Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What is Good Journalism?

     It's almost embarrassing. Well, it is embarrassing. There's more to talk about with the Katrina catastrophe than can possibly fit in one blog, yet right now I'm finding it difficult to locate the time, or focus to write. As I said earlier, "work stuffs" is happening. But more importantly, we are being inundated with news coverage of this disaster. And every person who has been there in person says the cameras can't capture a tenth of the devastation in the region. It's hard to comprehend the scope of this tragedy. I can't even begin to imagine what kind of overload the people working the scene are going through. When we hear reports of police officers and firefighters committing suicide and walking off the job, when we see reporters frantically trying to scrub tears away from their faces as they struggle not to lose it on national television, when we actually do see otherwise thick-skinned politicians losing it, we start to get a sense of the magnitude.
     And like all great stories, some of the most interesting storylines don't come from the main plot, but as spinoffs going in different directions. One thing we've noticed is how the shell on the national media is cracking. For so many years, news has been dominated by poofy-haired, all-knowing, softball-throwing anchors. Nothing penetrated that glossy veneer. Sure, Peter Jennings looked pretty haggard after reporting on September 11th for 60 straight hours, but overall Americans learned to associate "news" with "boring". It wasn't always this way. When Edward Murrow was broadcasting from London during the blitz, Americans were starved for news, for commentary, for knowledge about the world outside. News broadcasts were the keystones of the three major networks, providing them with their viewers and their revenues. What changed?
     In 1980, CNN stumbled onto the scene - the first 24-hour newscast in the world. They had certain advantages over network news: while they incurred the same costs to gather news, they could use it and replay it all day long. Networks still had to pay for 22 hours of non-news related programming to fill the time. In addition, it provided a convenient place for people to get news now. The news junkie was invented. And CNN's successes launched a virtual cavalcade of imitators. CBC Newsworld, EuroNews, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, BBC 24, and of course Fox News (sic). Unfortunately, as we know, there is not 24 hours worth of news to report, and with the increased competition, made-up news became the order of the day. Who gives a shit about Natalee Holloway? Why, the millions of Americans who wish they could also watch their daytime soaps at night.
     CNN had its shining moment in 1991, when billions of people around the globe watched the Gulf War through Bernard Shaw's eyes. People tuned in during the 2001 attacks on New York and DC. But when it came to the really important stories and the hard-hitting investigative reporting that peaked in the mid-seventies, nobody cared anymore. News was boring. There was no connection anymore. The emotional bond viewers shared with Murrow and Cronkite had been severed. Viewers wanted emotion and connection. And of all the networks, startup Fox was the only one that understood. I actually watched Fox for a few months when it rolled out in 1996. I enjoyed the additional information in the scrolls, the extra emphasis on visuals over talk, the added emotion of the anchors. I stopped watching, however, when they took that emotion and went a few steps too far, into the land of fake outrage and political insults and openly partisan slants. They're still the only ones that "get it", though. CNN added flashy graphics and loudmouthed commentators, but no emotional connection.
     The other night, after Anderson Cooper spent an hour paddling around New Orleans, CNN had a special report about reporting on Katrina and her aftermath. I forgot who the presenter was, but he asked two questions: "What happens when journalists become part of the story they're telling?" and "Has Katrina changed journalism?"
     Reporting is certainly different during Katrina. Reporters, seeing things they weren't even exposed to in Kosovo or Iraq, were horrified. They forgot that they were supposed to be 5-minute entertainers and started being human, throwing microphones in front of mealy-mouthed politicians and not accepting their bullshit. Cooper was talking to Louisiana Governor Blanco, and started drilling her on how pissed it made him, standing waist deep in toxic sludge, watching politicians smile and pat each other on the back telling each other what a great job they were doing. Is this what happens when journalists become part of the story?
     I say no - this is what happens when journalists forget how wooden they're supposed to be. Journalists are always part of the story. When they report on environmental issues or tax issues or elections, they are just as impacted as every other citizen. Of course they're part of the story. I know that. You know that. The reporter just seems to have forgotten. And their false detachment is part of the reason other Americans have stopped caring. The Truth has gotten lost in stoicism masquerading as objectivity.
     So has Katrina changed journalism? I certainly hope so. I hope these reporters stay pissed off for a long time. I hope they remember that they represent 6 billion people who can't investigate for themselves. I hope they remember that they are members of those 6 billion. But I also hope they can avoid the temptation of becoming "emotional" about every fake story that will inevitably come along. Faking emotion - faking anger and outrage like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are so good at - is so damaging to real news that people tune out faster than when news is boring. They lose trust. And while I know that teaching Americans not to trust the "mainstream media" has been a mission of the Right Wing PR machine, it's not too late for journalists to become advocates of the people again. To be the eyes and ears and voices for the people. For the survivors of Katrina, for the concerned citizens 2000 miles away, for the dead victims. And for the people who live through every news story, whether or not the media has the balls to cover it correctly.


sideshow bob said...

