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Archive for June, 2017

The recent tragic shooting at a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game resulted in politicians on both sides agreeing to lower the temperature of their out-of-control angry rhetoric. Many recalled the days when Democrats and Republicans actually socialized, knew each other’s families, developed meaningful friendships, and found ways to work together on legislation.

Turning the temperature down on the rhetoric in Congress is indeed a great idea. But the president must do the same. His behavior and body language with oval office visitors, choice of words in daily tweets, constant bad-mouthing of his predecessor, and strong-man “photo-ops” on foreign visits, all establish an atmosphere which enables and even encourages similar behavior in others.

When news and social media reinforce the drama in political events everything degenerates even more. Eventually pundits begin reporting that the country is disintegrating, and historians remind us of how many great civilizations have totally destroyed themselves.

Partisans always blame the other guy. Republicans began attacking and blocking everything Obama wanted to do, and did so for more than eight years. When “repeal and replace” instead of “we can fix it” became both their strategy and tactic, battles erupted and soon descended into all-out war. And instead of articulating a well thought out plan of action with a vision, the opposition became defensive and lost their way. Many other outsiders went “AWOL” and ran off into “Never-Never Land.” But their absence also became part of the problem.

The natural inclination of the news media is always to enhance the drama. Hostility makes good copy, and conventional wisdom suggests that debating issues is a good thing. It certainly is good television. But the communication reality is that aggressive debating without objective scoring always results in polarizing both debaters and audiences.

Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. A Democrat’s argument only makes a Republican a better Republican. And vice versa. To find our way out of this mess we will need to replace betting on horse races and taking sides in debates with focusing full news media and political attention on finding workable solutions to complex problems.

We desperately need to turn the temperature way down on hostility all across society. Now more than ever each and every politician, government official, journalist, and citizen must play a part in eliminating the wickedness that is tearing us apart… and find specific ways to help save the future of our otherwise values-based country.

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A reader recently asked me how public confidence in journalism can be restored. I did not have a ready answer, but promised to reflect on my longtime experience and make some observations.

A compelling article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs argues that Americans are losing confidence in expertise everywhere. Experts are confusing because they disagree with each other. And 24/7 information clutter makes it too hard to sort out the truth. So the result is that a growing number of people just want to find strong sounding leaders they can believe will make their life better. Then, they vote that way and ignore the experts… be they professors, scientists, pundits, or journalists.

Even so, serious journalists remain deeply concerned about the decline of public confidence in their work. To some extent they are indeed victims of this overall changing public attitude about expertise. But they also work for organizations that must be commercially competitive and earn profits. This reality adds additional complications.

In earlier broadcasting days I remember a television production professor of mine pointing to a TV camera and saying, “This is a TV camera. It is used to make programs that deliver audiences to commercials.” At first, news was not seen as a profit center. But as it demonstrated it could become one, “the news” began to change. Producers learned how to attract audiences for commercials that would pay the high cost of news reporting. And they did it by bringing entertainment values into news programming. Gradually they used the power of celebrity and ratcheted-up the pace and drama to make it all more compelling.

But is it possible that by making news more entertaining people now watch it (or read it) mostly for entertainment? Consider that Mr. Trump’s press attacks stimulated a “news war” between the New York Times and the Washington Post and that a colleague told me that he found following it to be quite entertaining. Trump gets his visibility. Television gets viewers. Newspapers get readers. Profits are up. Everyone wins. Except possibly all the serious investigative journalists, and the seriously confused news consumers.

Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Can pressures for more and more news drama be lessened?
  2. Can preferring fashion model look-a-like anchors and pundits be changed?
  3. Can anchors stop aligning their own celebrity status with entertainment and sports celebrities?
  4. Can overall fast-paced, high drama anchoring be slowed down?
  5. Can using the term “breaking news” just to add drama be stopped?
  6. Can promising “new information after the break” (when only the words change) be stopped.
  7. Can legitimate experts be allowed to finish their thoughts instead of constantly cutting them off?
  8. Does the profession have the responsibility to explain exactly why consumers must become their own editors?
  9. Can “live” TV coverage of clearly outrageous, headline-seeking political events be ended?
  10. Can shouting reporter mobs alter their behavior “optics?”
  11. Should both the uses and hazards of “insider news leaks” be explained more clearly in the reporting?
  12. Should media organizations  underwrite and promote “media literacy” education in schools, universities and community groups?
  13. Should news accuracy policy commitments be visibly broadcast and printed?
  14. Should news consumers be asked to submit ideas for earning their confidence… on-line and in ongoing focus groups?

The U.S. constitution protects the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. But this protection did not anticipate today’s “news business,” and its need to be profitable. Some would suggest that expanding public broadcasting and nonprofit news organizations is the answer. But others accurately observe that adequate funding and creeping commercial underwriting influences are also issues in today’s nonprofit world.

Even in an age where faith in educated expertise might be declining, greater public confidence in journalism is absolutely critical to preserving our nation’s democratic future. My conclusion is that both the news consuming public and journalism professionals have shared responsibilities for finding the best way forward.

 

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Three people with three knives and a van are able to able to achieve 24/7 nonstop visibility. Are cable channels just handing terrorist organizations the publicity they seek, or is all this coverage essential information that the public needs to have? This is one of the dilemmas of the “reality television” world we now inhabit.

Cable news has the technology to provide immediate and ongoing coverage, and along with that comes a business model that requires them to use it. So here is the way such coverage unfolds:

Getting there first with the most technical and human resources is an important competitive advantage. Keeping the audience engaged becomes critical. Losing viewers is counterproductive to their purpose. Witnesses in the street are the first available interviews. So early death and causality numbers will come from their speculation and hearsay. These numbers are always wrong, but are reported anyway. Ongoing casualty reports now become an unmentioned “keeping the audience engaged” factor. It will take a while for investigating and political officials to make more accurate statements.

Soon retired FBI and other experts are brought in to review once again the steps that investigators follow to identify potential accomplices. They tell us that investigators go to where the terrorists live, find their family members, locate their friends, identify previous travel and possible training, etc. The audience will likely hear this process described over again by several different retired experts.

Reporters also will describe once again where victims are taken, explaining that several hospitals are always used. As witnesses who were inside the event (or are now in the hospital) can be found, they are also asked to tell their stories in as much emotional detail as they are willing. These tragic human interest stories become the final step in continuous coverage, and potential followup stories later.

Both recent London bridge events are examples of how these events unfold for long periods of time with very little new information reported along the way. Cable channels cover it because they can, and it simply is what they do. It is good reality television. But how much of it is news? And how damaging is it to be giving terrorists the publicity they so desperately crave?

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