Saturday, August 8, 2009

Forget the generation gap. It's a chasm.

I like to think I understand the younger generation. It's probably a delusion, but I do pay attention to what kids are doing and saying, not just so they're credible in my books, but because they're interesting.

For a very long time, I've heard people talk about a generation gap, and I thought I understood that, too. Every generation has its differences in music and pop culture, even to some degree in its value system and political beliefs. Now, however, it seems the gap has widened into a chasm when it comes to how we get our news, assuming we pay attention at all.

For a news junkie like me, who worked for several newspapers, covered television and network news for daily papers in Ohio and Florida, it was tough enough when I realized that more people were getting their insights into the world from two-minute (or less) reports on the evening news than from the in-depth reporting in a morning paper. Journalists of my era even jokingly referred to USA Today as being the McDonald's of the news business, offering bite-size, fast-serve bits of news. These days I'd be grateful if more people were even getting that much from a newspaper.

Instead, it seems the thump of the morning paper on the front lawn has been exchanged for flipping a switch on the computer and glancing at headlines en route to emails. Way too many people, it seems to me, are getting their "news" from blogs, which often have far more opinions than facts.

It's said that newspapers will eventually vanish unless they find a way to reinvent themselves. Young people don't care about them and too many in my generation distrust them. How sad, and frightening. Freedom of the press was included in the Constitution for a reason. A free society needs a free press to keep a watch on the world, to be alert to the insidious corruption that goes on far too often, to keep politicians in check, to remind us of the sacrifices of war and to take note of those who die to protect us.

Some would say the Internet now fills that role. I suppose some news-affiliated sites do, but I wager if you ask a dozen people whether they got their information from a journalist or a blogger with a personal bias, far too many would list the bloggers without even realizing -- or caring --what a difference there is.

Beyond that, the oldtimer in me wants a newspaper in my hands each morning, much as I want an actual book in my hands when I'm reading on the porch in the afternoon. I want to flip from news to sports to Sudoku. I want to check the movie listings and the stock reports, all in one convenient place that doesn't involve staring at a computer screen, which I have to do for far too much of each day. Kids, however, have grown up with a computer mouse all but attached to the end of their arm. It's as much second nature to them as breathing.

There's also the allure for some that it's all free online. There's no payment for a subscription or dropping $6 for the Sunday New York Times at Starbucks. What a rude awakening it will be when sites start charging for content, as Fox News announced it would just this week. If other news sites follow suit, then I suspect young people with a penchant for "free" will spend even less time on news sites and turn more to blogs.

Perhaps this shouldn't worry me as much as it does. After all, I am a blogger. And even though I am a journalist as well and check my facts carefully, this is, after all, my opinion. It's not hard news. And the difference is monumental and important.


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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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