Thursday, August 04, 2005

Death tolls and "survivors"

American news media was quick to lament the inferno on a Tornonto runway that resulted in everyone on board leaving the jet with their lives. Good Morning America did a report on how to survive such catastrophe, despite the fact that all passengers knew this without their report. They ran a story on what to do to avoid certain death, after the fact that everyone on board handled the "tragedy" without anyone actually dying. Look, if the women, children, stupid and lame aboard the aircraft all made it out unscathed, why act as though people are incompetent in the face of adversity?

The real story is that people know what to do. The people in the exit rows take their responsibility seriously, and the people seated in rest of the plane know what to do to do when danger is imminent. Hallelujah! Let's laud the comfort we should feel that we can be safe in dangerous situations. Let's make people feel MORE comfortable to fly, because passengers are smart people, not hapless victims when tumultuous circumstances arise. Shouldn't we feel good that danger isn't equivocal to death?

Why are media commited to instilling fear in people, when those confronted with potentially grave consequences all acted with great courage in the face of danger?

The story isn't about the "survivors." They ALL survived. Reporting on survivors implies that some on board perished. If everyone was a survior--doesn't that imply some died? I mean, if nobody died, who's a survivor?

I was in Seattle a few years ago for a great quake, in which the "death toll" was zero. Doesn't that mean there was no death toll? Were we all survivors of the quake? At no point did I feel my life was endangered, but the Richter scale was rounded up to the highest estimate, and I was awarded a purple heart in the eyes of the public told to to worry about my safety. Why even comment on death toll? Must there be death for an event to carry any weight? Sure, people could have died, but if they didn't, WTF?

Everyone's fine. Thanks for telling the world that, but shame on you for telling me that I'm not as bright as the random souls who boarded the plane without knowledge of event that would unfold, that they were more than capable of dealing with the event than the rest of us would be in if the same event was to befall us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

News Math

In a recent news article posted on, linked to through a subject line of "'Mostly children' killed in Iraqi bombing" it was reported that a suicide blast... well, actually that subject line is pretty clear.

Here's what the article reports:

27 people died
20 people were wounded
"at least" 7 children and 1 US soldier were killed.

The quoted "mostly children" contention in the subject line was not mentioned or attributed in the published report. I wish it was, because if of the 27 dead, SEVEN were children, it would appear that somebody was pretty hasty in sorting out the casualties, as 7:20 does not a majority make. CNN must have caught the error, since they didn't put it in context with the reported numbers and made a point to put the statement in quotes, to mark the logic as not their own. So who would say such a thing?

The claim stirs outrage that, as one US major put it, "The terrorist undoubtedly saw the children around the Humvee as he attacked. The complete disregard for civilian life in this attack is absolutely abhorrent." Perhaps that major was being quoted, but not attributed. The problem is, he'd be understandably shaken by the event, and likely motivated to communicate that his enemy is a barbaric monster. Shouldn't his statements be tempered by the journalist with the facts reported by hospitals and Iraqi police, as quantified above?

And who were the other 19 people that died (actual majority of casualties)? Iraqi civilians that, one may claim, "died for their freedom" in a war that came to their neighborhood? Why are they less important?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Joyriding a Hurricane

I must say, I have thoroughly enjoyed the national tv coverage of Hurricane Dennis. Call it a guilty pleasure that satisfies the same shameful craving that perpetuates juicy tabloid gossip.

Did you see the Anderson Cooper and John Zarella coverage of the hurricane on CNN? There was this incredible clip when a Ramada Inn sign came crashing down and sheets of aluminum were blown down the street with surprising force. Okay, so the hurricane coverage wasn’t actually about the Ramada Inn, but since Cooper and Zarella were there, CNN simply couldn’t have had a better story, and I can’t blame a soul for thinking otherwise. The Ramada Inn sign was the #2 story on their website Monday morning. Why? Because it was awesome to watch. Not newsworthy, but really compelling footage. Reporters standing outside in a hurricane: Jackass meets Fear Factor. You wouldn’t want to do what they have to, but if someone’s crazy enough to try, you kinda want to see if it’s as bad as you think.

The death toll took a back seat--not because they weren’t trying--because as hard as he tried, Wolf Blitzer just couldn’t get anyone to report casualties anywhere. Property was damaged, but the “bullet” they were postured to cover was inexplicably “dodged.” The mood was reportedly “good.”

Reporters standing next to “space age” technology taking weather readings from the stormy shores preferred their manual weather machines held high overhead as they braved extreme weather conditions. They boasted that nobody was on the streets but them, which seemed to raise some earnest questions that nobody would dare ask for fear of undermining our amusement.

At one point a weather map pointed out just the eye of the hurricane and the location of Cooper and Zarella, like that was the story: Cooper and Zarella versus the hurricane. He was wearing only a jacket, letting his bare head get pounded with repetitive buckets of rain and 80mph winds.

Fine, I’ll admit it. I loved it. I rooted against the Ramada sign with Cooper and company. We relished the deadly serious report akin to reporting on taking a shower with your clothes on. “I’M STANDING IN A HURRICANE AND IT’S VERY WINDY--AND WET!” (Psst, not to be rude, but I think that’s why you’re the only one standing in it, but I’m sure the people inside feel better about their decision now.)

