Thursday, October 7, 2010

News Flash

Me as newspaper editor

All my plans have gone awry. I was going to blab more about tainted news in America and vent some frustration about the news stories of this past week. Didn't get to do that. I need to do a few phone interviews for writing assignments due this weekend (I do NOT procrastinate; I just like to work under pressure). Didn't get to do that either.

What I did do was very cool. I got wrapped up in the drama of a sober friend who just about killed herself with narcotics while swearing to her closest buds that she was just mysteriously ill. After being confronted with the facts by the friends for a few weeks now, she finally told the truth today after consuming about 525 mg. of opiates in the last three days. I heard her yell over the phone at me: "I want to LIVE! I want to LIVE!" Amen, sister. There is a solution.

So we'll be taking a long drive into Southern California Thursday to get her into a hospital specializing in psychiatry and addiction. A year ago today, I was the one being transported to a pyschiatric facility for a hopeless depression. Now my experience is benefiting my friend.

There go the plans, though. But I think God will help me to accomplish the most important jobs He has before me to do. I believe He'll give us everything we need in due time. And I could always use another lesson in the pitfalls of procrastination.

(Written much earlier Wednesday...)

There’s a good reason why I don’t sit and ponder the newspaper, and I remembered it in the past two days, after I had pondered the newspaper.

A couple of decades on magazines and a few years on a weekly paper taught me everything I need to know about journalism in America today: It’s news because something is apparently wrong with it, not because something is going right. The corollary to that it is: If it’s not really news because nothing’s seriously wrong, you’d better make it news with a twist. Spin is king! Find a hook, a threat, a controversy that will grab!

Marketing firms can prove this statistically: The public pays more attention to material that shocks, scares, and outrages, and the competition for the attention of the consumer is fierce. You have about three seconds to capture someone’s interest, so the hook better be good.

Dedicated journalists are out there working in the world, keeping the people informed and ferreting out the truth. It’s the “fourth estate,” as important as government and justice, a cornerstone of democracy: the press exercising the sacred freedom of speech, which includes the right to gather information and ideas and to spread the word. The profession has honorable ethics—like truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, fairness, and accountability.

Unfortunately, the press doesn’t run the press. The CFO does. Or CEO. Or Sales and Marketing. Or, as in one case I know, the VP of Finance, who doesn’t know ethics from economics. We used to call these guys "The Suits" because they'd stroll through the offices, looking at us as if we were zoo animals, and then issue edicts to the chief about stories we needed to run to further their cause. I’ve actually been instructed to fire a good reporter because he wouldn’t slant the news to favor the newspaper owner’s view. When I refused to do that, the publisher fired him and put me on “probation.” I was out of there in two weeks, which was a shame because editing that paper was a well-paying job.

Which is why even good reporters will slant the news to manufacture the hook: To keep working, they have to keep pitching the kind of “beefy” stories that win assignments, which is hard to do on slow news days, or they receive assignments from “on high” that may well have come from the marketing guy, a lobbyist, or an owner with an agenda.

So I read the news with cynicism. And the past year or two, I just scan the headlines to see what the paper is printing. I don’t believe any news story anymore. It is far too easy and tempting for a writer (or his editor) to bleed his bias or his firm’s bias into a story, and he has lots of tools to choose from:

***Which “expert” or “spokesperson” he quotes and what he calls that person (“official” and “expert” are authoritative words, “source” conveys undercover credibility, while “spokesman” and “according to so and so” are about as low as you go and still be in the building). Other quote tools are how much he lets them say and where he places that quote in the story (the second to last paragraph is the dead zone, whereas the first and last paragraphs are the ones people will remember);

***How thoroughly he investigates and discusses the opposing viewpoint;

***How many inches of copy he devotes to any particular topic within his story (the more inches, the deeper the bias). Say, for example, a big-box store applies to a city for an expansion permit, but the city has an ordinance barring that much expansion. The reporter can easily influence public opinion by devoting a lot of space to the big-box store's argument in favor and only briefly refering to the ordinance against expansion without discussing why that ordinance was passed in the first place.

