Sunday, December 9, 2007

Media madness

Way back when, I studied journalism at Ohio State University. In those days one of the many, many rules drilled into our heads was to keep our opinions, beliefs and personal comments out of the story. It was a good rule, but apparently it has been buried under an avalanche of "new" journalism.

I was reminded of this just recently as I watched news reports flowing out of Miami about the death of Washington Redskins defensive star Sean Taylor. Like many people I had an interest in this story because he grew up in Miami, was an amazing player at the University of Miami and because as a pro he was playing for the team I grew up with in Washington. His girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, grew up on Key Biscayne where I now live. Her dad, Rene Garcia, and uncle, actor Andy Garcia, live here as well. It's a small island. Most of us have had our Andy "sightings." In fact, just this week, the driver who took me to the airport for a business trip, had driven Andy to Sean Taylor's funeral the day before. So, in some odd way, the story of Taylor's death was personal.

As I watched some of the coverage on TV, I was appalled to see what journalism has come to -- a sea of sensationalism and speculation. One of the worst was an interview by CNN's Rick Sanchez. A product of Miami's most sensationalistic news operation, Sanchez has taken his brand of journalism to a national network. First, he "interviewed" another CNN reporter on the scene in Miami, discussing his own experiences covering the city's crime. Then in what purported to be an interview with Taylor's friend and fellow player, Clinton Portis, he asked the kind of challenging, antagonistic questions best reserved for the witness stand or maybe 60 Minutes. Portis wasn't once allowed to complete an answer, or at least he wasn't during the few minutes before I switched stations in total disgust. Not that Portis was shy about trying to answer and put Sanchez right back in his place, but this wasn't the time or situation for this kind of reporting.

Often, the worst instances of this kind of "journalism" occur during breaking news, when endless amounts of airtime must be filled whether there's one shred of solid information of not. Anchors interview reporters. Reporters try to grab an expert, who may or may not be on the scene, who may or may not have any actual knowledge about what's really going on, and the next thing you know "facts" are being spewed by people who don't have even one solid piece of credible information.

The reporting in the aftermath of Taylor's tragic murder in his own home wasn't the first time I've had cause to wonder what's happening with today's media. Every single time some TV station does one of its instant polls on a court case or some international incident, I cringe. Viewers aren't in the courtroom. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be reasonably well-informed don't know what evidence was presented in the kind of detail needed to make a judgment about whether a verdict was justified or not. This is just TV giving people a forum to speak out, whether they have one iota of factual information or not.

I've focused on TV here, because not only was this my "beat" when I covered the industry for newspapers in Ohio and Miami, this is also where some of the worst examples seem to take place. Reporters all too often become the story, rather than covering the story. It's little wonder that the public doesn't trust the media and, frankly, we're all worse off because we can't.

If you've seen TV reports that made you cringe or news stories that are more about the reporter's views than the facts of the event they're covering -- and I'm not refering to opinion page pieces, but front page stories -- tell us about them. Maybe if the media begins to understand that their vital role in society is being diminished because the lines between reporting and opinion are blurring, they'll go back to the old rule of journalism -- keeping themselves out of the story and letting the facts speak for themselves.

Sherryl Woods

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Blogger Dena Braves said...

It IS madness and I really appreciate your comments here. I voiced similar concerns on my blog awhile back which you might appreciate.

December 10, 2007 9:46 AM  
Blogger Sherryl said...

Dena, thanks for your comment. You hit on some really valid points in your blog, as well.

It's important for all of us to find sources of information that are reliable. The trick, however, seems to be figuring out what those are.

Depending on where I am during the year, I see one or two newspapers daily, plus myriad TV news shows and hope that once all the information is compiled in my overloaded brain, I actually have a fairly complete picture of the news. No way to know that, however, without being on the scene myself. News junkie that I am, I find that frustrating.

How is one to get a true picture of events with little time in an overcrowded life? Wish I had the answer to that, but your suggestions about NPR and PBS are good ones.

December 10, 2007 11:36 AM  
Blogger karende said...

A lifetime ago when the internet was in it’s relative infancy, and newsgroups were available through email browsers, and news feeds were available through ftp, I used to skim the breaking news around the world just to see what was going on. In those days, news was still news - the old ‘who, what, where, when, how’ with absolutely NO ‘And how did you feel when you saw your toddler run down/your husband shot/etc?’ How on earth do those so-called reporters THINK a person would feel? Totally in shock and devastated, naturally.

These days it seems that the emphasis is on feelings and opinions, and no one bothers with pesky little things like facts. Now it seems like it’s all media hype, the closest thing to actual breaking news is when there’s some kind of disaster and someone just happens to be in the right place at the right time to get pictures or videos. Though I do have to say that all the interviews after the flooding in western WA give an added punch to the announcement that FEMA doesn’t seem to plan on providing any help.

December 11, 2007 12:06 AM  
Blogger Sherryl said...

Karende, you brought up yet another of my pet peeves, asking the obvious question or the one you know with one hundred percent certainty will never be answered. One is directed toward the victim of a disaster, who is plainly distraught. The other toward military officials, for example, who are not about to reveal strategy that could affect an upcoming operation. I mean, really, are these reporters nuts?

And your mention of FEMA does bring to mind their press conference in California during the wildfires which was timed in a way that no reporters could physically get there, so FEMA officials answered their own questions. That one was just plain stupid.

None of this, by the way, is to say that there aren't good journalists in the world who actually take great pride in their jobs and who have a huge sense of responsibility about uncovering wrongdoing and making sure the public gets all the facts, no matter who's trying to cover them up. Maybe they need to hold a seminar for the bottomfeeders about what constitutes good journalism.

December 11, 2007 5:50 AM  

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