“What can happen to oysters in flood conditions?” Blitzer wondered aloud. The response was a single word, “Contamination.” I think Blitzer probably knew that already, but the answer meant a lot more coming from a woman standing outside of a seafood restaurant. She just might be screwed! Unhappy with her response, Blitzer turned his attention to her companion who might have more to say. He was better, but he confirmed that they weren’t in any trouble at the restaurant. With a little prodding though, he and Blitzer agreed that if someone were in the business of harvesting these shellfish, they’d be hosed.

Newsworthy? Faggedaboutit. But tune in next time. You might find Cooper and Zarella, you might see property demolished by nature, but whatever happens, I promise you’ll be entertained.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Adopting Jargon from Invested Sources

It was reported recently that another US helicopter “crashed” while taking “indirect and direct” fire from insurgents. Crashed? Might it be more accurate and impartial to report that the aircraft “was shot down?”

Crashed is the term government officials reported, but “shot down” is the event that occurred. Why does the media sell the government’s company line on a matter like this? Call me crazy, but it seems to do a great disservice to the dead soldiers aboard the aircraft to suggest that they may have died as a result of something other than a violent conflict. “Crash” is what happens when you lose control of a vehicle or it fails to operate correctly. Calling the event a crash is hardly anything more than a tragically bad joke. Do you really mean to suggest that the fire the helicopter was taking at the time was not the cause of the crash? How can media in good conscience review the circumstances and imply that perhaps the soldiers that perished could be more to blame for the malfunction than a willing attack from forces on the ground?

As independent observers, adopting the story of an invested party is simply bad business. Just who is it that the media are serving by stopping short of calling this helicopter crash exactly what it was?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Live News... For What?

What an incredible concept. Live, breaking news. We can only imagine the inspired giddiness its pioneers, and sheer terror that incapable print publications of the age must have had when the idea came to fruition. TV can actually illustrate a story as it unfolds, speak with witnesses who really were there first, and grant viewers access to places and events that not available to the average person.

Somewhere along the line the concept got taken for granted. "Live news" now simply means "on location" and breaking news has become a shadow of its idealistic roots. A live broadcast is simply a formula, whereby an anchor cuts to someone outside of the studio, then to b-roll, outro, two-box, and back to the anchor. It simply provides a different setting, not news as it develops, though it postures to be just that. More often than not, reporters are sent to a story, they write a script in the car, and then they read their script on location. The story is done before the live truck arrives, but being on location is a device used to deceive viewers that the story is just coming in.

Think about it. Was the news team really there when the news broke? Is the reporter really living in the moment enough to claim to be an expert on the event? Sometimes, they're not even at a location that lends credibility to the report, though rarely will anyone call them on it. If they don't say where the report is from, call and ask, see if the location adds substance or perception of substance to the report. Since we started busting news, we've even witnessed reports from outside the door of the newsroom, wired directly inside, without need for a live truck. What for? It's supposed to deceive the viewer. It's supposed to make viewers think the news crew witnessed the story unfold, or that they arrived to get information unavailable from the newsroom.

"Here we are where a woman was killed." Why? Are you looking for the killer?

"I'm outside. You can tell because the wind is making my perfect hair move." What are you doing there? There's nothing relevant to see from any angle.

"We're live at City Hall" it's 11pm. Uh huh, and everyone who works there is in bed.

"I'm at the police station reporting what the police said earlier today." Are you waiting for them to say something else? Will you transmit it if they do? You couldn't have regurgitated their report from afar?

"It doesn't matter as long as we're goin' live and lookin' fine," (direct quote from a news director in our neighborhood).

It's called a dog-lick live shot (derived from the ponderance: why does a dog lick its balls? because it can), every industry professional knows the term. They hate doing them, but the consultant said people like seeing live shots, so the news director mandates them. Truth is, viewers trust that it means the reporter is getting information from the location of the report. So posturing as on-the-scene reports exploit that. Maybe it creates an illusion that a reporter couldn't make it back to the studio with everything happening where they're at, when actually they were dispatched to deliver the same news they had before they left. Ask the right questions, and you'll find that what people want is a news source they can trust. Live news is a device that suggests exactly that, but it's no substitute for the quality reporting viewers believe they are watching.

So are reporters prepared to deliver real events that actually unfold on location? I have my suspicions, but NEWSBREAKERS gladly offer the crew exactly such an opportunity.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Investigative TV Journalism Dead? Photog Weighs In

From the NEWSBREAKERS Mailbag:

I used to work as a photographer for one of the local TV stations in Rochester. You guys are amazingly funny. Please understand one thing though. Most "news gatherers" in the field, feel that news has become a parody of what it once was. Sure they will tell you that they are just providing what the public wants to see, but you know, I know, and they know, that's bull shit. In reality, their hands are being tied from the top down. Once upper management decided to move (local) news from the realm of public service to all for profit, the public lost any semblance of un-biased perspective. Mgm't will no longer fund any REAL investigative journalism, because it is expensive. Reporters have to turn a story everyday, which leaves little time to "dig for answers". Much of what you see in the news is straight regurgitation of press releases, or re-written comments from those officials we all keep hearing about ("Officials say...blah, blah,blah") So I gues what I am trying to say is this. Keep up the great work, and have fun, but alway try to remain respectful of the crew in the field.
They are earning about the same as a first year teacher, doing what amounts to be a fairly challenging job.

