When KTLA TV News in Los Angeles discovered itself in the uncomfortable position of covering a vigil when the crowd turned its anger on the media, the station made that the foal point of its story. Was this necessary? Or hype? Is the main story that there was a shooting followed by an autopsy followed by a predominantly peaceful vigil, or was the story that a single loud-mouth protestor took objection to the cameras?
See for yourself. KTLA News opted to lead with the ‘threats’ in its anchor lead, its reporter’s on camera toss, and in the opening sequence of the video itself. A trifecta of self-indulgent ‘we are the the story.’
Only then – after that non-event was exhausted – did the story go on to cover what was a peaceful expression of the community’s sadness.

Maybe at worst this is poor judgment and self indulgent – the consequence of emotion running rampant over judicious news judgment. But – where were the elders of the news department? Where were those with more experience to know that the real story was not about the media, and never was, nor should it ever be. As witnesses to an event we are not supposed to become as important as the event itself. And when, for instance, does a stupid person’s threat become more important than the event itself?

The station may counter that the community’s rage was a part of the story… really? One loud-mouthed person now represents the entire community? It just seems lame to suggest that even as a supposed defense for poor news judgment. Just saying.

When networks say they are “monitoring” international news there is a significant difference from the era when they covered it.

Monitoring means saving money and human resources by remaining in London and piggybacking on all other international news sources.  Monitoring means reading the wires – AP, AFP, Reuters among others, and aggregating as many mutually agreed facts as possible while ‘packaging’ that information in to unilateral reporting.  What’s worse is then the reporter says, “We have learned…” Oh yes?  Learned from who?

Reporting and coverage once meant doing one’s own work – asking questions – using one’s 5 senses – following leads and owning the story as best one could.  Covering any story is about “learning more”… but now, as a verb, it is often a cheap substitute for real work.

Coverage meant something — it meant an investment of time, money, responsibility and staff.  Monitoring a story is the lazy approach to news gathering.  It is the way news is covered today.  It is the sad result of cost cutting for a product that many people don’t seem to value… the news.

While we profess to know more than ever before, and we do have greater access to timely news sources than ever before, US audiences receive fewer and fewer actual reports from network correspondents and more ‘monitored’ and ‘repackaged” news.  It just feels less and less honest.

Today’s decision by a Federal court judge ordering Oracle and Google to disclose who they paid to write about their “JAVA trial” poses interesting questions about corporate media management — who pays for what to be written and what extent does that have on influence within the industry?
What would you expect that answer to be?

All Things D’s filing  Judge Orders Google and Oracle to Disclose Who They Paid to Write About Java Trial has the story quoting “Judge William Alsup, who presided over the case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, wrote in his order that he’s “concerned that the parties and/or counsel herein may have retained or paid print or Internet authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers who have and/or may publish comments on the issues in this case.”
We’ve seen purchased coverage before in terms of trade press, I’m thinking especially of the sychophants who write gushingly about the latest Apple release and who (masquerading as reporters) would leap to their feet to applaud Steve Jobs.  Other companies (Cisco’s news site) commissions articles by well-known and reputable authors — though one might assume they are not (often) going to either write nor would Cisco (or others likely) post unflattering comments, reviews, analysis or criticisms.  This is coverage purchased to put forth the issue in the most flattering light possible under the circumstances.  
It is corporate communications imitating news.  It’s a lot like Sorkin’s The Newsroom imitating real news rooms.

BP Oil was insidious in the way it aggregated media coverage during the gulf oil spill while inserting reports from its own commissioned reporters…. it did make a disclaimer but only in the tiniest of print.  It was clever – in the midst of critical news it seemed unexpected to read glowing accounts of the importance of big oil to the community and their years of service and commitment to the economy and residents.
I don’t argue that this is happening – I find it refreshing that a federal judge is concerned enough to demand a review into how pervasive it may have been during his trial.
I find Judge Alsup’s order compelling. His full order can be found here .

A letter appearing in today’s NY Times prompts my response – Good Riddance.
The letter:
Why I Decided Against a Career in Journalism
To the Editor:

Re “Journalism’s Misdeeds Get a Glance in the Mirror,” by David Carr (The Media Equation column, July 30):
After holding top positions on my college newspaper for the last three years, I recently decided not to pursue a career in journalism. Coincidentally, Mr. Carr’s examination of the public’s lost confidence in the news media shares some of my rationale.
While he rightly criticizes the journalists in the phone-hacking scandal, he explains that they succumbed to the pressures of cutthroat competition and ruthless profit motives.
In many ways, these journalists reacted to the demands of the consumers of their reporting: a public infatuated with the private lives of celebrities and the sordid details of their gossip, infidelities and failings. Readers, too, share some culpability for driving reporters down such a contemptible path, through their continued subscriptions and consumption of those dubious tabloids.
Perhaps when the media replace supplying the guilty pleasures of their readers with the ethical pursuit of the truth, then journalism will be the right field for me.


