Tuesday, May 3, 2011

If It Bleeds It Leads

Amber Wright

REALITY v. MEDIA: Myth-Making in New Orleans (Brian Thevenot)

As journalists we understand the importance of accuracy, but as human beings we understand the inevitability of mistakes. In his article “Myth-Making in New Orleans,’ Brian Thevenot addresses the issue of misinformation by analyzing the circulation of rumors following hurricane Katrina, including those he wrote himself.

I appreciated how the author made it a point to say the article wasn’t about placing blame, but rather to explain what happened and why. It’s very admirable for him to take full responsibility for his own mistakes even though it was clearly unintentional. He acted professionally, admitting what he did wrong and how it happened so that future coverage can avoid ending in the same disaster.

I don’t think it is wrong to report victim testimonies that aren’t/can’t be verified, as long as it includes a disclaimer like Jim Dwyer of the New York Times argued (32.) Reporting false information in such a scenario is definitely understandable as an honest mistake, especially if the source is a person of expertise or authority. We assume that the information given to us by doctors is correct in the same way Thevenot believed the statements given to him by the military personnel was trustworthy.

Michael Perlstein and David Meek’s interview with Paula Zahn brings up the issue of framing questions to shape the message given by an interview. Zahn immediately asked how the mayor “got it all wrong” and what his “most egregious exaggeration” was. I consider these to be trick questions because if they had been answered directly then fault would have immediately been placed on the mayor, regardless of the actual circumstances. Meeks and Perlstein did a wonderful job evading the trap. They displayed great qualities all journalists could benefit from: critical thinking on-the-fly, as well as the ability to recognize bias and correct it with his response, giving the mayor a fair portrayal.

The author should also be credited for admitting that breaking-news stories commonly contain inaccurate information in the first report. He called it to attention and identified the causes so that blame wasn’t placed on just one person. Inaccuracies can creep into a story from many different levels, whether it’s the trauma-stricken embellishment given by a victim or the unverified claim by a person in power. It could be intentional for personal gain or simply a mistake. People are naturally emotional after traumatic events and it would not be surprising if some officials perpetuated the rumors to gather more support. However, the main goal is to correct the problem by releasing corrections, not to point fingers.

I agree with the author’s assertion that it is hypocritical of bloggers to condemn journalists for neglecting to check facts considering that they rarely verify their sources and usually get their information from journalists. However, journalists are most likely college-trained graduates with the knowledge needed to investigate validity of claims. Furthermore, they are more likely to have the time and resources to do so, especially if they work for a major newspaper. While I believe bloggers should be more understanding of the situation and stop trying to turn mistakes into media conspiracies, I don’t think it is unreasonable to hold a professional journalist to a higher standard. After all, anyone can write a blog, but not everyone can land a position at a major news outlet. Bloggers trust that the journalists have taken the steps they were trained and hired to do. If a journalist can’t even be trusted, then where can people turn for news they can trust?

The biggest lesson I take away from this it to always ask your source how they know the information they give me and who can confirm it. I have to admit that I probably would have done the same thing as Thevenot in his situation before I read this article. However, I do not think that journalists deserve criticism for making mistakes if they had the integrity to take responsibility for it and the initiative to correct it. This author acted in an ethical and professional manner by admitting the problem and explaining the situation so that others might avoid similar dilemmas.

SENSATIONALISM / CELEBRITY: “Just Say No” and “Et Tu, Nightline?”

In her article “Just Say No,” Rem Rieder praised NBC’s Bob Costa for turning down a request for him to fill-in for CNN’s Larry King. According to Rieder, Costa’s refusal stemmed from the fact that the show focused on the “already frighteningly over-covered saga” of Natalee Holloway, a U.S. teenager who disappeared in Aruba during a class trip.

In the article “Et Tu, Nightline?” Jill Rosen discusses the arguments for and against extensive celebrity coverage, such as the coverage of Michael Jackson during the trial for allegedly molesting children, and that of Kobe Bryant during allegations of raping a girl in Aspen, Colorado.

These kinds of stories have been labeled as “infotainment,” because they are valued for amusement rather than education. I can definitely agree that these stories receive more attention than they deserve, while more important news are often cast in their shadow. It reminds me of the attention Brittany Spears received when she shaved her head. I agree that it is ridiculous, or even silly. However, I can understand why so many news media decide to run the story anyway.

While it is rather odd that Americans seem to have a fascination with violence, death and “damsels in distress,” the fact of the matter remains that the audience enjoys it and viewership ratings skyrocket. It should be acknowledged that media corporations are still businesses and depend on attracting viewers to bring in revenue. If they do not cover stories simply because they are “over-covered,” then they run the risk of losing that revenue. Independently-funded news sources are crucial for acting as watchdogs to the government and that wouldn’t be plausible if the government ended up providing the funds, as most journalists have heard numerous times. Even if it did not reach that point, reducing news companies also reduces the variety of coverage.

The way I see it, interesting feature stories are beneficial even if it does not concern public policy issues. They still motivate people to switch on the news, where they are likely to view more important stories as well. If all news became strictly about policy and safety issues, then viewership would probably take a dramatic dive and people would end up being even less informed because they never bothered to check it out in the first place. In turn, reforms would be significantly more difficult to initiate without the public being aware of the issues and motivated to support it.

In my opinion, there should be a healthy balance between hard and soft news stories. I draw the line at covering soft news if it takes away coverage from important stories that effect the general public. In “Et Tu, Nightline?” the Michael Jackson story was reported in place of the President’s trip to London. I definitely agree that the President’s trip holds more importance, but it has little effect on the general public unless it caused tensions with the other country that could potentially lea to war. Therefore, I do not see that as a glaring ethical violation. Another thing to consider is the unlimited amount of information that can be given online. Even if a story is not broadcast, it can easily be made available over the internet, regardless if the news media is print or broadcast.

The only other line I draw is with covering celebrities after the important situation has already been covered. I do not believe in stalking people, even if they are nationally (or internationally) famous. Personally, if I would not find it interesting if my best friend posted it as a status on her facebook, then I would not bother to cover it. I would leave the fanatical recording of celebrity outfits, dinner choices and nightlife to the tabloids.

THE VICTIMS: How the Media Treated Me

I was not surprised by any part of this article outside of the fact that Mitchell Wright ended up marrying the reporter who covered his reaction to his former wife’s death. Every person is different and will react differently to reporters seeking comment after a traumatic event. A part of that is due to the personality of the source being questioned. However, a large part of it also rests on the manner each reporter approaches that source.

It is quickly forgotten that journalists are people too; therefore they will have different personalities and ways of dealing with people. The most important thing to remember is to be sensitive to the grief a source is most likely experiencing. It must also be made clear that you are there to assist them telling their story at their own pace. If they do not wish to comment, I would not pressure them into doing so. Journalists are supposed to help inform the general public and expose corruption. They are not employed to harass people who are already grieving just to get a story for the next news cycle.

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