-Rochester Photog

Thanks for the e-mail. Something we recently discovered: If you happen to be that guy on top, your authority is enough to get the newsroom to report on anything you want them to without raising a single question.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

You Heard it Here First

Why the obsession with delivering news first? It's a race out there, and it's an easy one to win. Just tell them what you hear and check details later. We all remember the 2000 election, when the presidential election was deemed "over" months before it should have been. We saw it with Rathergate, the Wendy's finger hoax, the runaway bride, published photos of Michael Jackson's eventual prison cell (via AP). WMDs? Stations report allegations, then report their implications, but know that by questioning them, they are only working harder to report nothing.

Then... shock! The story is actually not what was reported at all! The facts weren't facts. Of course, that was the plan all along--see, retracting a story is a story itself, though it will be framed as informative, not apologetic. That's two stories, where the holding out for the truth is no story at all for the same effort. It was a roll of the dice, a gamble to be there first, truth a blessing or truth be damned. The problem is, everyone is running the race, so when one organization jumps the gun, others follow.

What if there was a news organization that we could trust? One that would aggressively verify and challenge its sources, and not just quote them. A news agency that you would look to confirm all others.

Why do viewers have to be the skeptical ones? If we can't believe what the news reports, what value does it have?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Reporting Casualties posted a link to an intriguing piece on "Left I in the news", a self described "left-wing perspective on the day's news and the way it's reported in the media," about casualty counting in Iraq.

I think it's funny when people commenting on responsible journalism wear their bias on their sleeve, but I like that I can read opinions like this with that skepticism in mind.

I'm certainly not going to claim these points of my making, but I think you'll find Lefti's insight on the matter worth checking out. Lefti addresses the claim in a recent AP report of "40 insurgents killed" in a recent airstrike, addressing the credibility of such a report. The blog reports that the number came from government reports, and questions the methods to count such figures. Noted also was the lack of information on civilian deaths, and the implications printed in the New York Times that a captain's statement that no civilian deaths were reported is the perceived as "none occurred." Another comment that stating the figure as "purported," as it was reported in the LA Times is a very weak disclaimer. Claims that precision-guided missiles hit their target also give no indication what the target was, which is of interest, because the only targets mentioned are people, which the missiles couldn't have cued on.

It's a quick read, but it makes several great points that I think bear significance regardless of your political leanings.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fairness Doctrine: Barometer of Bias?

Hey everyone. If you've visited the website recently, you may have noticed we've been busy, so we've got a bit of catching up to do around these parts.

I've been searching for a good, balanced piece on the Fairness Doctrine that Rep Louise Slaughter (D-NY) is proposing. By Slaughter's description, efforts to restore the Fairness Doctrine are intended "to hold broadcasting companies accountable to their public interest obligations by requiring equal air time for opposing viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance."

It's not a new idea. In 1971 the FCC introduced regulations that "ran parallel with Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937 which required stations to offer 'equal opportunity' to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station." In the 1980'sThe Reagan administration worked to put the doctrine to bed, and in 1987 the FCC dissolved it altogether. (Val Limburg's piece, available here is the best independent resource I've found on the Doctrine).

Okay, so that's the idea. Now, there have been allegations for quite some time now, that there is a "liberal bias" in media, though the claim is, of course, disputed by many who suggest that bias skews the other way. Frankly, I'm not sure who to believe, since strong cases can be made to support either contention. I will say that I'm comfortable asserting that strong biases in media reports can be cited both ends of the political spectrum--biases nobody will apologize for because of the abundance of support that can be made for such slanted views to create "balance."

So research and popular opinion goes both ways on the matter, but we probably agree that the difference in biases from both sides are not likely equal, and one side gets a little more love than the other, if we could weigh the total liberal/conservative biases against each other and see what's left. It's a quantitative nightmare, though people much smarter than me can demonstrate otherwise.

This is where I like what the introduction of this bill finds for us. Both sides can SAY they need better representation from media outlets, but when you throw down a doctrine that regulates it, who thinks they're better off under the current system than with regulated "balance" on issues? Here's where we get clarity: Conservatives. Liberals are thirsting for the Doctrine like dirt on Bush, and conservatives want it like legal abortion. It's been asserted that the conservative edge pertaining to media come from media consolidation and corporate control, and are most protective of right-wing radio programming.

If there is in fact a "liberal" bias in media, why aren't conservatives clamoring for an equalizing force?

For all the research and all of the debate on media biases, throwing down a gauntlet like this may be our best meter to determine who's got the strongest grip on media messages today.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Sinclair Stirred, Not Shaken

Columbia Journalism Review has posted an excellent update on the state of Sinclair, profiling our colleagues at Columbus's WSYX, which NEWSBREAKERS volunteered a cooperative reporting segment for in February. In case you missed it, the Reaper's cameo grimly foreshadowed the troubles ahead.

