WGCL showed some enterprise and got a nice scoop earlier this month when Adam Murphy produced a story on metro Atlanta’s only toll road, Georgia 400. The story basically said this: Although tolls are producing many times the revenue needed to pay the road’s 18 year old construction bonds, the state intends to continue to keep raking in the surplus change until 2011.
Once the bond is paid off, the state is obliged to stop collecting the toll. The implication is that the state is stalling paying off the bond so that it can keep milking the cash cow, fifty cents at a time.
“My goal is to find out why the state continues to collect your money,” says Murphy at the start of one of several follow-up pieces. In the last week, Murphy and WGCL have become unflinching advocates for the viewpoint that the continued collection of the toll is a ripoff. The station has even started an online petition to “take down Ga. 400 tolls.” And it has a link on its web site to contact members of the Georgia Tollway board, several of whom are dodging WGCL’s effort to ask why the toll continues to be collected.
As the news business evolves, WGCL is trying to evolve with it. In journalism schools, news is taught as the art of detachment and objectivity. But advocacy has been rampant at Fox News for many years. Newspapers and pamphlets have advocated certain viewpoints on stories since the invention of the printing press. In fact, audiences often find advocacy where none exists and are increasingly suspicious when newsfolk plead that they deliver balance.
Likewise, investigative reporters all-but advocate viewpoints (Shouldn’t this loophole be closed? Shouldn’t this bad guy be punished? Shouldn’t the city stop overcharging water customers? Shouldn’t this state government toilet stop wasting hot water?) So WGCL is on firm ground here.
But the petition carries its advocacy to another level. On one hand, it drives interested viewers to WGCL’s website, always an important goal. On the other, it removes any pretense of objectivity. The station is still a fact-finder, but in the same way that a plaintiff’s lawyer is a fact-finder: With the goal of strengthening a particular viewpoint. The dismissal of its own objectivity is a perilous strategy in a quest to build viewership. Even if it’s on a story-by-story basis.
Curiously, WGCL’s petition only has about two hundred signatures on it as of Monday afternoon.