Free petitions and Bay State click bait

Boston magazine’s David Bernstein did journalism a favor this week. The web was aflame over a Massachusetts bill that purported to forbid a person seeking a divorce from having sex in his or her home.

But the outrage was seriously misplaced.  Bernstein, a veteran State House journalist, meticulously dissected how the original Think Progress story was based on profound misunderstanding of the Bay State’s “free petition” process which allows residents to file bills with their legislators. As Bernstein notes, some lawmakers, like Sen. Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, make a point of filling all such bills that they receive.

Despite Bernstein’s definitive explanation and a Think Progress “update,” news outlets continued to post misleading stories with attention-grabbing headlines and witty leads about the “Massachusetts no sex during divorce law.”  The story even jumped across the pond to The Daily Mail, British tabloid, where it was picked up by a New Zealand news talk station. (Meanwhile, back in the US media, there was a subtle shift to interviews with Robert Leclair, the Wrentham resident who submitted the bill, as well as to articles pointing out how the original story went wrong.)

Sen. Richard Ross , Wrentham Republican, who came in for a blizzard of criticism for his “role” in this supposed legislative travesty, vented his frustration to local media and took to Facebook to complain about  “the careless nature with which this situation has been inaccurately reported on by the national and local media.”

Yet outrage has a long shelf life on in cyberspace.  And so does click bait, the practice by some news outlets of posting salacious bits of drivel with an overlay of indignation capped by a provocative headline, whose real purpose is to generate traffic-and advertising dollars. The “Massachusetts no sex during divorce” story had all the attributes that would reel in readers: a bill about sex proposed by a seemingly clueless politician in a state that most view as a bastion of liberal mores.

Valuing titillation and speed over accuracy and reflection, perfected by outlets like Buzzfeed, Upworthy and ViralNova, has seeped into news reporting with less than stellar results as the no-sex-during-divorce legislation story demonstrates.

However, hope for journalism springs eternal.  In a recent Columbia Journalism Review article, “Who cares if it’s true?,” Marc Fisher, analyzes how some news outlets like Buzzfeed are seeing the error of their click bait ways.

Fisher, a Washington Post senior editor, notes that a culture war has divided reporters and editors who view journalism as a craft and those who want to let a thousand flowers bloom by getting more shaky stories published faster.  

But fake videos that have contributed to Buzzfeed’s bottom line and others stories, such as the death of the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, show that relying on a self-correcting Internet rather than a team of careful journalists erodes an outlet’s credibility. And credibility is one thing that Fisher says readers are searching for.

Buzzfeed is reacquainting itself with classic notions of accuracy and reflection in real time. The outlet has a new appreciation for copy editors (some of the first people tossed overboard in the rush to embrace new digital norms). It’s hiring them.  

Shani Hilton, Buzzfeed’s deputy editor-in-chief, admits that reshaping the culture at a place where most people don’t consider themselves journalists will be a challenge.  But it’s a culture the company will have to embrace if it wants to emerge as a trusted source of news.

Hilton, who has a traditional television and print background, argues that Buzzfeed video producers will have to consider the verification process more than they have in the past and “think about influencing the conversation more than just getting the traffic.”

Eric Newton , senior advisor to the president at the Knight Foundation told CJR, “The sheer impact of doing the wrong thing has grown tremendously because of the speed and reach of the new media, and that is leading a lot of these new brands to show a lot of traditional values.”

Fisher looks for “conciliation” between the traditional and digital cultures and finds it. But as as the “Massachusetts no sex during divorce” story shows, journalism has a long way to go before the two minds meld.

–GABRIELLE GURLEY  

BEACON HILL

State officials have agreed to a $3 million settlement with the family a 23-year-old mental health patient who died at Bridgewater State Hospital when guards put him in a form of restraint forbidden by regulations because of its risk of suffocation.

A juvenile court judge has awarded the Department of Children and Families permanent custody of Justina Pelletier, faulting the behavior of the Connecticut teen’s parents as well as the Connecticut child protection agency.