*** Subtle word choices that create any emotional impact he wants to have on readers, such as using the phrase “he alleged,” for instance, instead of “he said.” The first choice creates instant suspicion. The second appears impartial. It’s amazing how many words in the English language convey a judgment or an emotion. Think of “grisly scene,” “he claims,” and “raging fire.”

I’m coming back to this topic later. For now, I leave you with this:
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
(Seneca the Younger, a Roman statesman about two thousand years ago.)


Lorenzo said...

Yes, truly we have few examples of journalists who are free to live out that old mission of journalim enunciated over a century ago: "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the powerful".

Syd said...

There is a murder trial going on locally and the accused is an African-American man. The reporter noted that he was dressed in baggy pants for the trial. Interesting, I thought.

Monkey Man said...

Amen to this. When I was on the Public Relations side of the fence, I always felt my News Releases shold be written to entice an editor to write a story about my story. That story always centered around what my client wanted to present. I would even make up quotes from the client. Copy they approved, but never actually said. Many of the clients weren't creative enough to come up with the quotes I wold write.

Besides...what ever a reporter seeks is what they will write about. Objectivity is obsolete.

e said...

You just articulated some of the reasons I stopped working as a freelancer...

You and Seneca the Younger are right.

To live these days is an act of courage...

Kim A. said...

I have been coming to same conclusions that you put into words so well. In programming, the old addage, "Garbage in, garbage out", hits me as being as true for our own mind and spirit (much like a computer). I have noticed that I am drawn to the exciting and often tragic stories. I practice Mindfulness meditation and am trying to be aware and NOT click or read. I want positive, calm, uplifting things, people and printed words in my life. You summed up all that I have been feeling, again.


Dianne said...

Ugh! what was that last part about a grisly scene again, hee hee.
sorry about the job, and not sorry about the scummy boss. and what about magazines like "ode" dedicated to optimism and bettering the world, exciting? I can't remember last month's edition....ha ha.
happy friday,

Karen said...

Everything happens for a reason, Chris. Maybe you had to go through that hell last year to be able to help you friend through hers today.

Was it really a year ago? How quickly time passes. I am glad your friend wants to LIVE. Our time is so short to begin with.

Magpie said...

What is really important will get done or what doesn't, will be forgiven. It's amazing how our experiences can sometimes help others. I'm glad she has you for a friend, Chris.

e said...

Best to you and your friend, Chris, and may she learn to live well...

Scott said...

God bless you for being able to help your friend. THAT is great work, God's Will no doubt.

I've found that I enjoy writing for the newspaper. With my gig at the Chamber, I get to write a monthly op-ed piece, and I submit weekly "news" articles about the speakers at our local Rotary Club. I also write a lot, make that a TON of press releases and stories about the chamber of commerce events and happenings. That's probably not really journalism lol, but it's a start and I really enjoy writing for news.

I too share your cynicism for the news media. It saddens me to see, hear and read so much of what's "news."

Anonymous said...

Funny Man was ratlling off the headlines to me last night and I finally had to stop him and say, "Is there any good news?" Sadly he sad, "Not really." Maybe that's why I like reading blogs so much. They are authentic, they are real. Sometimes they have good news in them, sometime bad, but being able to reach out and say to that person, "I hope things get better. Sending you my prayers and thoughts" feels much more empowering than helplessly watching sad news all the time. Have a safe trip to SoCal. - G

Marla said...

This is what frustrates me as a writer. I desperately want to write and have people desperately want to read what I write but sometimes the truth just isn't scandalous enough. Even our little local weekly paper wants more trash than I can deliver.

What am I not getting here?

I am so glad your friend is getting help. You are an inspiration, Chris!

Jess Mistress of Mischief said...

I went to visit a friend in the hospital too....Yup, I feel ya on the drama that draws alcoholics to find the right words to create an emotional impact, emotional(Powerful)enough that those around us can FEEL it keenly and will be led to stray from the power that grips them to the one that heals. :)

Beth Niquette said...

My Bro is a photojournalist. He could tell you stories, too. That the news is mostly slanted is such a travesty.

Hang in there, Girl. You are so brave.