Seems the Sinclair twins WSYX and WTTE in Columbus are getting "crushed" in news ratings by their competitors, lacking resources that the locally owned station WBNS and NBC-owned WCMH use to gather news, like helocopters for aerial coverage. This shellacking is not a remote occurance for Sinclair, so they are stirring things up by reportedly halting "News Central," which takes the local out of local news, blending syndicated news programming--even piped-in weather reports-- from their headquarters in Baltimore. If you love their commitment to conservative biases, worry not, Mark Hyman's "The Point" is still required for all news programming.

Sinclair may be battered but they're not deterred. The reported News Central hiatus reported in this piece is referred to as "revamping," and no indication is given that Sinclair is going to make any further moves to divest its interests or release its grip on broadcast news.

Read Elizabeth Jensen's piece for the full story, posted on

Hmm, first it was Reverend Utah Snakewater who purged Clear Channel of their live entertainment holdings, and then it's revealed that Grim's got the skills to put an end to News Central. Kind of makes one wonder what Cheese Ninja's long-term impact is going to be.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sensationalism Reigns posted an excellent article this month about the degradation of television news, avalable at:

Take a moment to check it out. The article addresses the perceived (by media insiders) lack of news value of the Scott Peterson media circus, the decline of in-depth reporting for want of the "quick hit" news story, and the rising stock of consultants, and the publicity "flacks" that shape our news, which make as much as three times the money that a journalist charged with unbiased objectivity makes.

If bias is what sells, and sales equate to value, who can we trust to deliver us news that reports an objective look at the happenings of our world?

Props to John McMannus for his piece, titled "Bottom-line pressures erode local print and broadcast journalism," which explores these difficult challenges to journalists who stick to their convictions that their responsibility to the public remains paramount.

Friday, May 20, 2005

TV’s Innate Bias

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a video worth? It’s negotiable, but you get a good one, it’s virtually priceless.

The only thing that TV news likes better than a good story is a good video. They kind of work like those goofy video websites you can visit if you have a lot of time, a short attention span, and nothing better to do than watch teenagers with bulletproof ambition, irresponsible friends, surprisingly dangerous props and a cheap camera.

TV is a visual medium, and as committed as a news room may be to reporting important news, if a story can be told with shocking video, the content of that story leapfrogs less fortunate (if considerably more pressing) news in the queue, in an effort to entertain. A bad story with great video is infinitely better than a good story without it. Leave the real news to print media and pounce on that medium's deficiencies. If they break a good story, tell it tomorrow, but make sure you can show it. Therein lies the innate bias of TV news.

Police brutality without video is an allegation. The victims, the evidence and the crime, are the same whether you see the video or not. What ultimately makes the investigation hot is the coverage, but without the video--and only if that video is given to the news organization—what’s the point in covering it? It’s a terrible reality that Rodney King’s (and subsequently Reginald Denny’s) stories were only worthy of coverage because they were blessed to have a third party capture their misfortune on video and spread it around. Had Rodney King taken his story to TV news without the video, would anyone have been entertained? If nobody was to be entertained, would anyone care?

What the news reports is what its viewers regard as important issues, and the manner in which they are reported, in terms of both time allotment and sequence, communicates the significance of the stories. However, if news teams pander to spectacle, they lead their audience to believe that the news they expect to be less entertaining is equally less important.

So forget about breaking news, let’s exploit this system! Let’s accept this insatiable need for video and work it to our advantage. Say someone’s moving into the White House--not a good story by anyone’s judgment, but it can't hurt the resident-- we can get it covered by calling in camera crews to view that person picking up a table and offering a sound byte to talk about it. Move over relevant local story, we’ve got video of someone important, doing something normal! Say American soldiers are at war, killing people and driving into makeshift explosives. We can mention it in passing, but if we can show the explosions, muzzle flair, and warn viewers about graphic content, now we’ve got something significant. Want to make a policy media friendly? Just do the whole package, have the publicist hire a reporter, cut your own video together and make something compelling to establish it as a news piece without the media even getting involved.

It’s sad when the power of stories reported don’t influence their place in the media’s agenda as effectively as available video footage that stroke the news team’s own desire to be flashy and entertaining.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Wendy's Chili Finger Psych-Out

Norm's piece (below) got me thinking a little more about the blame game that erupts when a story falls apart. Who's to blame for oopsy-daisy journalism? The crappy source, or the hasty journalist?

Plenty of finger pointing but--hey, speaking of pointing fingers, you know the finger that the lady in San Jose said came up in her cup of Wendy's chili? Well the story now is that she lied, a hoax that is said to have cost Wendy's millions in financial losses, and according to CNN, "authorities" are going after the woman for grand larceny.

So why isn't CNN quaking over this development? It's because I'm just picking on them. Really, I am, and totally out of the blue, because every other news outlet you can think of also picked up the story, which means that unlike the Qu'ran toilet story in Newsweek, there is no singular news outlet to attack. They're all guilty this time. Across-the-board, they ran an under-researched allegation that cost one company millions of dollars because of the attention these media outlets gave it. They went on a single source, as Newsweek did, though this source clearly saw money to be made with her claim (there's no other reason not to resolve such a matter quietly). Had news outlets verified the source of the finger before reporting the story, as was done in a surprising subsequent dismembered-finger-in-my-food story, they would have discovered, as the police investigation found, that this claim was a lie, and responsibly not reported it.

