Archive for the ‘National media issues’ Category

Students hopeful they’ll have jobs in journalism

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

I recently reconnected with an old friend in the newspaper business, who now edits a community newspaper in Wisconsin.

One of his first questions was, “What’s the attitude of students taking journalism classes these days?”

He didn’t have to explain further. It was clear that he meant, “Are they worried about the state of jobs in the journalism world.”

My response was short. I wrote:

“Their attitude is pretty good.

“They’re realistic about the business model – or lack thereof – for sustaining newspapers. But they’re also hopeful about new media opportunities.

“One of the first things I did at MCCC was create a new media journalism course and add a Web site for the student newspaper.

“I emphasize over and over to students that graduates who get jobs will be those who are equally comfortable writing a news story, shooting and editing a video, blogging, using social networking, etc.

“And as you can imagine, they take to all that like fish to water. But they also love the newspaper and want their stories published in the print version, too.”

I’ve read a number of articles this fall about student use of college newspapers around the country. The research shows that students are still reading college newspapers – often spending more time with them than with the newspaper’s Web site.

That seems to amaze people, because the same surveys report that students get most of their news online

Of course, there’s one simple explanation. College newspapers – like The Agora, the student newspaper at MCCC – are lying around all over campus. When you’re waiting for a class to start or munching a burger in the cafeteria, they’re handy.

But it’s more than that.

I also think that newspapers retain a certain cache with young people. They don’t think about them first – they turn to their cell phone first, their laptop second. A newspaper is an afterthought.

But I’ve noticed that journalism students don’t want their stories to be posted only on the Web. They also want to see them in print.

It means more to them that their article is enshrined in newsprint and ink. It gives it a sort of permanency, or maybe legitimacy.

At any rate, the answer to my old friend’s question is that students are hopeful they’ll have jobs in journalism.

And some of them actually hope they’ll be able to work for a newspaper.

Yes, blame media for Quran burning mess, but…

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I asked students in my journalism class for their opinions on how media handled the Florida preacher and his Quran-burning publicity stunt.

They were pretty much unanimous in blaming the media for turning a small-town hate monger into a global icon – and in the process further tarnishing the United States’ image in the world.
I can’t disagree.

That was my reaction, too, from the very beginning. One of the funniest lines came from the White House press secretary, who noted that Rev. Terry Jones’ press conferences attracted more reporters than his sermons attracted parishioners. (Here’s a NY Times article that includes the quote).

Yet it’s easy to blame the “Media,” with a capital M – that amorphous blob dominated by national TV news but that also includes everything from fringe blogs to the New York Times.

It’s a lot harder to actually identify what went wrong – to pinpoint exactly who should have done what differently.

When Rev. Terry Jones started his campaign by posting a sign in front of the church that read, “Islam is of the devil,” the local newspaper, the Gainsville Times, wrote a story under the headline, “Anti-Islam church sign stirs up community outrage.”

Seems like a fairly responsible thing to do.

The first coverage of Rev. Jones’ Quran-burning plans was on a Web site, Religion News Service. That small article slowly mushroomed through the Internet until it was on Yahoo and Rev. Jones was being invited to appear on cable news shows.

But the real kicker came when it reached the Middle East and Muslims began expressing outrage. That’s when the mainstream media could no longer leave it alone.

The TV networks, the New York Times, the Associated Pres – the big boys in U.S. media – couldn’t very well ignore protests involving hundreds of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So the story continued to take on momentum, until it was being discussed by heads of state around the world.

To their credit, most of those major news outlets announced that they would not show pictures of a Quran burning. There’s no sense offending people gratuitously.

But that’s too little, too late. The cat’s out of the bag. The lid of Pandora’s box has been opened.
Still, it’s not clear what any individual media outlet should have done differently.

The Internet changes the rules of the game. A small story can explode through the World Wide Web, becoming a big story without any help from traditional media.

This wasn’t a case of the Gainsville Times giving Rev. Jones undue coverage, and the Associated Press picking up the story and giving it traction nationwide. Then you could have pointed a finger at the local newspaper and the national wire service.

In the old days, that’s about the only way a local story got national legs.

But now a small Web news service can write a short story, and it can take off like wildfire.

It can become “News” with a capital “N” before it’s even touched by traditional media.

Yes, I blame the media. At some point cooler heads at all the national media – newspaper, radio, television and Internet – should have simply turned off the faucet. They should have relegated Rev. Jones to the cutting room floor.

His antics are designed for one purpose – to get attention for his fringe views.

But once the story has reached the level of international protests, it’s pretty hard to ignore.

