Baltimore City Paper

Conflicts Of Interest: Light for all message coordinators

Every time I get in an argument with someone at The Sun—almost always because I criticize them—their response is some version of "we're objective and you get to have opinions. We can't do that."

But the fact of the matter is that daily papers such as The Sun often present a perspective, though it is hidden by the seemingly innocuous language of "objectivity."


Our modern notion of objectivity comes from Herodotus—like the modern reporter, he spent his time going around and collecting stories from people. And in contentious issues, such as the Persian Wars, he made it a point to address both sides. Thucydides, with his history of the Peloponnesian War—written during and just after the war—pushed this further. In both cases, the authors questioned their own assumptions. Socrates made an art of this, forgetting the product—the story—and obsessing on the questioning of his own assumptions. The attitude he solidified—constant inquiry, trying to escape his own opinions, knowing enough to know you know nothing—formed the hallmarks of 20th-century American objectivity, which The Sun, as one of the first "penny papers," did a great deal to create and solidify.

Yeah, it's old news that so-called objectivity contains some kind of perspective, but it's still worth noting the extent to which the Sun showed this week how fully such a model can turn its own assumptions into unchecked fact. Jeff Barker’s abysmal story “City attractions struggle to regain footing in riot’s aftermath” is a perfect example. The headline alone is full of assumptions. The choice of the word “riot,” which is used throughout the piece, is telling. There has been a lot written about whether to call the events here uprising or riot or protests but that’s not what I’m talking about (for what it’s worth there could be a very clear taxonomy: the uprising was the entire thing; the riot is what happened on April 27 at Mondawmin; the protests were all of the individual marches and demonstrations that made up the uprising). I’m talking about where the responsibility is placed. Because it is clear that the Baltimore Police Department caused the uprising when they killed Freddie Gray and the riot when they responded wrongly to a social media post. The headline could read “Police violence causes city attractions to lose footing” and it is every bit as “objective” as the current headline.

But it's not just the headlines, usually not written by the author of a piece. Barker's story is full of such loaded sentences.


"The institutions say visitors are gradually returning. But many attractions are trying to regain momentum after images of fires, looting and confrontations between rock-throwing rioters and police were broadcast around the world."

Do the institutions say that visitors are returning and that "images of fires, looting and confrontations between rock-throwing rioters and police?" Or is that all Barker?

He is attributing a causal connection—"images of fires, looting and confrontations between rock-throwing rioters and police" caused people not to come. Yet there is no clear way that he could report that assertion, unless he talked to people who didn't come and they specifically listed those images. And the language he uses is loaded: The rioters are rock-throwing but the police are not "rubber-bullet-shooting," "tear-gassing," "photographer-attacking," "club-wielding," or "spine-severing." Barker did not mention the images of Larry Lomax being maced, pulled down by his dreadlocks, and dragged across the ground.

It's not wrong that Barker or The Sun have this perspective—they should just quit trying to pretend that God shares it with them. It is not nature. It is your opinion of it, hidden in your cold dead-ass words.

Even if a shopkeeper said: "It is rock-throwing rioters who caused this," it is the job of the reporter to ask how the shopkeeper knows that.

"During the 10-day state of emergency imposed by Gov. Larry Hogan, the zoo attracted just 9,733 visitors — less than half the 23,587 during the same stretch last year — and lost $150,000 in revenue." That's a useful sentence—and if you're willing to assume causality, the headline might as well be "Governor Hogan cuts zoo visitors in half."

Also, the Horseshoe Casino is counted as a cultural attraction—another big assumption. No other bars or music clubs are taken into consideration. What is special, culturally, about Horseshoe?

Finally, Barker, who lists his cities on Twitter as College Park, D.C., and Baltimore, quotes the Downtown Partnership's Kirby Fowler about trying "to coordinate messages designed to entice visitors back."


It could be that people don't want to visit a city more concerned about promoting its image than promoting the well-being of its people.

Maybe the people of the city deserve something greater than coordinated messages. Why can't Barker find someone saying "fuck those people, why don't you worry about those of us who are here instead of bringing in people from the county"? I've heard dozens of people say something like that. I guess Barker couldn't get that perspective with a quick phone call.

It turns out that Chris Cropper, the senior director of marketing at the Maryland Science Center, gets pushed into the objective role in this story. When Barker throws a softball, inviting him to coordinate messages, Cropper, like Socrates, recognizes his own limitations: "Asked if there still might be lingering riot-related effects, he replied: 'We're not in the fortune-telling business.'"

Despite the overwhelmingly high quality of the work the reporters at the Sun did during and after the uprising, I've seen several other stories in The Sun this week—not to mention the Washington Post's story on Station North, but I'll write more on that—that share the same hidden assumptions about the "riots" as the cause of all sorts of things, but Barker's is the worst of the county-baiting bullshit perspective. And again, it's fine to have that perspective. Just don't pretend it's objective.