I can't define good journalism, but I know it when I see it....and if I ever see any, I'll let you know.

Seriously though, I think that good journalism is skeptical journalism that holds people accountable for their words and deeds, and isn't afraid to call "Bullshit!" when they hear it, and that good journalism takes more time than reheating a burrito in the microwave. Actually checking facts would be good, too.
Probably the best way to determine if you are witnessing good journalism is if you can't automatically guess what the report will be the moment you lay your eyes on the anchorman. You see Bill O'Reilly, you know what the story will be, you see Michael Moore, and you know what the story will be (although, in fairness, Michael Moore has never professed to be a journalist. I just couldn't think of a left-wing equivelant of O'Reilly).

kaitlin said...

I think you're right--that journalists should recognize that there are a lot of people who can't get the information that journalists can dig up. But I don't think that journalists have done a good job reporting on Katrina, and its aftermath.

I say this after a comment by Aaron Brown on CNN when he commented that it's easier for people to identify with the victims than with others involved in Katrina (relief efforts). That may be the case, but I think journalists have a duty to not only give the story, but to give all sides of it. The one-sidedness of coverage has led toa misunderstanding of how federal, state, and local agencies handled the aftermath of Katrina. A lot of it is coming to light now, but these journalists should be able to step back and show that while people are suffering, there's a lot that goes into offering and delivering aid.

If you're going to show us the people suffering, try to show us where all those resources are and why they're not getting there instead of feeding into the idea that this is a race issue. Show what the logistics look like so people can get a grasp of how things should change in the future. Simply saying it's a race (or any other broad) issue doesn't do anything to practically address the problem, IMO. You can say people are racist, but few people will respond to that in any meaningful way. But you say that people didn't act fast enough or didn't have supplies where they needed to be, and identify ways to change that in the future, and the response is likely to be more effective.

(I'm not saying you said this, but there's been a lot of discussion about it...and it gets tiring to go in circles about it instead of trying to find a real solution)

Sylvana said...

I think that a lot of the main news crews have tried to remain un-emotional so as not to be pointed to as being biased. But they are accused of it anyway.

I would prefer to know that these people reporting the news were human and not some programmed androids. Why should I believe that what they are saying is something that I should care about if they don't even seem to care about what they are talking about.

That being said- Fox News sucks! It is so sensationalistic. It is the National Enquirer of televised news. Could YOU have this extremely rare horrific disease that only affects 2 people annually in the world? It COULD be YOU!!

Fox News is also very racist. I can not list all the instances that I have seen come from Fox News, but I will give you one-
I was watching a special on kids and drugs. They were saying that it's moved out of the mean, lawless streets of the inner city to the suburbs where the "good" kids are. They implied that the criminal drug pushers (i.e. the inner city kids- not "good" kids) were infecting these poor suburban white middle to upper class kids. Everytime they showed the "criminals", they were black. Those people were criminals for using and selling an illegal substance while the suburban kids (all white) were "victims" for using and selling an illegal substance.

I see that same kind of racism all the time on Fox, and unfortunately, I have begun to see it in other news sources too. This implicit racism is probably more dangerous than explicit racism because people don't even realize that it is going on, but it can still affect the way they view blacks.

Scott said...

Kaitlin, I actually heard that quote, or one very similar to it. But I'm pretty sure it was spoken by Michael Brown, the FEMA head, not Aaron Brown, the journalist. Michael said it in response to criticism basically whining that people don't understand him as much as they understand the peple drowning in a toxic soup.
However, I just spent the past 3 hours (although I *was* distracted by a Bond movie) looking for that quote anywhere on the web and I couldn't find it (or anything similar) uttered by anyone. I know it exists - anybody know where it is?

Ben said...

I almost never watch TV news, except after big happenings that I want in depth coverage on (I've skipped all the trials of the century and missing persons crap, so I really don't know if FoxNews is racist or not. Honestly, the rare times when I watch, I flip back and forth between CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, and never realize which one is which, except when O'Reilly is one, and then I usually change the channel.

I think the reporters on all channels have been doing great jobs on this one. You can basically turn off the sound and watch and it's just as powerful and meaningful, and informative.

There are obviously a lot of lessons to be learned from this. Local governments need to have plans, and follow them, in case disaster strikes, state authorities need to learn what the delineation between state and federal authority is, and work with D.C. accordingly, and FEMA obviously needs a lot of work, and probably some new faces.

ORF said...

HA! Ben, I liked what you said about turning the sound off and getting the same effect. Mute all TV journalists!! It won't matter. They are just spouting nonsense...

Ben said...

I flipped on one of the news stations yesterday, and they were talking about Natalie Halloway again. Looks like not much changed.

Shannon said...

Not another week without Scott's truth? What will get me through?