Hey LJS: Headlines matter, too.

If you listened to our show on Friday, we spent a lot of time discussing the State’s audit of the University of Nebraska’s use of credit cards for, in some cases, unauthorized purposes.  While it looks like the audit uncovered some real problems in the way these cards were being used that needed to be brought to the public’s attention, John and I mentioned several times on Friday that the Lincoln Journal Star didn’t do the University (or clear reporting) any favor with a ridiculously huge headline that simply said “$40 Million”. 

Aside from the fact that it seemed the font was the size that normally reads “Huskers Win National Championship” or “U.S. Attacked”, there was also the slight matter that the $40 Million mentioned wasn’t particularly newsworthy.  That amount was the annual volume of the University’s Credit Card program, NOT the amount alleged to have been spent in violation of policy, which was much, much smaller, and the source of the actual news.  While the public certainly deserves an explanation for these expenditures and the University needs to take serious corrective action, I’m hopeful that this incident doesn’t disproportionately feed into what has become a surprisingly strong distaste for the University among many of the people I talk to around Lincoln.  While I don’t begrudge criticism of the University, which is healthy when we’re dealing with a state-run institution, that criticism is more frequently being backed by misinformation, and this doesn’t help.    

That said, I applaud LJS Editor Michael Nelson for stepping up and admitting the mistake in this Sunday’s papers (albeit it was on page F5, not quite the audience of page A1 in 80 point font). 

I was particularly critical of the newspaper on Friday’s show because it was the second time in a single week that the LJS had written a headline that was inaccurate in a way that almost seemed to be designed to feed into a common  source of local outrage.  In Wednesday’s online editions, the headline above Deena Winter’s column read “City arena tab so far — $2.9M”

Well, that’s not really true, which the article itself clarifies.  Of that $2.9 Million on the city’s ‘tab’ to study and plan the arena project, more than half of it ($1.6M) comes from a  loan from the 2015 Vision group.  That loan will not be repaid unless the voters approve the arena.  Yet, I know that listeners with whom I talked, and I presume others around the city assumed that nearly $3 Million in city funds were spent prior to  any kind of voter input.   Not true.  And now, much like the strong distaste for the University, the intense and grumpy faction of this city who thinks the city is constantly trying to pull one over on its citizens via this arena project is energized.  Wonderful. 

I don’t mean to imply that the LJS is trying to encourage this sentiment behind the scenes, but I do recognize that the “anonymous copy editors” are obviously looking for the sexiest headline, which apparently often comes at the expense of context and full disclosure of the facts.  The result?  A lot of people who skim headlines and articles (we all do it) end up with out-of-context or irrelevant facts.  C’mon LJS, if you fix your headlines, I promise not to complain the next time you refuse to mention John and me by name when you use us as a source–we can forever be the mysterious “Morning Talk Show on KLIN“.

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3 Responses to Hey LJS: Headlines matter, too.

  1. Agreed says:

    Amen, John. I bitched and bitched about that headline. It was almost as good as the “What does your Halloween costume say about you” headline and crap art from the day before.

    Keep being critical!

  2. Gene says:

    That’s a pretty irresponsible headline. The LJS has done little to impress lately.

  3. Ed Patterson says:

    Here is a comment I left today under the LJS’s Thursda, October 29, 2009 article: “Foley: Deficiencies in NU credit card program”

    Well, this is interesting. I came back to this article after hearing Jack on the KLIN Jack and John show, this Monday morning, focusing on the LJS’s sizing the credit card system at $40 million. This was portrayed as being an unprofessional indulgence in sensationalism, misrepresenting the problem’s actual size. Lo and behold, ‘Big Chief’ is there with the last comment, using exactly the same ‘talking point.’ (Oh my!!!). But read for yourself:

    • the actual LJS article, or
    • the half dozen well researched excellent comments from amateur ‘simba’ below, or
    • the State Auditor’s report referenced by ‘simba’ in one of his comments:
    http://www.auditors.state.ne.us/local/pdfSearch/PDF/2008_University_of_Nebraska_Purchasing_Card_Program.pdf, or
    • ‘Dumb Dora’ – “The LJS should publish the names of those who traveled first class,
    • where they went,
    • who approved it,
    • who paid for it, and
    • how it got past the UN accountants and auditors.
    Ditto for the $20K in purchases by someone after they were terminated. As ‘LNK resident’ said, he (or she) would be afraid of losing his job if it happened under his watch at a private company.”

    What you find described is a small, but statistically significant sampling, which itself has a surprising number of serious transgressions, described by the University’s own card system training literature as fraud, but with the vast majority of credit card transactions not inspected at all.

    It is apparent in the sample that financial controls in the system as a whole are broken. To get a rough idea of the total size of the problem, one has to know what the total recurring fiscal year average charges are in the card system. In short, size of the system as whole matters, it is the difference between news articles (1) and (2) below:

    1. “Sweet Old Lady (University of Nebraska Administrative Services) in need of Public Assistance to buy a few parts for her Volkswagen Beetle (Credit Card Disbursement System)”

    2. “Granny Plying Nebraska Roads with 40,000 pound 18-wheeler, no brakes, and a lead foot”

    Sympathetic members of the family said that Granny has felt like a new woman since she traded in her vintage Beatle for the Peter Built.

    Officer Foley, who pulled her over, was in the process of writing her a warning ticket when the rig rolled forward crushing his cruiser (and his lunch).

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