This story wasn't timely, it was just strange, you can wait to read about it until it's true or not. It was an allegation, but unlike other suspiscious hoaxes, like those of Susan Smith and more recently the "runaway bride" there was no benefit to assuming this one was true. Nobody will mobilize a rescue squad for a severed finger that has already turned up. In fact, this allegation is sure to harm at least one party.

So here's where Crazy sets in. The mistake that the news outlets made in reporting the unfounded story cost Wendy's millions of dollars. The desperate woman with the anatomical condiment gets charged with grand larceny now because Wendy's has actually lost millions of dollars as a result of the media reports pertaining to her claim. So from the reports on the finger, Wendy's loses millions and a woman faces up to seven years in prison, while systemically irresponsible journalists that didn't investigate details about the harmful allegations before reporting them slink away without reprimand, to report now on the mess they so casually created.

So why isn't CNN quaking over this development? It turns out everyone's got better things to talk about. Like the guy with the finger ice cream in his fridge. Oh yeah, it's real--so unless that woman is going down, Wendy's finger stories are so over.

Is No News Good News These Days?

This week, Newsweek Magazine retracted an explosive story which alleged that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay’s U.S.detention center desecrated the Qur’an. This report is said to have ignited riots, killing several. In what some are calling a response to White House pressure, Newsweek stated that the “senior U.S. official” is no longer sure of the information on which the story was based. By making this retraction, Newsweek implied there was actually no news here after all, and thus debate has ensued.

Let’s explore the two possibilities that lie within this:

Possibility number one:
This was simply shoddy reporting. One government representative made a claim, and based solely on that the article drew conclusions. This is akin to a scenario such as this:
Reporter: So think there are any steroids in badminton?
Badminton Representative: Well, I don’t know.
Reporter: But it’s possible right?
Badminton Rep: Well----I suppose anything is possible.
Reporter: Ok, so it’s possible. And if it’s possible, it might be minimal or it might be rampant, right?
Badminton Rep: I suppose either is theoretically possible.

Ensuing Headline: “Badminton Insider Reveals Possible Rampant Steroid Use in Sport!”

Is this a real story?
How many times does the reporter state “A late night call to the offices of the administration were not immediately returned by press time.” Well—what did you expect? But in the hurry to publish the story---or, rather, the half-story---the publication or news program is willing to entirely ignore one side of the story to get it out. Sort of like not sticking around to the end of the race, only to report “Hare wins. Tortoise nowhere in sight.” An incomplete report becomes a biased report, and consequently a false report. That must be why it’s called a “story.” NEWSBREAKERS has even been the subject of such missing-piece stories—a simple and easy check of the facts would have made a story more accurate and frankly more interesting. The fact that the Tortoise actually wins is what makes the story so interesting.

Possibility number two:
This is even scarier.
Suggestions have been made that The White House has pressured Newsweek to retract the story in the interest of safety and national and international interest. Of course safety of people is a critical matter. If our government is silencing a report of misdoings to protect it’s red white and blue behind, and that magazine is caving, we’ve got even bigger problems than I thought. We’d be in the full throes of government control of the press---not the apple pie America that’s on a national billboard to the world, that’s for sure. It’s the stuff horror films are made of---“what we read and see on the news may or may not be true, but it is probably part of a government plan of information flow. “ Please, oh, please let it not be true.

So what’s worse—not reporting the whole truth, and consequently not the actual truth----or reporting a government sterilized semi-truth? Is the mere attempt to reach someone---if you don’t actually obtain additional information from them---sufficiently pursuing the other side of the story and offering balance? Even in this digital drive-thru multi-tasking gotta-have-it-now age, are we really in such a desperate hurry for every scrap of instant news that we are not interested in what is truly news?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Spoiling the teaser: the answer is "no"

Ever sat through a newscast to hear the news team answer their own question about what is to come, only to learn you waited for nothing at all?

It's a clever plot that leaves the viewer a little disgusted at their own gullibility, and it works more than we like to admit.

Here's what I mean:

TEASER: "We caught up with the team's star player after the game. Stay tuned to find out if he would finally comment about swirling trade rumors that could send him to Boston."
THE STORY: No, he's got nothing to say about that.

TEASER: "Stick around, more trouble for the ferry as it suffers an accident while docked in Ontario. Find out if the accident caused serious damage to the vessel on our exclusive report later in the broadcast."
THE STORY: There was no damage.

TEASER: "Would he respond to allegations of sexual misconduct?"
THE STORY: No. He wouldn't.

If the news team strings you along with a yes/no question to be answered later, the answer is no.

Why? Because if the answer is yes, it will either lead, or the teaser will be open-ended, like this:

"Big news from the team's locker room, as the star player finally addresses questions about rumors that he will be traded to Boston. Stay tuned to hear what he had to say about his future with the team."

"The ferry suffered a serious accident today, damaging the hull and delaying preparations for its maiden voyage. Don't go away, as we'll have a report for you on the extent of the damage and what it means to the project, later in the broadcast."

