Thursday, September 09, 2010

Journalists can cover haters without helping them

Via Romenesko, more on how the media can do hate-mongers' jobs for them, this time over the weekend's planned Koran burning. The key insight from this Orlando Sentinel column:

We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we'll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention.

And some good advice from Poynter on how not to be used.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Journalists culpable in mosque madness

Things are not well in our anarchic, allegedly gatekeeper-less new media environment when the most radical, bizarre and hateful voices routinely infect and then somehow come to dominate mainstream thought.

I keep hearing things in the news that sound outlandish and so outside what is reasonable, rational or Constitutional that I shrug them off as little asides in our grand diverse discourse, only to find days or weeks or months later that these off-the-wall agendas have become Big Stories.

So, for instance, little dribs and drabs of complaint are sounded about an Islamic center being built in New York City near the site of the terrorist-destroyed World Trade Center, and I think: Well, naturally, some people will let fear and ignorance and xenophobia trump the uniquely powerful and enduring American ideal that all people have a natural and (domestically) a Constitutional right to assemble and worship as they please, but cooler heads will surely prevail and the addition of another religious fixture in the nation's most diverse and vibrant city will not become a national story engulfing Congressional politics and cause the president to waver in his firm declaration of support for this unique and enduring American right and lead to overwhelming popular opposition to the construction of such a center.

I was wrong, as usual. Because that's what happened, because politicians and politico-entertainers would much rather divert people with issues like this than discuss, say, the economy, or our continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, heaven forbid, the remaking of the earth's surface through global climate change.

Salon.com has a piece charting how the story might have gained traction, which seems to follow a similar pattern for much of our diseased national dialogue.

Lots of people let us down when these things happen, but my primary concern on this blog is the journalists, who allow something like a noncontroversial building permit to grow into A Threat To The Nation through inertia, pack journalism and fear of appearing biased against xenophobia.

Let me just come out and say here, as a supporter of traditional journalistic values, that those values do not require the fanning of xenophobic flames. That traditional journalistic values call for judging the relative significance of one story against another, and that journalistic time and resources should not be steered toward the basest and most superficial kinds of stories in service of politicians and pundits who want to say "Hey, look over there!" so we don't have to talk about real problems in real ways. Journalistic values call for us to say: Well, I see that over there, but how is that going to affect the country's jobless rate or stop the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan or produce better responses for the increasing natural disasters affecting millions of people around the world? Why don't we talk about that for a minute?

Because journalism is an independent process. It has no obligation to hop on the diversionary political agenda of the moment. Its goal is to make people smarter about the world, better prepared for its challenges and more understanding of why things are the way they are.

Its job is also, I would argue, to defend the First Amendment, against all challengers. Because it looks like nobody else is going to do it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What makes us watch

Seems like more people are interested in connecting what goes on in the brain with how people seek and interpret media content. The Poynter Institute has an interview with former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Jack Fuller, whose new book apparently deals in part with the neuroscience of news consuming.

From Steve Myers' Poynter story:

Fuller explained that we're drawn to scary images like fires and car wrecks for the same reason our ancestors kept an eye on predators: survival. When we see such images, fear courses through our brains and focuses our attention on what appears to threaten us. Our brains respond the same way that our ancestors' did, even though we know we're not really endangered by those dramatic images.

An interesting discussion ensues over the extent to which journalists must use emotion to get readers' attention, and the ethical limits of this approach. It's worth reading, and so likely is Fuller's book, which comes out in May.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

A new kind of agenda-setting

I was invited by the Committee of Concerned Journalists yesterday to participate in a survey the organization is conducting to prepare comments for the Federal Communications Commission, which is in the throes of a project aimed to help shape the future of media. The survey asked several interesting open-ended questions about the state of journalism today and what can be done to ensure that Americans continue to have access to credible, reliable information in the digital age.

This led me back to my thinking about re-aggregating the splintered audiences of America. And for the first time, I discovered the kernel of an idea, which I expressed poorly in the survey because I hadn't thought about it enough.

