Why does it matter for a community to have a variety of journalistic voices? We could all point to any number of examples. But the example I want to discuss here is a story about brain cancer among Pratt & Whitney employees in Greater New Haven.
On June 3, researchers who conducted a $12 million study paid for by Pratt & Whitney reported they had found no conclusive evidence that employees had been diagnosed with brain cancer at rates high enough to be statistically significant in comparison to the general population.
The next day, the New Haven Register published an article by Ann DeMatteo under the headline “No cancer link found at P&W, but slight ‘excess’ seen at North Haven plant.” DeMatteo’s lede:
Researchers say that except for a few cases in the former Pratt & Whitney Aircraft plant in North Haven, the amount of brain cancer among Pratt employees is no different from or lower than the general population.
Later that day, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site, posted a story by Carole Bass that took an entirely different angle, as you can tell from the headline: “Despite Hype, Pratt Study Shows Cancer Increase.” Her lede:
Pratt & Whitney Aircraft got its message out today, burying evidence of higher cancer rates at a local factory.
Bass criticizes the Register and the Hartford Courant for essentially adopting P&W’s spin, and lays out an argument that though there is still much to be learned, there may well indeed be a link between workplace exposure — especially at a former jet-engine plant in North Haven — and higher-than-normal rates of brain cancer.
Among other things, we learn from Bass’ story that a “blue haze” of coolant mist hung over the workplace in North Haven. As someone who covered the Woburn leukemia story in the 1980s, I can tell you that links between coolants and cancer have long been suspected, even if there is no definitive proof. (Odd fact: Paul Bass and Jonathan Harr, the author of “A Civil Action,” an award-winning book about the Woburn case, worked together at one time. Harr and I covered the Woburn case together.)
At this point I should tell you that I was Carole and Paul Bass’ dinner guest on June 3, as I was in New Haven for my ongoing research on the Independent and other community news sites. Paul is the Independent’s founder and editor. Carole told me that evening that she’d been covering the P&W story for some years, and was planning to write about the new report.
Both the Register and the Independent published accurate stories. The Register’s story hews strictly to the traditional rules of objectivity. The Independent’s adds analysis, perspective (I was interested to learn of the possible role of something called the “healthy-worker effect,”) and some opinion, along with solid reporting.
(Bass’ story was later published in the New Haven Advocate, an alternative weekly where both Basses have worked in the past.)
Which is more useful? Personally, I’d opt for analysis and perspective over coverage of a meeting. But I think the community was well-served by having both kinds of stories.