"Still to come, The senator opens up about his alleged misconduct, and has some harsh words for his critics. Find out what he had to say about the investigation when our reporter spoke to him this afternoon."

It's a dirty trick, but when reporters commit to a story but don't have anything to report, they need to make empty news appear to have some value to interested viewers. If they can’t say what they will tell, be assured, they have nothing to tell you but that they tried to make a story and the story fell flat.

If you want answers, and you are offered only two possible outcomes to the story you're waiting for, just say no, and chances are you couldn't be more right.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Where Does News Come From?

I was disturbed by a recent post on the NEWSBREAKERS message board, when I asked a guest "Do you think about where your news comes from?” and he confidently replied “News are daily events ranging from a local beetle being killed by an unemployed man to President ‘Whoever’ blowing up the world (sic) wmd's.”

Allow me to talk about Scooby Doo for a second. I’m dead serious, so bear with me. A dear friend of mine said that when she was growing up, she thought that “Clues” were created when a crime was committed, then subsequently spread all over a crime scene like an Easter egg hunt. Detectives, like Scoob, Shaggy, Freddy and the gang (which only later would include Scrappy), would then hunt for these Clues which, once collected, would ultimately solve the ghostly crime. It’s a fine distinction, and not too far off from the truth, but as she got older, she realized that clues were not strewn about and gathered by homicide detectives, but that successful detectives were primarily responsible for identifying what exactly could be considered a clue in the first place.

It’s this common myth that news consumers rarely take the time to contemplate.

Each day, fire departments respond to dozens of calls, police departments respond to hundreds. Politicians make several decisions each week, some crucial, some almost immediately irrelevant. And there are tons of politicians. These events comprise just part of government activity, while private citizens, commercial and non-profit organizations release what they believe--or at least hope--to be news every chance they get. These potential stories are diligently reviewed by news organizations, then filtered and processed by reporters, editors, and news directors to comprise the news of the day.

They use rules like TIPPOH (timeliness, importance, prominence, proximity, oddity, and human interest) to determine what is news, requiring that a story meets as many of these elements as possible to be considered “newsworthy.” Conflict often makes this list as well.

News isn’t created by the source, as much as by the news outlet, in the same way that clues aren’t created by the crime, but by the detective.

Our guest was concerned not “about where the news comes from but more on how it is spread,” failing to recognize that these are one and the same. Sure, biases in a story's delivery are troubling, but failure to accept the news professionals’ role as agenda setters ignores their most serious responsibility of all. News professionals can’t tell their consumers what to think, but they can tell them what to think about.

I offer NEWSBREAKERS as an example, not to be self-gratuitous, but because it is one example of a valid story that meets the above criteria, but threatens a news organization’s perception of their own credibility and/or standing in their community, and as such simply can’t be covered. One news director at a station we have yet to work with issued a memo to his staff (in the event that we pay them a visit) to suppress our story by ignoring us, instructing them to treat our events in the same way that they would treat an indecent occurrence during a live shot, so that they will not deem us newsworthy. If it meets news criteria, and is not indecent, why the premeditated cencorship plot? If the story were truly anything but newsworthy, such a memo would not need to be issued.

The debate over what is newsworthy is a discussion reserved for newsrooms. Consumers readily process and discuss stories news teams choose to cover, though consumers rarely acknowledge the control granted to their media to create news in the first place.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Commercials Between Commercials

Contributed by Norm Weathers

Fondly, I remember the days when the only commercial at the movies was the ad with the animated popcorn, enticing my appetite for exploded kernels. Now, in order to keep my ticket price below my monthly income, I suffer through extended versions of tired commercials that mock my inability to ignore them just to pretend the savings come back to me. Not only does this saddle me with the great fortune of even more time spent inside a darkened room with strangers, but it leaves the burning question: Shouldn’t my ticket come with a disclaimer that my eight bucks is simply a partial payment for the entertainment? Apparently I’m not the first one to say so, as one movie theater chain, Loews Cineplex Entertainment, is recognizing that listed film starting times may need to more accurately reflect reality. I wish my evening news would take the hint.

Lately it seems that more and more stories on news outlets such as ABC are offering up what functionally serves as an advertisement for a for-profit company, wrapped decoratively in a story about some wild transaction or event planned entirely for the purposes of generating that very story. What was once reserved for “spotlight-of-the-week” pieces has begun to sneak out of goofy features programming straight into the top-story “hard news” section. For example--- numerous news outlets such as MSNBC, WNBC, AP NEWS, and CNN have reported the story of crafty publicity stunts that the online Golden Palace Casino has successfully engineered by purchasing unusual items from Ebay, such as: a grilled cheese sandwich said to resemble the Virgin Mary; Britney Spears’ alleged pregnancy test; and advertising on the flesh of willing human billboards. The casino is a Canadian gambling site with a business address in Antigua, and consequently cannot do direct advertising in the U.S. By purchasing these auction items, they have gained national exposure worth many millions of advertising dollars in a location they can’t buy it. All for the price of a grilled cheese sandwich (notwithstanding its celebrity likeness).
Ironically, most of the news reports acknowledged in those stories that, by reporting on the story, they too were falling victim to this publicity strategy. When did reporting on how you’re getting duped by a publicity strategy—in which a corporation uses the reporting of a publicity strategy as the strategy itself--- become a legitimate news story? Isn’t this a self-feeding circular non-productive calorie waster?