Here's the idea: What if there was some way, around major issues like health care, climate change, the war in Afghanistan, the deficit, that news organizations -- new and traditional, large and small, national and local -- could form voluntary, shifting consortia that fostered simultaneous, parallel coverage focused on a shared set of basic facts and central questions? In other words, rather than The New York Times holding one conversation on one issue and ABC News holding another conversation on another issue and The Daily Beast talking about something else and local media ignoring it altogether, a vast coalition of newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers, tweeters, etc., could agree on what to talk about, set basic parameters and hold similar discussions, in their own styles, at the same time.

That way, instead of everybody in the country having their attention pulled in different directions depending on their primary news source and therefore having nothing in common to talk about, the majority of people who were remotely tuned in could be having similar conversations on significant issues and might be able to focus long enough to reach a broader, quicker national consensus -- or at least might have a collective sense of what was going on.

Of course, people on the margins -- those who refuse to believe anything in the "mainstream media" or who simply refuse to get on board with what most rational people can agree are the central facts of an issue -- will remain on the margins. But they might be far less likely to dominate the discussion than in the past, because such a large number of people will have access to good information and be paying attention to it at the same time.

Now, this might or might not be a good idea (or maybe someone's already thought of it -- let me know). It would require a great deal of good reporting, coordination, trust and -- most significantly -- a shared sense of priorities. It could result in one important issue getting too much attention while others languish. But it could also be a way to fill the gap left by the death of the Walter Cronkite model of national conversation -- where a very few people set the agenda and everyone else followed it. Now, agenda-setting power is in more hands, but that power is so diffuse that there is virtually no agenda, so almost nothing gets done.

If we could return the role of agenda-setting to the press, but also make that role exponentially more broad-based and transparent, maybe we could get Americans talking to one another again in constructive ways.

Anyway, it's worth thinking about.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who cares what you THINK?

Via Romenesko, a new PressThink post by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen offers suggestions for CNN's primetime programming in light of news that the network is in a sustained ratings funk. I'm not super crazy about Rosen's suggestions, because despite his likely aim of generating more interesting discussion, he's still advocating for more of the same "talking heads" formula that has ruined television news. I prefer the first couple of comments on his post, which call for less opinion and more news from the 24-hour cable network, which I stopped watching a couple of years ago because it regularly set me off into a life-shortening, sputtering rage.

The problem with so much CNN programming is not just the contrived "balance" that leads to ridiculous hyping of false and trivial assertions that distract from meaningful issues, it's the relentless quest for opinion to the near exclusion of the quest for facts. Worse still, CNN doesn't seek opinion from independent-thinking experts on the issues of the day; it returns again and again to partisan hacks who are clearly pushing specific political agendas and dispensing talking points issued from central authorities. The "debates" among these people are about as authentic as professional wrestling, and I suspect people have stopped watching because they know that none of these pundits has the public interest at heart during these all-but-scripted bloviating sessions.

As one Rosen commenter said, in so many words, it's time we stop listening to what people THINK and concentrate on finding out what they KNOW. Maybe then we can actually learn something from watching the news, instead of leaving CNN and other cable news networks dumber than when we came to them.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More on the challenge of mythbusting

A belated nod to my University of Georgia colleague Barry Hollander, who recently published a paper on public perceptions that's gotten some attention.

Hollander uses a study of persistent misperceptions about Barack Obama's religion -- he's a Christian, not a Muslim -- to illustrate how people tend to hang on to incorrect beliefs even after the false perceptions have been corrected in the media.

I've posted before about both the importance and the difficulty of mythbusting. It's growing increasingly clear that people are wired to cling to their beliefs, even in the face of contradicting evidence, and also that repeating a myth for the purposes of debunking it tends to reinforce it.

I've also noted that the greatest challenge for journalists today might be finding ways to re-aggregate a perhaps hopelessly fragmented nation so that we can all pay attention long enough to have a constructive conversation. Everyone doesn't need to agree on everything, but it would be helpful to keep the more fantastical stuff off to the margins instead of having it dominate the discussion.