Yes, blame the media. But understand that there aren’t any easy answers.

Ground Zero and a mosque – a divided nation

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Every once in a while a news story comes along that further widens the schism between right and left in America.

The mosque near Ground Zero is one of those stories.

The two sides are so blind to each others’ perspective that they can’t even agree on the terms to use.

The Associated Press last week issued a memo to staff members with guidelines on the appropriate terminology when describing the mosque’s location.

It shouldn’t be called “the Ground Zero mosque,” AP noted, because it’s not actually located at Ground Zero. The site is two blocks from the former World Trade Center, in a busy retail neighborhood.

Opponents, however, chastised the AP for shying away from that language. It certainly is “The Ground Zero Mosque” in their eyes, because it’s a heinous attempt to poke a stick in Americ’as eye by putting a mosque anywhere near the location of 3,000 deaths caused by Muslim extremists.

It reminds me of the early days of the abortion debate. One side didn’t want to be called anti-abortion – they preferred “pro-life.” The other side didn’t want to be called pro-abortion – they preferred “pro-choice.”

Journalists just wanted to use the language that was the most clear and descriptive – whatever communicates best. But both sides complained the media were biased because they didn’t use their preferred term. It took years for this debate to sort itself out.

When dealing with a hotly controversial subject, fair and unbiased is in the eye of the beholder. There is no way a journalist can stay in the middle – in the eyes of the protagonists.

Use “mosque near Ground Zero” and you’re supporting one side. Use “Ground Zero mosque” and you’re on the other side.

It’s no wonder that surveys continue to show falling public confidence in journalism – whether in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio or the Internet.

Any journalist who succeeds in finding a middle ground while reporting on a subject like the Manhattan mosque (how’s that for a compromise?) is likely to alienate both sides.

For the record, I think the AP did the right thing. They gave the subject the serious thought it deserved and instructed their reporters to use the terminology that is most clear and accurate.

It’s not the Ground Zero mosque – that implies the mosque is part of the 16 acres of Ground Zero property that is currently being rebuilt into offices, homes, parks and a museum.

It’s a mosque near Ground Zero, or more precisely, two blocks from Ground Zero.

Also for the record: I think both sides are right in large part.

The group planning the mosque has every right to build it where they choose, as long as it meets local zoning laws – which it does. I’ve walked that neighborhood and there are numerous churches, temples, synagogues, etc. Remember, we have religious freedom in America. It’s one of our most honored traditions.

At the same time, I think it’s insensitive of the Muslim group to ignore the outcry and insist on sticking with their plans. They could help the cause of Muslims in America by voluntarily deciding to move further from Ground Zero.

America is pretty good at religious tolerance. Despite some hiccups during our history, we generally get along with our neighbors, regardless of their religious beliefs. We don’t have civil wars based on religion, like those troubling much of the world.

But Americans are human, with all the frailities that come with the package. It’s easy to get people riled up by playing on religious faith and the natural human fear of the unknown.

The real villains in this episode are those in politics and the media who are trying to inflame the fires of religious intolerance for political gain.

Together, Muslims and Christians account for a little more than half the people on Earth, with about 2 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims. Neither group is going away; we have to learn to live together.

Responsible politicans and media will find ways to bridge the differences, not inflame them.

News flash – journalism jobs coming back?

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

For the last five years, I’ve watched the steady loss of news jobs with an uneasy confidence that the decline was temporary.

Common sense told me that news isn’t less popular – all the research shows that people want reliable, well-written coverage of the news more than ever. And in the increasingly complicated world, it seemed logical that quality journalism would be valued even more, not less.

The problem, of course, was that the business model that has sustained journalism jobs for a century was falling apart.

Now, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel – two news organizations with very different backgrounds have announced hiring sprees.

Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, announced that it’s hiring 34 new journalists for its newsroom and digital teams. For a traditional news organization, that’s an impressive commitment to the future of news gathering.

Earlier this year, AOL, the former online giant which now is struggling to find its way, announced that it will hire hundreds of journalists, editors and videographers in the next year, as part of its commitment to creating original news content.

Of course, those are just two bright spots in an otherwise struggling industry. It has been difficult to tell over the last few years how much of the news industry’s struggles had to do with the recession and how much with the Internet. As the economic recovery stalls, it’s still hard to tell.

Everyone agrees that the news industry is in transition, and that digital delivery of news is key to the future.

But will “legacy” news organizations – the newspapers, radio stations, magazines and TV stations we’ve trusted for generations – survive the transition?

Or will they be replaced by start-up Internet companies or digital giants like Yahoo and Google? 

Are the Newsday and AOL stories an abberation or a trend?

