last column of type, and it had nothing to do with the VA. The phrase was part of a paragraph leading into a statement made by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.

Here’s the paragraph, with emphasis added on the phrase:

Udall, who is seeking re-election this year, said new leadership at the VA is needed to restore accountability and transparency.

None of the other members of the delegation had the phrase “who is seeking re-election this year” after their names, not even those who are seeking re-election, so that’s the first bit of inconsistency.

The phrase might have been added during the editing process – or perhaps the reporters thought it somehow was helpful to the reader and included it at the outset. But its inclusion raises the question about inconsistency, and why the Journal isn’t routinely and uniformly applying this descriptive phrase to all statements and actions by all incumbents who are “seeking re-election this year.”

Type “seeking re-election this year” into the Journal’s online search feature, and nearly all 10 pages of Journal stories containing that phrase are election stories about a given office-holder’s plans to run, or not to run, or about how much they have raised during a campaign. Two exceptions were stories about two separate candidates seeking re-election raising questions about how they had conducted their jobs, which is pertinent in an election year.

What Udall had to say about the VA, however, was not related to his job performance, nor was the statement outside the course of his normal duties as a U.S. senator. It wasn’t even much different from the statements and sentiments of his congressional colleagues.

Yet, it was included – as information for the reader?

One other non-election story popped up in the Journal search results illustrating use of the “seeking re-election” phrase. An Associated Press story last July about the one-year anniversary of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shootings reported that gun control laws were enacted in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shootings, and added:

But President Barack Obama, seeking re-election, did not bring up gun control in a state that cherishes its western frontier image. Neither did most Colorado Democrats.

By inserting that phrase, the reporter posited that future election results played a role in the absence of gun control comments by Obama on the theater shooting anniversary.

For comparison, consider Journal stories about another incumbent, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. “Seeking re-election this year” has been included as a description in stories about her fund-raising and campaigning, which is entirely appropriate.

However, it no doubt would have been just as jarring as the Udall insertion if non-election stories about Martinez included that phrase. Last month, for example, when Martinez announced four new veterans’ cemeteries will be built in Angel Fire, Carlsbad, Fort Stanton and Gallup, the Journal reported:

The selected locations were announced Tuesday by Gov. Susana Martinez at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial.

What if Journal editors had added the Udall phrase, and the story had said:

The selected locations were announced Tuesday at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial by Gov. Susana Martinez, who is seeking re-election this year.

Puts a whole different slant on it, doesn’t it?

Both Udall and Martinez are incumbents, and studies have shown that incumbent candidates have an edge over challengers when seeking re-election because they get publicity during the election cycle simply by continuing to perform duties of office. Martinez, for example, had already announced the plan to create more VA cemeteries back in July (but it didn’t hurt for her to have a follow-up announcement during the campaign cycle).

And, as governor, Martinez wrote a letter “to all New Mexicans” as part of the highly informative (and sobering) 12-page tabloid by the New Mexico Department of Transportation advocating seat belt use, which was recently distributed via New Mexico newspapers, including the Journal. Among the headlines in the insert, BKLUP, were “3 OUT OF 4 CHILD SAFETY SEATS ARE NOT USED PROPERLY” and “BKLUP B4UDRIVE” but also “GOVERNOR MARTINEZ’S CALL TO ACTION: Help New Mexico Surpass 92% Seat Belt Use.”

No mention that she was “seeking re-election.” And there was no need.

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