reporting

It pays to pay attention

If you’re a sporting correspondent keeping viewers up to date with the happenings in a match – it pays to know more than the show’s anchor who’s crossing to you about the happenings of the match you’re watching.

Lehrer’s rules for journalism

Jim Lehrer is to journalists what any other respected expert is to their chosen field. He finished his last broadcast with a list of rules that have guided him through a career in the profession.

  • Do nothing I cannot defend.
  • Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
  • Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  • Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
  • Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
  • Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  • Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
  • Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.
  • No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  • And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.”

YouTube Tuesday: Chk, Chk, Boom

There’s a slight language (and racism) warning to this video. Though I assume that unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve already seen it.

Opinion on this whole situation – where a 19 year old gives a fake eyewitness account to a TV camera after a non-fatal shooting – is pretty split. I’m in the “I think this was a hilarious way to teach the media a lesson about verifying sources and not looking for a sensationalised quote at all costs” camp.

Seriously, reporting of this sort of shooting with “on the spot, live to air” broadcasts – or even rapid fire report filing – lends itself to this sort of treatment. And I hope she (Clare Werbeloff) rides this 15 minutes of fame as far as it takes her. The media deserve it – and the associated condemnation/celebration being carried out in print and over the airwaves just perpetuates the problem and justifies the behaviour.

Profiling: Journalism 2.0

One of the funny things about the growing popularity of social media – particularly MySpace and Facebook – is the way the mainstream press is now relying on information gleaned from profiles to sensationalise their stories.

Every time a celebrity, athlete or multi-million dollar heiress gets a little bit of media coverage for something  the media are quick to delve into their online profiles for compelling pictures and anecdotal evidence to make the case against them.

The same goes for “alleged” arsonists. The name of the one man so far charged over the fires in Victoria has been released.

As soon as the name was released the muckrackers journalists in newsrooms around the country were no doubt scanning MySpace, Facebook and their ilk looking for information. Then you start getting stories like this. Based solely on reactions on the social networks. Then there’s this quote from the Daily Mail in the UK:

“Arson suspect Sokaluk is said to have worked as a gardener at Melbourne’s Monash University, but had lost his job amid rumoured mental health problems.

His page on a social website shows an uneducated man looking for love. Alongside a photo taken of himself in a mirror, Sokaluk writes: ‘Sex sells but love larst for ever.’

Writing about himself he says: ‘I’m a young happy male who wants to meet a young loven female to marrid.’

As to who he would like to meet, he writes: ‘Like to meet my sole mate not some old hag.’

He says his favourite TV shows are CSI, cops, documentaries and ‘histery’.”

No doubt all the spelling mistakes were included to show just how intelligent this guy is. Not very. Clearly. Here’s his MySpace profile. I hate MySpace. He also hates books. They put him to sleep.

Profiling – using ethnicity, assumptions based on the nature of a crime, and psychological profiles, to catch bad guys is one of those murky areas – it works, but it’s not politically correct. Particularly the ethnic profiling stuff.  But the profile of an arsonist I posted last week pretty much stacks up with what is in the public sphere about this guy. He even mentions Mother Nature, and is reported to have been rejected by the volunteer firefighters.

“My hero is mother earth  –  with out her we all would be dead.”

Objective reporting

The discussion is continuing on my take on “Disaster Reporting” – which is no longer on the front page. It’s reminded me of an assignment I wrote in my final Journalism subject at uni. It was about objectivity and the state of modern journalism.

“In a sense the intellectual argument for objectivity has been effectively killed by post modernity. Any coverage of an event is “objective,” so long as the writer presents their view of the facts. A wider, purer form of objectivity is important at an organisational level. The media should represent the public at large, this means representing the diverse range of views and opinions on any issue.”

“The pursuit of objectivity has damaged journalism’s claim to a professional status. If journalistic practice is simply a paint-by-numbers process, trained journalists are a surplus to requirements. For journalism to be considered anything more than formulaic, and for the press to uphold its essential role in the democratic process, stories must move past the superficial and engage the intellect.”

Disaster reporting

Stuss has a great post today about news coverage of disasters. With particular reference to the current fires and the saturation of “special news editions” on commercial television.

“This week I am again appalled at the news coverage. As far as I’m concerned, it is just not appropriate to show extended footage of any disaster. Regular updates, fine, good even, but not regular as in replace everything you would normally be showing.”

As a journalism graduate working in PR I’ve got some thoughts on the issue. I reckon these are probably worth posting here – even though they’re pretty much verbatim what I posted as a comment on Stuss’s post.

As a “journalist” I’m in two minds on this. Disasters like this are real news – and there are people who want to know every bit of the story – particularly if they have friends or families in affected areas and haven’t been able to make contact. But, sometimes not a lot is happening and there’s a whole lot of repetition – and then there’s the talking to about 10 secondary sources.

Experts in their fields. So you have the eye witnesses, the firefighters, the fire commissioner, the politician, the police and other involved parties having their say… then you have the behavioural psychologists, the weathermen, the university professor, the opinion columnist, etc, all throwing their opinions into the mix.

If you consider the September 11 story – the news coverage started off reporting just the facts. From and objective point – two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre buildings. There were plenty of “objective” updates. The buildings collapsed. The rescue effort. All of these were newsworthy elements and there were lots of primary sources to be talked to.

Then, in the days following the actual moment of impact there was a heap of other stuff thrown into the coverage. Speculation on why the buildings collapsed, interviews with engineers about the tower’s structure, interviews with people who knew about the effect of heat on steel. That sort of thing. Then there was the “why” element – terrorism experts, politicians. Everyone had two cents worth to throw in. Reporting a disaster is like peeling an onion – you can split a story into layers and layers of complexity.

There’s an inverted relationship between time and newsworthy content – unless new things are happening all the time.

Because of ratings pressure and the desire not to be “one upped” if something significant does happen all the networks are simultaneously peeling the onion. They need to keep doing that to keep the coverage rolling.

There should be a dedicated “disaster channel” and each network should donate resources to a pool of talent – and they could all draw stuff out of that pool for nightly bulletins.

As a viewer, I tend to get sick of the special coverage pretty quickly if nothing new is happening. The fact that I keep watching comes from my inner news addict than from any form of compelling content.

Having dedicated event coverage is also good for continuity of viewing. The nature of big stories is that there are lots of new bits happening all the time. I would be very frustrated if my regular programming was constantly interrupted by updates. At that point I think keeping the “special news bulletin” thing running is less disruptive than otherwise.

Extended coverage of disasters can have a demonstrably large effect on children. I did an assignment on that at uni once.

The other problem with the reporting aspect comes when circumstances are blown up to pad out bulletins. Take the current flooding in North Queensland as a case study.

Ingham is underwater. That’s bad for Ingham. But news bulletins around the country have been featuring journalists based in Townsville in their weather updates. Townsville has had some water. Yesterday’s king tide didn’t help things.

But to use images from the small percentage of streets in Townsville with flooding and tar everywhere with the same watery brush is unconscionable reporting and does significant damage to the city’s reputation and its economy. Tourism bookings to Townsville are being canceled all over the place. We’re in contact with Tourism Queensland’s international offices daily because people think Townsville is underwater.

Overstating the case in a disaster is a spur of the moment decision by news producers with pretty big consequences for those on the ground. This is particularly problematic when secondary source experts with no bona fides are thrown in front of a camera to spread their particular brand of hysteria.

Try being the person who has to fix the idea that Townsville will be closed for the next two months due to flooding.

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