If journalists don’t pay attention, who will?

Journalists are rightly called watchdogs of government, the rich and the powerful. They needn’t be the only source of investigative efforts, but their profession lends itself to the task.

However, with slashed budgets and an emphasis on providing what the reader wants (or, more often, what we think the reader wants), much of the watchdog journalism, the muckraking, has gone by the wayside or become a niche, partisan field.

One such area where these efforts are needed is new legislation. Whether it’s the Patriot Act, the federal health care reform, or a myriad of omnibus or budget bills at the local, state and federal level, every year important and influential legislation is passed without most of those voting on it knowing the half of what it contains. It’s easy to assume that if they don’t know the content, they won’t know the implications, explicit or unintended. Imagine how the public can feel.

Last week, while editing a summary of an education article at my job, I noticed this quote:

Longtime board member Vincent Capuana said he was surprised that the district will no longer provide free meals to kids [owing more than $50] — even though he voted to approve the resolution.
“I got to start reading these damn policies,” Capuana said. “I didn’t know about the new policy. I didn’t read the whole thing.”

The matter — a school district barring students who are more than $50 in arrears from receiving school lunches without paying — affects many families and many children who may have no direct role in being behind on lunch payments. But the matter of a board member voting on a policy he didn’t read or understand is only mentioned 159 words into the story, and never brought up again.

How can this be? Surely, if we’re giving a pass to this sort of legislative behavior without even demanding an excuse, can we really be surprised when such actions — or inaction — continues to happen? If you’re a copy editor, mention these things. You’ll surely be ignored some of the time, but you’ll at least temporarily break the cycle of indifference.