So when do I get to sit through the evening news, tub of popcorn at the ready, without having to endure the advertising booby-trap the media gobbled up as a legit hard news story? What time does the REAL news begin? Maybe there will come a day that the media outlets take Loews Theatre’s lead and inform us that news actually begins at 6:12, after the fake news is done. At least that gives me some time to browse through Ebay for a salami sandwich that looks like Dan Rather! (Golden Palace—call me!)

Friday, May 13, 2005

Canadian Publication Ban

There's mayhem in Canada!

Canada's political system is about to suffer a blistering meltdown under the heat of a political scandal that's making Washington politics look like an ice cream social.

If you're not following the drama, you're not alone. Accounts of the hearings of three key witnesses have been subject to a publication ban, described as a "broadcast to the public" ban, which specifically includes "posting to the Internet," as ruled by Justice John H. Gomery, the appointed Commissioner of the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship and Advertising Activities. Yes, Canada allows freedom the press, but in past cases, out of respect for the families of violent crime victims, publication has been supressed at the order of the presiding judge.

In this case, Gomery justifies the ban as follows:

This matter is a classic case where a balance must be found between two constitutionally protected rights, the right of the public to be informed of matters affecting them, guaranteed by section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms4, and the right of every person accused of a crime to have a fair trial, guaranteed by section 11(d) of the Charter. It should be noted that Canadian citizens have an interest in the protection of both of these rights, since the freedom of the press is an essential value in a democracy, and the guarantee that every person is presumed innocent and cannot be found guilty of a criminal offence without undergoing a fair trial is for the protection of us all.

Crazy, eh? Well, it's crazy to Americans. It seems Canadians tend to support the ban (read comments here) in the interest of a fair trial. What's interesting is that the information is still getting out, via blogs in the US. Most specifically, a blog based in Minnesota, called Captain's Quarters Blog, which effectively makes the ban useless, but renders the unauthorized work of bloggers as the primary source of news gathering. It is expected that Canadian bloggers who violate the ban will be prosecuted, though it will be an intersting discussion when it comes to linking to other information. An example that has been raised: will webhosts and bloggers be liable for all content of each website that they link to? Can they say where to find the info? If not, how many degrees from the illegal source material can they link? Could one person be liable for another's indiscretions if a site they have already linked to chooses to post illegal content without their knowledge?

Interstingly enough, the effectiveness of the ban dramatically impacts the course of action that the staggering Liberal Party chooses, given the structure of their political system, and the options available to them prior to public disclosure of the hearings. I'd love to get into the scandal with you, but it runs far deeper than we can get into here, so check out for a summary and analysis, and the renegade US blog, Captain's Quarters, if you are interested.

Hey, where's the US media on this scandal, anyway?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Live shooting in Los Angeles

The LA Times published a report today about two live television broadcasts that showed the fatal shooting at the conclusion of a dramatic 50-minute police pursuit yesterday.

I agree with KTLA TV Channel 5 News Director Jeff Wald's assesment that "There's no reason on God's earth why you need to show an actual shooting," but I don't believe for a second that he feels that way. They aired it, and if they were so troubled by what they showed their viewers, I doubt they would have aired a tape of it on a later broadcast.

Their policy is to use a wide shot if violence appears imminent. An interesting concept, but not quite the same as cutting away. The policy is a joke, you're still watching somebody get shot to death. Speaking of jokes, imagine if there was a live comedy broadcast in which the station airing the program instructed their crew to lower the volume if the comic gave an indication that he was about to curse. Good idea, huh? That way you could still get the joke, but the dirty part would be harder to hear. I mean, probably. Think that would fly?

Not that we should blame the station, I mean it could not have been apparent to even the news team's seasoned eyes that this was going to end badly, right? After all: live breaking news! A reasonable point, however the assessment of another local news director, Robert Long of KNBC-TV Channel 4, could be interpretted to suggest otherwise, when he said it was "apparent to the seasoned eye that it was going to end badly."

Now considering that Janet Jackson's nipple cost CBS over half a million dollars and sent the FCC on a decency rampage, how will they deal with broadcasting footage of a person being killed? Seems to me CBS should get a refund. Except for one thing, that other station that aired the shooting actually was a CBS affiliate.

Televised violent death or wardrobe malfunction? Stay tuned, we'll see which one provokes more outrage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

GE: Generally Everything (and NBC)

Those of you who watched the Boston bust that went up on today read a few specific products that GE provides beyond their media empire, which includes engines for the military's top aircrafts, and nearly anything else useful that you can think of. Their impressive media empire controls 11 different US television networks (most notably NBC), nine cable networks to 27 countries, all things Universal and many other significant enterprises. Oddly, the entire media division comprised less than 8.5% of the company’s 2004 revenue.

How does that affect your news coverage? Well, in the first Gulf War, it had us marvelling at the technology the military employed. Supreme gadetry trumped humanity as reporters eagerly awaited shock and... naw, I'm thinking of a different war. Sorry for that.

