Friday, July 28, 2006

American Journalism Review has an important story about how the U.S. news media aren't paying nearly enough attention to the escalating war in Afghanistan, the country that launched our war on terror because it's where Osama bin Laden lived.

An international coalition led by the United States invaded Afghanistan with great fanfare, deposed the ruthless Taliban regime and helped establish a new elected government along with international pledges to fortify the state and build up its infrastructure. For years the U.S. government touted Afghanistan as a poster child for purging terrorists and building democracies.

But neglect and diverted attention have helped lead to a Taliban resurgence, escalating violence, minimal central government control of provinces and an economy largely dependent on the illegal drug trade. In other words, Afghanistan is at risk of returning to the state it was in before the world intervened -- the last time nobody was paying attention to it.

Afghanistan is the best modern example of how dangerous it is to overlook what appears to be an isolated catastrophe -- in my book I quote from an editor's column discussing how "Afghanistanism" used to describe editors' predilection for arcane news nobody cared about. But maybe if the news media had turned America's attention to Afghanistan sooner, Sept. 11 could have been prevented, or at least come as less of a shock.

The idea that journalists have largely turned away from this story again is a sad commentary on our short attention span. It's on us to do better.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

So Jay Rosen's got an idea for helping frustrated citizens set the news agenda. He proposes a nonprofit news site that accepts story "assignments" from users who want questions answered that they can't get from traditional news organizations. In a blend of the bubbling citizen journalist concept and old-school newsgathering, Rosen wants these ideas developed by professional editors, who would then seek both the right correspondent to complete the story and the donors to support its completion.

The proposal aims to solve the challenge of getting important stories covered by independent journalists as traditional newsrooms succumb to corporate pressures and rampant cost cutting. Under this model, if enough people want a story reported and are willing to back their curiousity with cash, it'll get done.

This supports the notion that the people will ultimately determine the fate of our country, either by taking control of it or handing it off. By our action or inaction, we get not only the government we deserve, but the journalism we deserve.

Monday, July 24, 2006

If you've found this blog, maybe you're a little like me -- a journalist or avid news consumer who pays close attention to important events because you believe that, as citizens, we have an obligation to stay informed so we can work to make things better. You wonder how, in a world of instantly available access to nearly all realms of human knowledge, so few people can know or care about what's going on. And you're involved, or would like to get involved, in efforts to rouse the public's interest in public affairs.

Since 2002, I've been a journalism instructor and student newspaper adviser at Michigan State University. For the eight years before that, I was a reporter and editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. In all my journalism work dating back to high school, I've wrestled with this idea of how to get people focused on news that matters. Early on (before the Internet and in the early days of cable news), I thought that straight, dispassionate reporting would make its way through the clutter and into people's consciousness. But over nearly two decades, it's become clear that journalists must work harder to make important news engaging, relevant, accessible -- and ideally, irresistable -- if it's to compete with the manifold distractions of daily life.

In a few weeks, Marion Street Press will publish my book, "Making Important News Interesting: Reporting Public Affairs in the 21st Century." The book aims to help journalism students and professionals accomplish this weighty task through powerful storytelling and application of a few key principles -- the most important of which are to show citizens that they control their destiny through our democratic institutions, to help establish a set of agreed-upon facts as a baseline for public problem-solving, and to make it easier for people to act on what they learn in the news. The fundamental point of the book is that while journalists must remain fair, honest, accurate and clear, they should employ every innovation and any tools necessary to get across important news. This blog is an effort to continue the conversation I begin in my book about how to pull this off.

Today's inaugural post was inspired by a Poynter Online piece by Doug McGill, whose insights into international reporting helped inform my chapter on covering world news. In this piece, McGill argues that all news organizations, even small local outlets, have an obligation to explain international events to their audiences, and he shows how the best way to do it is by getting as personal as possible. His example today is of how a blogger in Lebanon engaged him in the current Middle East crisis in a way no news reporting was able to do. The woman told her story, and McGill got interested.