All good questions without answers at this point.

Kennedy coverage inspiring, mostly balanced

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Coverage of the death of Edward Kennedy got me thinking about one of the trickiest issues faced by journalists.

No human being is perfect. Even great men are flawed. Ted Kennedy is a case study for that statement.

So, if it’s your job to summarize Ted Kennedy’s life for a news story, how do you handle the flaws.

For example, the lead Associated Press story chosen by The Monroe Evening News for Wedneday’s front page waited until the sixth paragraph to  mention Chappa­quiddick, the tragic site of a woman’s death in 1969 that forever tarnished Kennedy’s image.

I scanned a half-dozen news Web sites Wednesday afternoon and they were dominated by stories of Kennedy’s great career as a U.S. Senator. You had to look hard to find the bad stuff – Chappa­quiddick or other references to Kennedy’s fabled drinking and womanizing.

I looked at and, and couldn’t find a recognizable difference in the tone or level of coverage.

I wasn’t alone with that thought, though. Apparently the Cable channel coverage wasn’t as similar. As TIME TV critic James Poniewozik noted on his blog, Fox gave Kennedy’s death considerably less coverage than the other cable networks.

Frankly, the fact that Fox News paid less attention to Kennedy’s death than CNN and MSNBC doesn’t bother me. As Poniewozik noted, Fox was simply giving its viewers what they want.

Anyone who has worked with me can tell you I put readers’ interests first when making news decisions. It’s not about what I want; it’s about what readers want. Sometimes I’ve made decisions that were against my nature – but what I thought readers wanted and expected.

Fox News executives know their viewers. They understand that Kennedy’s death was important, but that their viewers would want them to give the necessary details, then get on to something else.

The Onion

Then there’s The Onion, which got some criticism for attacking Kennedy with satire too quickly.

Again, I can’t be too critical. That’s what The Onion does. Don’t go there if you don’t want to be offended. Offending anyone and everyone is what makes The Onion fun. And satire has a way at getting to some truths that are hard to find otherwise.

Bottom line: I thought the coverage I saw, in newspapers, on the Internet and TV, was comprehensive and interesting. Even though I’ve followed Ted Kennedy’s career my entire life, I learned some things I didn’t know, and the balance of good and bad seemed to be appropriate.

The character flaws were neither hidden or played out of proportion. Kennedy came across as a great man with some personal problems, which is probably pretty close to the truth.

A new era begins today

Monday, March 30th, 2009

The Detroit newspapers are not being delivered to homes today.

Is this evidence of the fall of newspapers, or a healthy sign of the re-birth of  journalism in America?

Only time will tell.

The idea that newspapers can survive as a new paper/online mix that emphasizes daily news on the Web and a print edition only two or three times a week, is not that far-fetched.

Actually, it fits my personal news reading habits these days. I often skip my daily newspaper and catch up on the news on-line when I have time. The papers sometimes pile up for days.

But two or three times a week, when I do have time, I prefer to curl up with my dead tree version of the news. It has so many advantages over a computer – portability and serendipity being the most obvious.

So while I was initially critical of the experiment by the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, and also reacted negatively to the announcement by Michigan’s Booth Newspapers of similar plans, I’m now rethinking.

For most American newspapers, I think the move would be premature. As long as people want a daily newspaper delivered to their homes, I think media companies should continue providing it. It seems, at first glance, to be insane for the Detroit and Ann Arbor papers to politely decline to deliver the daily paper, even though tens of thousands are willing to pay for it.

But I understand what they’re aiming at. The status quo isn’t working. Newspaper profitability is declining, exacerbated by the recession.  

News that is timely and important, I’ve usually read online before my printed paper arrives (or I get home to read it). 

Much of the content of the paper isn’t that timely. When I read it three days late, I still enjoy it. I’m glad when I find a good article about progress in treating diabetes, or political turmoil in Africa, or a neighbor with an interesting hobby. I would never read those stories on-line, but I’m drawn to them when I turn the newspaper page.

Since most people are now using both methods – along with TV, radio, cell phones, etc., to get the news – why not search for a better blend of online and print that allows cost cuts but retains the essential ingredient – good journalism.

Of course, one of the problems with this scenerio comes when there is big news on a day the newspaper is not delivering. It was probably inevitable that would happen on the first day of Detroit’s experiment, with the big GM announcement and Michigan State making the Final Four. 

Oh, well. I’m rooting for the Detroit, Ann Arbor and other newspaper experiments. Whether they have the right model or not remains to be seen. It’s not a bad thing that they’re experimenting.

