Fat Shaming and Rumor Mill Reporting in the Missoulian

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I’ve long harped on the major Montana media for its seeming unwillingness to do much investigative reporting, but given a recent piece in the Missoulian, it may just be a good thing that they’re not—because the journalistic standards on display in this story about the City of Missoula’s decision to add coverage for bariatric surgery suggest they may just not be ready for the task.

According to the story’s impeccable reporting, Missoula Mayor John Engen has been accused on social media by one person of improperly requesting that the surgery be added to the City’s health plan:

 This week, the Missoula City Council approved a lifetime benefit of up to $40,000 for morbid obesity surgeries – an addition to the city’s employee health plan.

Members of the public soon speculated, and complained, on social media sites that the request had been made by the mayor.

Mayor John Engen has struggled with his weight and previously discussed the possibility of one such procedure.

Parsing those paragraphs is interesting. While the story claims “members of the public,” it cites exactly one person, Missoula attorney John Velk, who has a well-documented animus against Mayor Engen. No other sources—especially not any in the city—either anonymous or cited, confirm the reporting. Even the language of the story suggests its weakness, as people apparently “speculated” that the request had been made by the mayor. Online speculation seems like a pretty low threshold for covering a story that may or may not have been about a person’s health.

Online gossip is simply insufficient to justify the story, unless the Missoulian plans to start making speculation on social media a legitimate source for its reporting. Even a brief look at the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics suggests this story should not have been run as it violates standards for sourcing, responsibility, and pandering. And it sets an incredibly dangerous precedent: just who gets to use the Missoulian to air their personal grievances and speculation about public figures? Just attorneys in the town? Anyone with a Twitter account? Or just people who love the reporting?

To be honest, I’m not even sure that, had the Missoulian actually uncovered this request came from the Mayor rather than relying on speculation from the online commentariat, that it would have been a fair news story–as all City employees have the right to request changes to the health care plan. In the absence of undue pressure from the Mayor, he would have the same right as any employee to make such a request. But we don’t even know that the request came from him—which makes the story wildly unprofessional.

Now, had the Missoulian uncovered actual evidence that the Mayor or someone else had acted unethically or illegally, the story should have become front page news. The role of the media is to aggressively pursue corruption and malfeasance by those in power, not to provide a platform for unfounded attacks.

Compounding the initial error, the Missoulian seems to have ignored its own standards for commenting on the story as well. While the Missoulian’s standards for commenting on stories forbid “vulgar, abusive, obscene or sexually oriented language, defamatory or illegal material. You may not post content that degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other classification,” many of the comments on this story are certainly abusive and rely on “ad hominem attacks” about weight, presumed understanding of why some people struggle with weight loss, and character assassination unsupported by the reporting in the story.

It seems Mr. Velk got the last laugh on this story, as this professional and sensitive tweet demonstrates:

It’s just too bad that the real joke is on those who expect better from their media.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

8 Comments

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  • great post, thank you for writing it (no snark, sincere thank you). there was another story recently where Missoula’s local shelter was criticized by a woman who most in our community know to be a non-credible source. the Missoulian reporter was told this explicitly, but went with the story anyway. pathetic.

  • I love a good satire, but I am concerned that this piece might be too subtle for many readers to catch. When dealing with important issues such as journalistic integrity and shaming it’s crucial that satire is obvious so that those biased in favor of the people being criticized don’t draw the conclusion that this behavior is the norm. Or even acceptable. When I first noted the satire on FB, I encountered some skepticism, compelling me to make it clear for everyone here in the comments.

    The author’s main criticisms of the Missoulian’s article are: (1) It violates standards for sourcing, responsibility, and pandering; (2) Relies on online gossip; (3) Lacks actual evidence of corruption/malfeasance; (4)Ignores commenting standards by allowing abuse and ad hominem attacks.