I offer this response:

Dear Mr. Simmons,
I wish you well in whatever endeavor you choose and congratulate you on your decision not to pursue a career in journalism.  Obviously you dont have the fire-in-the-belly to really succeed in this field which will require creativity, stamina, perseverance, and commitment.  Forgive me, but as someone who has worked and succeeded for more than 40 years as a journalist I’d conclude from your letter that you dont seem to have the gumption.
Yes there are admittedly many troubling things about our field – corporate ownership, a troubling economy, business models which are in flux.  Sure we’re making mistakes – we tend to see things too often in terms of scorecards – who’s leading, what’s trending, what’s the latest (even when there is little that’s new or changed).  Too often it seems we hype rather than just report.  All true.
We reduce even the more complicate social issues to short and often too simple vignettes, as if that does justice to the issue.  Network news stories are pitifully abbreviated; print lines and newspaper sections are often embarrassingly thin, compared to what many of us remember only a few years ago.  
New models of news, including many of the services aimed at college-aged students such as yourself are thin on substance and too-hip-for-their-own good.  New programs that feature scandal and celebrity over substance are not what I find much favor with — but trends come and go and change is always part of the equation.  Some times it requires more patience as change – including audience’s tastes – adapt.  Yes, there have been mistakes – and there are also corrections.  I suppose if you want to toss blame maybe we ought to include an education system that seems content not to teach civics or citizenship much less create an awareness or sufficient appreciation of the integral role we should responsibly play in society.
Yes Mr. Simmons there is much that is wrong but if you don’t have the stomach to be part of the solution then I am glad that you have decided to pursue a career elsewhere.  To me Sir it is better that you have been culled from the pack lest readers/audiences, including me, become saddled by your bemoaning and wailing.
Perhaps you might follow a career in  politics?  Or business? Surely there is nothing too challenging or wrong about those fields, or is there? 


Peter Shaplen

Approval for Quotes – Shameful for Journalists and Bad for the Audience

The ongoing debate about submitting quotes for approval is just the latest example of the failure of contemporary American journalism.  In the NYTimes (7.31.12) is a letter to the editor from a former government spokesperson defending the process in order to assure accuracy.  What ever was wrong with the old system where interviews were recorded and quotes taken in context from the public record?  The piece Approval for Quotes by Chris Stenrud, a former spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, is a travesty to journalists.  Plain and simple.  Instead of assuring accuracy it guarantees that nothing is ever reported accurately but is instead passed through a filter of what the organization, company, candidate wanted to spin, manufacture or promote.

This is a bad practice.  It violates the good practice of journalists; it sacrifices content and editing to those who we are supposed to cover and report as first-hand witnesses to history; it cheapens the end product and gives the audience little reason to believe they are reading an independent press.

The Guardian (UK) has an interesting take on the fable of Three Little Pigs and how it might be covered in contemporary media. (Slow video window – wait for it to open!)

News – social media input – citizen journalism, blogs, commentators and critics all swarming – do they make for better coverage or a muddle?
In any case, it’s a short video worth more discussion.

The din of the pundits and panelists drowned out the voices of the Iowans at their caucus. Across the dial last night the networks from the big three, the cablers, even those outlying at the far reaches of the spectrum (Current TV) all relied on their experts to talk about the Iowa caucus instead of letting the natural sound play out… the drama play on.
The political coverage resembled a sports broadcast with play-by-play announcers vying for mic time with their color counterparts. It seemed to be a race for who was more clever, who had a better turn of phrase, who was more biting and quote-worthy instead of hearing the direct conversations that stemmed from the caucus. Sure that would have been b-o-r-i-n-g to network executives but it might have been more informative or illustrative of what the voters thought, instead of analysts assuring us what they thought the voters were thinking!

The coverage of the election s more about the commentators than even the politicians. Until we get to a point where we are being offered substantive sound bites in long form – more than 3 and 4 seconds of sound snippets, we are not being truly served by the media investing so much time, effort, energy and resources.

Things seem out of sorts. We have more channels and platforms of news coverage than ever before but they seem to be carbon copies of one another – short blips of sound and long form analysis of what views they wish to espouse. It just seems to be more about what the media thinks – what the media knows – than the reaction of prospective voters… how did they hear the candidates? What did they think of the positions, what did they feel, what impacted them?

With so many choices about coverage why does it seem that we have so few options as viewers?


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