Pay more, get less, be happy

Taxes and fees are rising while services are declining, dwindling and diminishing.  Is this a good deal for any of us?  Some one will have to explain this to me as if I am a child because while I understand what is happening, and what seems inevitable, I am at a loss to comprehend how some people are trying to spin this as a positive thing in our lives?

Recently Colorado Springs announced it might turn off one-third of all its street lights to save money.  I guess this is the same logic that Toyota used in determining it would be less costly to hide defects in lieu of announcing a recall, with all that inevitable negative  publicity and notoriety.  I think that’s called calculated risk – what a few law suits would cost when weighed against the harsh negative glare.

So Colorado Springs may darken some lights… I guess the first fender bender or trip and fall will be less expensive than providing the public with the amount of light that was once determined to be in the public good.

There was an article recently in The New York Times that subway ridership was down but the cost of running the trains was rising, so the transit agency spokesmen explained fewer riders will have to pay higher fares for the privilege of using the service.  And there was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that Bay Area transit agencies were so bloated with executive’s high salaries that they will never have sufficient ridership to pay that burden.  Instead they are cutting routes and decreasing service frequency, presumably creating a hardship for the riders, but no where in the article was there any indication the agencies were grappling with the inherent, underlying problem.

I guess their calculated risk is that no one will come to the transit agency offices with the intent of storming the gates and tar and feathering executives and those responsible.

We lost a lot when tar and feathering went out of style… just imagine…

Look – I admit I do not pretend to have the answer.  I see all this as a conundrum.  I see the coverage of these stories as little illustrations if fruitless dialogue.  The public certainly and justifiably feels screwed just as agencies and governments retreat behind barricades and bromides offering defensive assertions that mega salaries are required to assure they have best and brightest management.  The best and brightest – and this is what they have given us?  Yet another conundrum.
The over arching system feels rotted.  The supporting assumptions and beliefs seem brittle and broken.   Let’s call it for what it is – the system is broken and until those in charge step up and admit the changes required are more difficult (and personal) than simply raising taxes and fees while cutting services we will have little meaningful resolution.

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Why do the words “Trust” and “News” in the same sentence seem unbelievable to the audience?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980’s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?

BP’s approach to the oil spill crisis – corporate sacrifce! Let’s toss our friends into the sea.

There’s an established rule in crisis communications that you round-up your allies and stand together — sink or swim, but both human or corporate  sacrifice is frowned upon as poor sportsmanship.

That rule was cast aside Monday by BP CEO Tony Hayward who threw his Gulf of Mexico drilling vendor Transocean Ltd. directly into the deep water saying, “The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people, their processors.”

Oh Mr. Hayward?  How do you feel about companies or people you really dislike?  In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Mr. Hayward went on to point out that Transocean owned the giant Deepwater Horizon platform and that BP was merely a lessee.  While accepting the burden of paying for clean up costs one has to wonder what Hayward was thinking?  Why was he sitting on national television dissing what until last week was considered a valued partner to BP’s global operations?

So much for loyalty.  So much for corporate responsibility.  Hayward could be laying the framework for a legal defense to put as much of the blame, the harsh light of public recrimination and ultimately the public memory onto the shoulders of his Swiss partner Transocean.  To this observer it appears a flimsy and transparent attempt to add to the slimy oil slick also known as the ever-expanding blame game.

Kudos to Mr. Hayward – he appeared sincere and forthright.  He was well-trained and prepared.  But his statements left real doubt as to the corporate courage and conviction of BP… and I bet the blame will be shared by many more before the well or this story is capped.

Numbers Do Matter

News has become a playground for worsts and mosts and hyperbole.  News and TV generally from cable shows to even entertainment programs like Dr. Phil make everything black and white, regardless that we live our lives for the most part in the nuance of gray.  It’s not enough to be sad or sick, we want the people we see, read and hear about (and their stories) to be at death’s door.

Reporting numbers and speaking with experts is always challenging, after all, they, in theory, have knowledge that generalists and most journalists do not possess, but why is it that journalists so frequently fail to challenge their hyperbole?

During the weekend’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill one so-called expert from the Sierra Club spoke to NBC News with great emotion and absolute conviction that the spill was far larger than had previously been reported.  He gushed on suggesting the spill could in fact be 50,000 gallons, even 100,000 gallons a day!  Perhaps true, but he didn’t know, and he wasn’t challenged by the reporter who blithely accepted the assertion and proceeded on in the narration.  That’s a significant number and a wide discrepancy of perhaps up to 100%.  It’s OK not to know; it is OK to even speculate, but how about some context or qualification before numbers – any numbers – become misunderstood and the story misreported?

Geraldo (Rivera) on FOX News did it too, breathlessly interviewing guests from a busy Times Square intersection about what could of happened had the car bomb detonated.  Note the verb: could.  One guest, obviously pumped by the opportunity to appear on TV, burst forth that had a dirty bomb gone off “Times Square would be contaminated for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”  Geraldo and the other guests solemnly but enthusiastically nodded approvingly accepting this assertion as sober evidence of absolute danger and impact.  The fact that the Times Square bomb was not dirty was never challenged while again, just speculating with the numbers between 50 and 100 leaves significant room for debate and discussion.

Speaking of numbers and expert’s assertions, look back at coverage from the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.  When covering that we heard experts say that the ocean and islands would remain scorched earth and that nothing would ever grow on those shores or under those waters again.  The reality, within 6 months nature started to return.

The point is simple, but it is beyond bad news sells.  Yes it does… and that’s news.  If you want just the good news you should confine yourself, for the most part, to the sports section, although even that has become more difficult in recent years due to scandals and bad behavior.