If this approach can save local journalism in Detroit and Ann Arbor – reporters covering the news of government and community – then it’s a good thing.

I’m just glad the Monroe Evening News is still delivered to my doorstep daily. It’s still my decision whether I read the print or online version .

In Detroit, readers no longer have that choice, and Ann Arbor readers will lose that choice this summer.

Good for Rush Limbaugh

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

I’ve been listening to Rush Limbaugh off and on for years, since early in his rise to the top of talk radio.

I agree with some of what he says, disagree with some of it, and get a good laugh almost every time I tune him in.

This week was good for several laughs, as Mr. Limbaugh gained the national stage as never before by first challenging the president to a debate, then saying he hopes Barack Obama fails.

The amazing thing is, the mainstream media actually took him seriously.

As a journalist dedicated to being impartial, I’m interested in what everyone has to say. I don’t feel “informed” until I’ve heard all sides.

In that context, I’ve found Mr. Limbaugh to be a convenient mouthpiece for conservatives. If I wondered where the right wing stood on any particular issue, I could listen to Rush for a day or two and feel confident I had heard that side of the story.

Over the years, he has been amazingly consistent with his message. He’s the classic ideologue. He knows one line, and he knows it well. You can count on him for the company line – conservative style.

In the process, you also can count on him to say some really outrageous things. You can’t tell for sure whether he has his tongue firmly in his cheek. He often doesn’t let on. But if you’re half-way open-minded, that’s where the laughs come in. It’s really funny stuff. 

Of course, when you realize that some of the 14 million people in his radio audience think he’s serious, even when he’s being obnoxious for effect, it’s a little scary.

Bottom line. Mr. Limbaugh is a very talented entertainer. In his speech last week to a conservative conference in Washington, D.C., he told some hilarious jokes. He said some things that made a lot of sense, especially if you’re a conservative. And he said some things that were rude and obnoxious. It was all completely in character. That’s who he is.

The great irony is that – no surprise – the big winner of the week was Rush Limbaugh. His ratings will go up. He got lots of attention. It seems obvious that’s what he lives for.

Of course, the Republican Party was the biggest loser. They’re stuck with even more Americans thinking that Rush Limbaugh is the spokesman for their party. Ouch!

The Democrats didn’t come off much better. They jumped so heavily on the bandwagon they must have broken both axles. Not a pretty sight.

Congratulations to Rush.

Speech coverage became political too quickly

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Journalism is all about telling both sides of a story.

That’s as it should be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard one side and been convinced they were right, only to hear the other side and be equally convinced. Often there are third and fourth perspectives, too.

The world isn’t a black and white place; that’s why covering news can be so challenging.

The coverage of Barack Obama’s budget speech last night got me thinking about this. Of course, print and broadcast journalists gave details from the speech. They related the high points of what the president said.

But it seemed like the coverage switched too quickly to what the opposition had to say, turning the story into a “he said, they said,” before readers/viewers had a chance to digest the content of what may turn out to be a very important discussion of the future of our country.

Maybe that’s because reporters assumed everyone had watched or listened to the speech and reaction was more important. 

I think there’s another reason. In the highly polarized state we’ve evolved into over the last couple decades, journalists have been under attack for leaning too far to the left. And they’ve been lambasted particularly in the last year for being too soft on Barack Obama.

So there is a knee-jerk response to make sure they’re getting the conservative response to everything the president says or does.  

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly think the Republican reaction to a presidential speech is an appropriate part of the coverage. It would be wrong not to include it.

But the meat and potatoes of coverage of a major presidential speech should be reporting on and analyzing the details and the nuances – helping  Americans understand what it all means to them.

Instead, it was turned into a political football to be kicked back and forth.

Language of steroid coverage drives me crazy

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

As I read and listen to the coverage of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use, I find myself wincing at the imprecise and sometimes just plain wrong use of the language.

One radio commentator kept talking about A-Rod’s drug abuse.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think steroids when I hear the term “drug abuse.”

Of course, the term “drugs” isn’t inaccurate. In its widest, generic use, almost anything you can ingest, from aspirin to caffeine, is a drug. But it sure isn’t the word I’d choose to describe what A-Rod and others did during the height of baseball’s steroid era.

Then there’s the term “performance-enhancing substance.”

Okay, that’s not “wrong,” either. But it’s almost as vague. Vitamin C is a performance-enhancing substance, along with protein drinks, Gatorade and granola bars.

Athletes have been searching for the most “performance-enhancing” food supplements since the days of Roman gladiators. There’s a fine line between the healthy, legitimate substances and the unhealthy, unethical ones.