Ever seen a feature on airport security? Have you generally been under the impression that it would be wiser to upgrade screening technology, or to refine the system? Yeah technology, like that Entry Scan³ (a.k.a. "Puffer Machine") thing that is used at many security entry points. It blows air on you to detect chemicals before you pass through a metal detector. Maybe you'd seen these on TV already? Ironically, they've been a rather nice windfall of income for GE in our troubled, post September 11, 2001 world.

I wanted to show in this post the dozens and dozens of relevant GE products that outperform the corporation's media interests, but I'm quite confident that it will bore the crap out of you. Let me instead encourage you to go direct to the source and see what else the media conglomerate sells. It shouldn't take long to identify some juicy conflicts of interest in their coverage, which coincidentally is created with the potential and intent to influence your beliefs, compassion, and even your values.

The point here is that GE, NBC's parent company, profits from the War on Terror. In fact, they profit from wars all over the world. You see where that gets sticky. Now Viacom is reportedly in search of a new home for CBS. Totally hypothetical situation here, but if Big Tobacco seizes control of that network, might you care? Could it affect content of their health-related stories?

Would America stand for it?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Your Local Newspaper

When a couple of NEWSBREAKERS explained to a local newspaper professional that we wanted to get people to care about the news again, he reeled with sympathy and said "Man, so do we."

A recent City Newspaper article by Krestia DeGeorge, titled "Dollars and Sense," explores the frustrations of local newspaper writers, painting a grim situation at one daily paper, and addresses the outlook for the newspaper industry at large.

If you're a math nerd, you'll appreciate the below findings on the attitudes of professionals who work in print and TV. State of the News Media 2005 is a good resource if you just want copius amounts quantifiable info, like this:

"Declining readership is cited by 15% of print journalists at both national and local news organizations, but no more than 2% of broadcast journalists view loss of audience as the most important concern. Instead, broadcast journalists view limits on resources - and the pressure to make profits and get bigger ratings - as the biggest financial problems… Print journalists are far more likely than those in broadcast to see credibility as the biggest problem facing journalism today. Four-in-ten (39%) journalists working at national newspapers, magazines and wire services say credibility is the biggest problem, compared with just 15% at national TV and radio outlets. And this gap exists at the local level as well, with local print journalists nearly three-times as likely as local broadcast journalists (33% vs. 12%) to cite credibility as their greatest concern."

(more at
State of the News Media 2005)

I hate to spoil the surprise if you're going dig into that link, but if you wanted to know what the biggest concern TV journalists have, it's "quality of coverage." State of the News Media gives the full report)

Sounds like it might be time for a little mixer between the print and TV people, eh?

Affirmative. NEWSBREAKERS agree.

(Stay tuned...)

Sunday, May 08, 2005

PBS pressured to move right

Recent pressures to push PBS content more to the right seem to fly in the face of "balance" and the White House's involvement in setting up a new office of the ombudsman threatens PBS's objectivity. In their efforts to better support a conservative agenda, The Corporation for Public Broadcast (CPB) fails to recognize that establishing balance is not achieved by creating counter-biases. It's an objective to represent both sides of an issue fairly and accurately.

Check out these links for more details on this story: New York Times*, Washington Post,

CPB, which provides about 10 percent of PBS's annual budget, is taking steps to create balanced reporting on PBS stations by increasing conservative representation through a transformation of existing programming and restructuring of the corporation's executive members. CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is working to beef up Republican representation among CPB brass, recommending the appointment of Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee who is now an assistant secretary of state, as successor for president Kathleen A. Cox, whose contract was not renewed. According to corporate officials, Tomlinson also hired the director of the White House Office of Global Communications as a senior staff member in late March, on the recommendation of administration officials, as reported in the New York Times.

Former CPB president Robert Coonrod, who stepped down in July 2004, said in the New York Times piece that Tomlinson is "trying to help the people in public broadcasting understand why some people in the conservative movement think PBS is hostile to them and... imbue public broadcasting with the notion of balance because he thinks that long term it's a winner in getting Congressional support." Yeah, "Congress," but we know who he means. Maybe it's just me, but it seems some of the perceived hostility toward these dissenting Congressfolk may stem from things like Newt Gingrich's plan 10 years ago to zero out the nearly 30 million dollars PBS receives in funding from what the Washington Post calls a "Republican-dominated" CPB, and sentiments like these examples found in The Arizona Conservative, and the efforts of guys like David Horowitz that suggest the elimination of PBS altogether.

The corporation insisted for the first time this year, that its contributions will be linked to what it calls "objectivity and balance," though to achieve this it has added "The Journal Editorial Report," which features the members of the conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

The Post's article points out that "The corporation's own research indicates broad public satisfaction with the quality of news programming on PBS and NPR." Maybe it's not the public we are trying to satisfy.

*-If you read the Times piece, check out this link as well, which makes some interesting points in how the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are applied in the paper, as the terms apply to this story. While not specific to this article, it seems more telling that the criticism holds up: that "conservative" is being used to describe what are maintained as right-leaning interests, while none of the left-leaning parties or programs referenced are labeled as "liberal."