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.