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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Housing Market and Journalistic Integrity both in Decline

Housing Market and Journalistic Integrity both in Decline

"You can blame the media for the crappy real estate market." That's what a fellow Realtor told me the other day and, lately, I would have to agree. As a Realtor, I would love to see the newspapers print some good articles about the housing market, something with a positive spin. Instead, I saw first-hand how the Herald used information to spin a web of deceit.

Before I get into that I should tell you something about myself. Before becoming a Realtor, I worked as an Investigative Television Reporter. In 2004 I won Columbia University's ‘Alfred DuPont Award'. It is the television equivalent of the Pulitzer - which Columbia presents to print journalists. I've also won many other National Awards including Emmys, Edward R. Murrows, Investigative Reporters & Editors, Associated Press, etc. I'm not trying to brag, I only want to point out that I thoroughly understand how the news business works. I can write a ‘juicy' story but I also believe journalism must be factual, ethical and balanced.

That's why I was so disappointed to read the front page article in the Miami Herald on Sunday March 9th. The story was written by reporter Jenny Staletovich, whom I had helped with a previous real estate article. When she contacted me earlier this year to ask if I would help her compile this new story I said I would.

This particular article profiled South Floridians who were renting because they were too afraid to purchase a home in the current market. Jenny interviewed me on January 20th. I also provided her with two of the people profiled in the report including my current tenants; Kellie and Madsen Marcellus. The Marcellus' are both attorneys at the Miami-Dade public defenders office and, at the time, they were renting my home in Miami Shores. The story included the couple's photo and a caption stating "Kellie and Madsen Marcellus are too anxious about the risk of price declines to buy a home. The family continues to rent in Miami Shores."

Problem is, when the story ran the Marcellus' were already packing their bags to move into the new home they purchased in Pembroke Pines. If the reporter had called them for an update she should have known this...but why let facts get in the way of a good story?

The article also states "Owners who can't sell have become unintended landlords, desperate to bring in money to cover their mortgage payments."

In my case that's not true. I purchased my home as an investment. I decided to sell it last year and soon received two offers close to the asking price. I later decided to keep the home knowing the value would eventually increase. I rented it to the Marcellus' and I'm not one of those desperate and "unintended landlords".

I also gave Jenny some pros and cons of buying in this market. Some of the pros include: Prices and Mortgage Rates are the lowest in years and the recent tax amendment provides doubled Homestead Exemptions and a portability provision.

None of that information was included in the report, there wasn't even one positive statement from anyone.

The day after the report I e-mailed Jenny to ask what happened. She replied, "I'm sorry. You wouldn't believe how many versions that story went through. It was almost twice as long when I turned it in. You were in it, but it was totally impenetrable."

So Jenny basically said the information was cut out during the editing process. I don't think it's ethical for Journalists and Editors to manipulate content in order to support a negative slant.

Unhappy with Jenny's reply I immediately wrote a letter to the Editor voicing my concerns. A few days later, n March 14th , I was contacted by Nancy Ancrum, another reporter for the Herald. She said the paper would print my letter that week if I ‘trimmed' it down from 850 words to around 400. I did this and sent it right back to her. Several days passed and my letter never ran. I called Nancy several times and, on March 20th , Business Editor Lisa Gibbs contacted me. Lisa said they were also alarmed to find out the Marcellus' had purchased a home. Lisa said, "In our fact-checking process, Jenny did contact the couple right before the article ran to confirm all the details and they sadly declined to tell us of their news. They told Jenny later that they were afraid to jinx the transaction since they hadn't yet closed."

I then called the Marcellus' to ask whether this was true. They said Jenny did contact them prior to the report but it was well before they had closed on their home and they claimed Jenny only asked if they were still renting my home. They also stated they never told Jenny they were afraid to 'jinx' their chances of buying the home. Could these public defenders have lied to the reporter? I don't know. Maybe Jenny didn't press them hard enough for specific details. The bottom line is that the report contained false information and if it had been reported correctly, the entire focus and tone would have been different and less supportive of the banner headline.

Lisa Gibbs also responded to my concern that I was not one of those desperate and ‘unintended Landlords'. She writes, "that statement was certainly not meant to describe you, it was part of a section that set out to describe in general terms various characteristics of the current real estate landscape."

I told Lisa I knew this statement wasn't directed at me - how could it? I wasn't even included in the article. My point is that two of my clients were featured in the report focusing on homeowners and their tenants. I was the homeowner of the tenants profiled in the story. My particular situation obviously didn't support the angle of the report and wasn't included - just another example of how the Herald purposely omitted certain facts. I think the Herald spent more time refuting my letter than they did investigating their initial report. I know it's difficult for journalists to admit they're wrong.

When I was an Investigative Reporter in Tampa, I aired a report criticizing the City Attorney and Mayor. The next day the Attorney called my News Director to say we had gotten our facts wrong and he demanded a retraction. I reviewed my information and found a couple of my facts were indeed wrong even though the majority of the report was accurate. My report contained complicated financial and legal documents and I also rushed it to air without triple checking all of the details. My News Director made me do another report retracting the story and I had to be "on-camera" each time I corrected a mis-stated fact. I was so embarrassed but I learned something very important; one wrong fact compromises the integrity of the entire report.

Compiling a good report is like constructing a house. A reporter begins with facts to build a solid foundation. Reporters then shop around for the materials they need to support a certain angle or focus but their report should always contain an opposing viewpoint. This maintains a sense of balance and keeps the structure of the report from leaning too far to one side.

I don't watch local television news anymore but I do read the newspapers. I expect them to be unbiased and neutral. If the Miami Herald had simply printed my letter I would not have written this one. Maybe the Herald is more concerned with selling papers than getting it right, after all, scare tactics & sexy headlines sell. It's funny, the BBT is both a free newspaper and believes in a ‘free press'...what a concept!

In the newsbiz they say "If it bleeds it leads" and the housing market certainly needs a Band-Aid. What it doesn't need is another sucker punch from the local media. One negative report can impact consumer behavior. As long as sensational headlines sell many homes will not.

I'm sure the Marcellus' enjoyed being featured in the newspaper and they probably saved the article for their scrapbook. Maybe they had some extra copies and used them as packing material for the move....wouldn't that be ironic?

Investigative Reporter Mike Mason

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