It is frustrating that contemporary reporting on the oil spill requires reporters to seek out experts who are prompted to say the sea is forever doomed and all creatures will inevitably die, choked by oil and cloaked in a gooey slime unlike any we have ever seen before.  The car bomb isn’t allowed to be a close call but becomes an incident that would surely have resulted in thousands of casualties and a forever blackened a New York landmark.

Each sentence is mired in half-truths and certainly assumptions run amok.  As a journalist I bristle at what I consider to be reckless reporting that appears to hype the story, feed the hysteria, and ultimately deceive the audience.  There are so many other examples – certainly politics and it doesn’t matter whether you favor the left or the right, the administration or the opposition, health care reform or tea parties – my point is that reporters who use numbers and hyperbole unchallenged and unqualified do not serve the public interest, do not serve their profession well, and do more harm to the public discourse.

Green bugs

It’s Earth Day and once again TV networks and stations have dyed their little identifying logos, they’re called ‘bugs’, as green as St. Patrick himself.

I know, I know… this is good for reminding the audience about the importance of the global environment, our fragile island home: earth, and it symbolizes their corporate commitment to any and everything environmentally responsible.  Of course.

It just seems to be very feeble and forgive me if I suggest a tad self righteous for global conglomerates who are engaged in a range of businesses to showcase their green-ness with a bug as if that’s all that matters to the audience.

For those networks who are committed to special environmental coverage or news series this week, a tip of the hat.  May your ratings blossom.  For those networks who rely principally if not entirely on re-runs and produce nothing new, or green, may your ratings wilt on the vine.

Ethics & journalism

…our paramount responsibility… is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis. Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us. We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”

Many will read that and scoff.  Ethics and journalism; in the same sentence?  In the contemporary era of shout out news where far too often the loudest or most popular voice predominates, where corporate content can be packaged to appear as bona fide news, where a TV anchor’s personal appearances can be billed to be as important as the event they are ostensibly covering… are ethics being practiced?  Are ethics important or are they an inconvenience?

It is too facile to decry the apparent dearth, some might say death, of ethics today, but let’s not wring our hands and harken back to a bygone era when ‘things were different’ as if that is some balm for our current condition.  Let’s not just give up muttering it used to be different, but, heck, it is what it is today.

It does seem more dire as business decisions dictate, even now dominate, decisions at news organizations globally.  Advertorials, paid content masquerading as original reportage, even this week’s decision by the Gannett newspaper chain to allow a sports team to report on itself Reporter and Players Wearing Same Colors raise serious questions about independence, unbiased news and trustworthiness.

I was teaching ethics in journalism this week to graduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco;  it’s an important component in my writing for multimedia class, and I found that I was reminding myself and then reading aloud these words written by former CBS News President Richard (Dick) Salant.  This is from his preface to the CBS News Standards published in April, 1976.

He makes several salient points… including recognizing the difference between news & entertainment, the responsibility of news professionals to exercise their judgment and not be swayed by polls or audience opinions, and an obligation to report the news as it is, not as we want it to be.  I don’t normally quote whole paragraphs, but this is an exception.

“One (of his personal convictions) is the overriding importance to our form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line–sharp perhaps to the point of eccentricity–between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which is dealing in fiction and drama.  Because it all comes out sequentially on the same point of the dial and on the same tube, and because, then, there are no pages to be turned or column lines to be drawn in our journalistic matrix, it is particularly important that we recognize that we are not in show business and should not use any of the dramatic licenses, the “fiction-which-represents-truth’ rationales, or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and fiction may, and do, properly use.  This may make us a little less interesting to some–but that is the price we pay for dealing with fact and truth, which may often be duller–and with more loose ends–than fiction and drama.

Second it is my strong feeling that our news judgments must turn on the best professional judgments that we can come to on what is important, rather than what is merely interesting.  Again, our function, then, contrasts sharply with the rest of the broadcast schedule which surrounds us, and, indeed, which supports us.  In general, to the extent that radio and television are mass media of entertainment, it is entirely proper to give most of the people what most of them want most of the time.  But we in broadcast journalism cannot, should not, and will not base our judgments on what we think the viewers and listeners are “most interested” in, or hinge our news judgment and our news treatment on our guesses (or somebody else’s surveys) as to what news the people want to hear or see, and in what form.  The judgments must be professional news judgments–nothing more, nothing less.

A corollary of this basic principle is that if we are to provide what is important for people to know, we must not shrink from reporting what is newsworthy even though there are no pretty or dramatic pictures to go with it.  There is nothing wrong with a talking head–provided the head has something to say and says it well.  We must not be carried away by the cliche, which, like almost all cliches, is only sometimes true, that a picture is worth a thousand words.  It may be and it may not be.  A few well-chosen, well-written, and, above all, thoughtful, words may often be worth a thousand pictures.  The most exciting thing in the field of information is an idea.

And, finally, this is as good a place as any to remind ourselves that our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis.  Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us.  We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”
Now that does seem to be fair and balanced.  Dick Salant was a lawyer and broadcast manager whose judgments were thoughtful and worthy of being read and heard 34 years after he wrote them.  He could hardly have been prescient to the economic conditions that affect the news business today, but he was aware of the dangers that stem from blurred lines and indiscriminate, reckless or less-than-thoughtful reporting, as well as the need to educate the craftsmen and women to appreciate the noble profession and responsibility to our audiences.

So ethics in (and) journalism?  Yes.  It must be taught, nurtured, amended and refined.

I believe Mr. Salant’s last point is the most important — audience’s must have the information they need to make informed judgments presented without our opinion, slant, bias, preference and prejudice.

I enjoyed reading this to my students.  It seemed worth sharing with you.