Rep. Carl Sciortino of Medford is resigning next month to take a job as director of the AIDS Action Committee, after coming up short in a race for Sen. Ed Markey‘s congressional seat. The Somerville Journal rounds up the nascent race to fill Sciortino’s seat.

The state Lottery will introduce a $30 scratch ticket in April, the highest-priced instant ticket in the agency’s history.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Lynn City Council seems poised to raise the mayor’s salary from $82,500 to at least $140,000, a move that will also hike council-member salaries, the Item reports. Meanwhile, former mayor Edward J. Clancy Jr.’s pension may be reduced in the wake of a recent court decision that found he had been improperly collecting a $142,000 annual salary.

Brockton Mayor William Carpenter is once again asking the City Council to replace funds, paid in separation costs to his predecessor’s staff, to pay his aides.

A youth baseball league in Braintree has ended its three-decade baseball program after losing a court challenge to an upstart rival.

MARATHON BOMBING

A congressional report details failures to “connect all the dots,” reports the Globe, but falls short of blaming intelligence officials for not interceding in the actions of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

CASINOS

The Lynn Aquasino is going out of business, in part because of a temporary shutdown caused by a collision with a sunken car that caused the boat to undergo repairs, the Item reports.

New York developers begin rolling out plans for the four commercial casino licenses the state plans to award. Some, like one proposed for Albany, appear to have the potential to erode the market for a western Massachusetts casino.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

A new poll from George Washington University says Republicans are poised to win control of the Senate in the November elections but it also shows that  voters despise both parties equally.

New York ‘s most powerful frenemies, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, are at it again, this time clashing over homelessness.

ELECTIONS

Scot Lehigh is not bowled over by the new Charlie Baker. Baker’s erstwhile GOP rival, Mark Fisher, is poised to sue state Republicans for a spot on the gubernatorial ballot.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Child poverty is on the increase in Massachusetts.

Home prices in Greater Boston are up 9 percent over the last year.

Oculus VR, maker of the Rift virtual reality headset and a company that was backed by Kickstarter supporters, was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg’s take on the purchase.

Greater Boston takes a look at “Boston Strong” and the melding of tragedy and commerce.

EDUCATION

The Quincy School Committee will vote on a proposal to bar students who fail more than one “major” subject, such as English, math, history, science, or foreign languages, from playing sports.

Keller@Large says after talking with both sides of the argument he’s found the debate over charter schools has become toxic.

HEALTH CARE

North Adams Regional Hospital , which has been struggling financially, will close its doors on Friday, the first acute care hospital in the state to close in more than a decade.

A new report grades states on health care cost transparency based on their laws and websites. Only six states avoided receiving Fs; one of them was Massachusetts, which received a B.

Conservative National Review columnist Michelle Malkin offers her support and a moving personal experience in buying legal pot for her mother-in-law who has cancer.

TRANSPORTATION

MBTA fares are going up about 4 to 7 percent on most service options, State House News reports.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A former executive with Allied Waste testifies that Leonard Degnan, the chief of staff to former Lawrence mayor William Lantigua, pressed him in 2009 to donate two trucks to a city in the Dominican Republic. One 10-year-old truck, decorated with a sign saying it had been donated by Lantigua, was subsequently shipped, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

A Salem Superior Court jury finds that an inmate sent to work at a donut shop by a pre-release center run by the Essex County Sheriff’s Department was sexually harassed by the shop’s co-owner. The jury orders the donut shop owner to pay $30,000 in damages and the sheriff’s department to pay $5,000 for ignoring the woman’s complaints, the Salem News reports.

Custody of Arianna Remy, the daughter of Jared Remy and Jennifer Martel, is awarded to Martel’s parents but she will also spend time with Remy’s parents. Jared Remy stands accused of killing Martel, the Associated Press reports.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

New Bedford police say they have put a major dent in two local gangs with ties to national gangs, including the Latin Kings.

Peter Gelzinis assails the FBI’s report on the death of Ibragim Todashev as a whitewash. Boston magazine publishes what it believes to be an unredacted copy of Todashev’s confession to a Waltham triple-murder he allegedly committed alongside Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.