Another term that drives me crazy is “banned substances.” That works in cycling and swimming.  But baseball had not banned the use of steroids and human growth hormones back in 2003 when A-Rod, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, among others, apparently were using them.

As in most writing, the best word choices are the most specific. If you’re talking about steroids, then call them steroids. If you’re talking about human growth hormones, then call them that. And quickly explain whether they were illegal or not at the time they were used.

Of course, one of the great ironies surrounding baseball’s now infamous steroids era is that nobody is going to be punished for using steroids or any other substance. But several people are likely to spend time in jail for lying about it.

It’s one of the many unfair facts about life – what you do isn’t as important as when you get caught.

Because Barry Bonds was fingered early in the process, he chose to lie, and now he’s on trial facing jail time because of it. Same with Miguel Tejada, who is facing charges of lying to Congress.

Alex Rodriguez’ steroid use wasn’t discovered until years later, when hindsight makes it obvious that the best option is to tell the truth – only lying in front of a judge or Congress can land you in jail.

They both did the same thing many of the other athletes of their era did – reach for any edge that would make them better. The pitchers were doing it – why do you think so many 88-mph fastballs became 94-mph fastballs. They wanted to compete.

Was it right? Of course not. They knew they were cheating. But it was like being in a classroom taking a test when the teacher left the room and a third of the class began comparing answers. Is it the students’ fault or the teacher’s?

A little of both, I’d say.

Some of the students are going to be punished. What about the teachers?

Taking down Kwame – no hard feelings

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

“It’s not personal.”

That comes from Mike Elrick, one of the reporters who broke the text message story that ended in Kwame Kilpatrick moving from city hall to the county jail.

“It’s business. Just doing my job. No hard feelings on my part,” was how Elrick described his state of mind just days after the former mayor got out of jail.

“Of course, Kwame may not feel that way,” he added.

I attended a talk Friday by the two Detroit Free Press reporters who broke the Kwame Kilpatrick text message story.

Elrick and Jim Schaefer spoke at the Michigan Press Association annual meeting Friday, in a session moderated by Ron Dzwonkowski, an associate editor at the Free Press.

I’m glad I went. There are lots of story lines from the talk. Including a few good nuggets that I can pass along to journalism students in my classes. Here are some highlights:

— First, I was impressed by the two reporters’ professionalism and humble, self-deprecating manner. It was good to see two guys representing our profession so well. There was no gloating or grandstanding. They clearly were proud of what they did – as they should be. But they did a nice job of keeping it in perspective.

— One of the principal messages they left was that good reporting is about building good relationships with sources. And the best way to do that is to always tell the truth. Be upfront and straightforward, both in any promises you give sources and in what you report in the newspaper.

 Even if you report information that is critical of a source, in the long run they and others will respect you if the facts are accurate and fairly presented.

Building good source relationships isn’t just about asking questions. It’s also about getting to know people as human beings.

 “We talk to people when we don’t want anything, too,” Schaefer noted. 

And both added that it’s okay to give a source a heads-up the day before a critical story.

“At least that way, they can get to the newspaper in the morning before their spouse,” Schaefer said. “They appreciate the gesture.”

— Where and how you approach a source who may have information you want can make a difference.

Elrick and Schaefer often went to public officials’ homes in the evening to ask questions – so the sources wouldn’t have to explain to coworkers or bosses why they were talking to reporters.

“We try to find people in a setting where they are comfortable,” Elrick said.

— Persistence is one of a reporter’s best tools:

“We never take no for an answer,” Elrick said. “We know that more than one person has the information. And we know that people in their heart want to do the right thing. We try to make people understand why it’s in the public’s best interest to give us the information.”

— “Off the record” conversations with sources are part of investigative reporting. 

Both Elrick and Schaefer said they let sources give them information  
confidentially. But both emphasized that it involves constant negotiation, trying to get as much information “on the record” as possible.

It’s not off the record until both the source and the reporter agree that it is, Elrick said.

 “You can’t let a source say this is off the record and then just start talking,” he said.

It’s critical that the reporter clarifies exactly what “off the record” means to both parties. And then, after listening to the information, the reporter should start trying to get as much as possible on the record.

Often, Schaefer said, sources want to be off the record. But when you read back to them what you want to report, they say, “yeh, that’s okay.”

— The other key message from the two reporters was that the Internet has dramatically changed the way they do business.

“People want to read, hear, see the news on a variety of platforms,” Elrick said.

As they reported on the text message story, they usually had at least one and often two or more videographers with them – so there would be video for the Free Press Web site,

They noted that the text message story broke on the Web site the night before it was in the print edition of the Free Press.