Why does the public think media misbehavior is new? Or is the media to blame?

Lauren McGaughy has written a thoughtful story in the Dallas Morning News about how the media’s onslaught on a story can be as traumatizing as the tragedy they’re covering.

A town, even a neighborhood is transformed by a media scrum, and as a consequence the media often gets a black eye in the aftermath.

Sure stories like this are often true, or have an element of truth to them. More true now by electronic media than even 30 years ago when there were just 3 networks and a handful of local affiliates, contrasted now to 5 major English language networks (6 if you include the Associate Press’ TV service), 2 Spanish language domestic networks, and literally scores of stations reporting in multiple languages to a global audience.

Plus radio… plus wire services… plus newspapers.

It is easy to criticize all this. The din of the media is overwhelming. The press of the pack is as unrelenting as their deadlines.

Live shots, exclusives, TV bookers clicking along the sidewalks searching for and enticing victims and their families with free trips to New York to sit on the set of morning talk shows where anchors can profess their emotion and sorrow, sometimes even offered on behalf of “all of us” in TV land.

We do live in an era where the technology has altered the way stories are covered. What used to be a more measured, even methodical pace has been transformed into an unimaginable pressure cooker of competition for the infamous and unrelenting 24/7 news cycle.

The audience expects, partly because we in the media have created this expectation, that entire stories from crime to investigation to resolution can be completed in a day, or perhaps as quickly as a 48 minute episode of Law and Order.

But Ms. McGaughy, criticism of the media is not new. The earliest reference to press-misbehavior (that I can remember) stems from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. But in this single graph it reminds us that we should keep check on our behavior with an eye to the larger picture of life.

“Bunch of crazy buttinskies with dandruff on their shoulders and holes in their
pants.
Peeking through keyholes, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them
what they think about Aimee Semple McPherson.
Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park.
And for what?
So a million shop girls and motormen’s wives can get their jollies.
And the next day, somebody wraps the front page around a dead mackerel.”

The people of Sutherland Springs certainly did not ask for the spotlight on their community. They deserved to be treated fairly and professionally, their stories shared but their grief not exploited.

Ethics classes and discussions can prepare this intellectually, but some of that seems to be bent and challenged in real world applications. We’d like to see all this in Manichean terms but we live out lives in the nuance of grey, and can only do our best to do it well in every respect.

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Misplaced Priorities – More Engagement Is Not a Substitute for Content

The announcement that The New York Times and Washington Post will cooperate on a new platform to manager reader’s comments is no doubt a leap forward in building opinion sharing and engagement. I suggest the $3.9m price tag paid for with money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation however, going to do very little to advance knowledge or – as it is promoted – advance innovative journalism.

Ask any one what they think and no doubt they will be happy to tell you whether they have expertise or not or first-hand knowledge. Talk radio demonstrates this hour after hour. We have become a nation of people who want to share opinions before the full scope of a story has been reported. Frank Bruni wrote this. “We no longer have news. We have springboards for commentary. We have cues for Tweets. Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth — the knowable, verifiable truth — is left in the dust.

Here’s the point – and no, this isn’ t a tome on the need to develop alternative funding models for contemporary journalism although that is a worthy subject for future consideration. The point is simple — once upon a time and not that long ago, major global media entities paid reporters to work and live all over the world in bureaus and to report on the news and business and politics and personalities and comings and goings that went on in those locales. That investment in human intelligence and resources paid dividends in the reportage, the understanding, the depth and context of what was happening. That investment helped to assure that there would be multiple reports – with differing views and yes, sometimes opinions, but it was all first-hand knowledge. That investment helped assure that individuals anywhere in the world could see and hear and read professionally acquired news. I embrace citizen journalism. I was among the very first to introduce it along with my colleague Mitch Ratcliffe in an ill-fated and under funded experiment called correspondents.org more long before it became ‘fashionable.’ But citizen journalism is not enough by itself. And asking for readers/viewers comments – even managing them superbly – is insufficient too.

So there goes almost $4m to build a platform to aggregate, manage and distribute the thoughts of the average man… the common Joe… the guy on the street who can’t wait to tell us what he thinks… but do I care? Do you? Really? Again quoting Frank Bruni, “Grandstanding is booming as traditional news gathering struggles to survive: It’s more easily summoned, more cheaply produced. It doesn’t require opening bureaus around the country or picking up correspondents’ travel expenses or paying them for weeks on end just to dig. So it fills publications, websites and television airtime the way noodles stretch out a casserole, until we’re looking at a media meal that’s almost all Hamburger Helper and no beef.”

We can bemoan this absence of beef but we’re not investing in making a difference.

Paid Media? Media for Sale? A Federal court judge wants to know more in the Google-Oracle Suit

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 .

Giving Up is Not the Answer

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.

JAMES R. SIMMONS Jr.

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? 

Sincerely,

Peter Shaplen

Three Little Pigs and a Big Bad Wolf

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.

MIA in Iowa campaign coverage… the voices of Iowans!

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?

Social Media Gone Vile

Early Friday the profession of the media lost one of it’s finest craftsman when former ABC and CBS correspondent Richard Threlkeld was killed in a traffic accident on Long Island, New York. The local paper Newsday filed a picture along with their story Richard Threlkeld, former CBS newsman killed in crash and that has unleased a cascade of comments taking issue with bumper stickers on Threlkeld’s car – labeling him part of the ‘liberal”, “biased”, an “Obama supporter” and member of the “lametsream” media. Inaccurate since the title of the article described Threlkeld as a ‘former” newsman… no longer in the profession and free to advocate for any position he might choose.

But the question that is more appalling, and frightening, is what is it – even in death – that makes people feel that social media is a forum for invective — even it seems about some one they don’t know personally? What is it about the anger that seems to exist, just simmering at the surface of too many people’s daily lives? What did happen to all those cries for greater civility following the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gifford just a year ago.

Or, just as challenging, what is it about the media that seems to have raised such hatred, distrust and anger among some consumers? Obviously those who made these insulting and personal remarks are consumers of media – they read the Newsday article and then felt perfectly OK to make judgments about the victim.

The ability to make comments is of course protected free speech. But the anger, the rush to judgment, the inappropriateness of the timing of these comments gives me pause.