    Merriam Webster’s second definition of Satire: “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly”

    The wit and sarcasm are plain enough, but what about irony? The true strength (and weakness) of this piece is the manner in which the author uses irony to emulate the behavior of those he criticizes. The weakness stems from the possible misinterpretation of this technique as being merely hypocritical. The author frames his satire in the first sentence by assuring us that this is not an Op-Ed, but “investigative reporting.”

    First, it criticizes the sourcing of exactly one person, who, quote: “…has a well-documented animus against Mayor Engen.” Note that in both the original article, as well as this blog-post, a politician’s motives and intent are being reported as fact with insufficient evidence. The author even ups the ante by including ZERO sources in conjunction with the phrase “well-documented.” Delicious. He ups the ante again by refusing to (from his linked Code of Ethics) “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” Something the original article allowed for Engen, that the author refuses for Velk and Spzaller.

    Second, the author mentions “responsibility” in regards to the Code of Ethics’ standard “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Again, he one-ups the Missoulian by making the claim of “animus” rather than simply attributing that claim to a named source–reporting it as fact, not one man’s opinion.

    Third, the author includes the word “pandering” just to lead us to the single sentence from the Code of Ethics source, “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do”, as a sly wink to his good-for-the-gander use of satire.

    Possibly worried about his audience missing this initial irony, the author includes the phrase “Online Gossip” as a smoking gun.

    Next, let’s talk about corruption. Understanding that by its very nature corruption is near impossible to prove until a single source and reporter first bring the issue to attention (see Watergate), he contrasts the terms “pursue” (as in, to seek out what has not yet been found) with the phrase “actual evidence” (as in, after the verdict is out).

    Finally, as we all know, “Ad Hominem Attack” is an internet buzz word thrown around with little concern for it’s definition. Merriam Webster defines it as “appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect.” The author solidifies his satire here by spending the whole of the piece casting abuse directly toward the reporter and attorney. Szpaller gets hit with (occasionally paraphrased)”not ready for the task”, “low threshold”, “gossip”, “violator of standards”, and by implication “unprofessional.” Velk gets hit by “animus”, meaning “hateful”, as well as “gossip.” The author goes on to use sarcasm to lob the bombs “impeccable” at Szpaller and “Professional and Sensitive” at Velk. Abuse? Obviously, unless one relies on partisan prejudices to shield oneself from that realization.

    By exposing the degradation we allow in modern media THREE TIMES (once in the Missoulian, once in a politician’s tweets, and once in his own “Investigative Reporting”), the author is using satire to drive his point home. This behavior is acceptable from NO ONE. Remind people that this is satire when you share it. I’d hate to see it used to simply add fuel to the partisan fire that is burning this country alive.

    • Easy on the beans next time, Sturmy, for that was one looooong fart! Impressive for its length, but NOT for its odor! You lost me after about the first five lines! Rule of thumb. Flatulence does NOT equal brilliance. But for the record, since you seem to be a pretty fart smeller, just WHO was your target audience for such a hard hitting, cheese cutting expose? No one I’d say.

  • Hello if you care to hear a true tale of police corruption in the city that has been told to Marion and the City Council The state attorney general the Chief of Police everyone that should have any effect to change your make a difference on that begins with my records being painted by the Department of records in Helena and an article was published in The Wall Street Journal in January of 2004 if you google my name and Johnny O ring and the Wall Street Journal you will read an article that was published 6 months later they other than the police department beat me senseless and took me into custody for beating up police officers almost two and a half years later I was found not guilty of a jury trial since that time I’ve had nothing but harassment on 7 to 10 different occasions when I should have been in the prosecution on my behalf of my family there never was on 15 occasions have been arrested and never charged and Court just been arrested broaden tickets and things of that nature I have a record of this to show the proof of that as well

  • First time using voice to write……406-552-9285. Marion is mayor engen…..and Johnnie o ring is Johnnie Ulrigg……. engen and his out a control cops have stolen my way to make a living…..acting as lawyers

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