Tag Archives: news

Monday Rdp

By Christopher B. Daly 

Dear readers:

I have not been posting as often as I’d like lately — to many other pressing matters (articles due, classes to teach, meetings to try to avoid, etc. . .)

Here are some recent items I hope you don’t miss:

From the New York Times:

–BU Prof David Carr’s latest column.

–45,000 emails later, the Public Editor looks back at a year on the job. Among readers’ biggest concerns: anonymous sources and false balance in news stories.

–A conversation with journalist Richard Preston, author of the original Ebola scare, The Hot Zone.

–A depressing report from old media-land.

Elsewhere. . .

–Welcome home to my colleague Joe Bergantino, who was “detained” in Russia for the offense of giving a workshop in investigative journalism. Here’s his open letter to Vladimir Putin.

–Brian Stelter continues to outperform his predecessor at CNN’s Reliable Sources. Don’t miss his interview with James Risen, national security reporter who stands in the bulls-eye of the Obama team’s war on the press.

–As usual, NPR’s “On the Media” has some insightful, original stuff.

–And the Nieman Journalism Lab has a piece I want to read about Knight Foundation funding decisions, plus lots more.

Good luck keeping up. Send me any suggestions/omissions/objections.

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News comes from far away. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?

The New York Times offers two very different answers.

One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.

The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.

Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.

In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.

But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.

This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.

News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable imgresconfusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.

That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.

Thurber-Lippmann screenshot

by James Thurber

 

 

 

 

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News media: Let’s impose a blackout on mass shoooters

By Christopher B. Daly 

The headlines are both horrifying and all too familiar: another town in America is the location for another mass shooting. My hunch is that to some degree, each new one is partly a product of all the preceding ones. The idea for it, the methods, the script — it’s all there in the coverage of almost every mass shooting.

Thanks to the folks at Vox for compiling this dreadful map, showing all the mass shootings since Sandy Hook (that’s 74, in about 18 months, or about one a week).

Screen_Shot_2014-06-10_at_1.48.46_PM

So, here’s an idea that goes against my grain and against the instincts of most of my colleagues in the news business: Let’s stop covering mass shootings.

Or, at least, let’s stop covering them in a way that glorifies the killer or provides a scenario for any copycat to follow.

Let me state: I believe the main reason for this horror is the specific combination of a scarcity of mental health care and an abundance of high-capacity firearms. Those two forces strike me as the overwhelmingly clear reason for our national plague of mass shootings. But there’s not much that anyone I know can do about either problem.

So, to the extent that coverage of massacres begets more massacres, let’s change the coverage. How?

For one thing, we should consider a moratorium on even naming the shooter. And no photos. And no follow-up profiles of a troubled young man who seemed a little weird to some people (but not that weird) and  not at all weird to other people and then, suddenly — blam! he became deeply psychotic and started firing.

I know something about those kind of stories, having written one for the Washington Post back in 1994 when a schizophrenic young man named John Salvi opened fire at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., killing two people he had never met and wounding five others. Following journalistic protocol, I dropped everything and covered the shooting, then turned my efforts to the inevitable “profile of a killer.” Salvi’s story was one that is now all-too-familiar: young man grows increasingly aloof and unreasoning, no one does anything about it, and then he becomes almost totally isolated and captivated by voices or disordered thinking. Next he’s in a public place with an assault weapon.

In a sense, these shootings — tragically, awfully — do not meet a strict definition of news, because they have ceased to be rare. I would suggest that the news media refrain from covering these men and telling their individual stories so long as the shooter is:

–male

–white

–between 15 and 30

–at least a little “off” by someone’s criteria

–armed to the teeth in a way that would be impossible in almost any other country on Earth.

One Canadian news network did just that this week, following a rare multiple murder in Canada. Let’s impose a moratorium on this kind of story, at least until they become rare again.

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Filed under Journalism, mental illness, publishing, schizophrenia

What if traffic metrics had been used throughout journalism’s history?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question that came to mind today while reading David Carr’s latest. In his column, Carr identifies a trend (at least, a trend by journalism standards) of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual “stories” garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the “writer” of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less — or nothing.

It all sounds simple and fair and transparent and populist. (This approach puts the “piece” in piecework with a vengeance.)

Only it’s not. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.

Let’s consider how a “metrics model” would have served journalism (and the world) over the last couple of centuries.

–The first story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests was hardly a candidate for “most-read” and yet it began a tidal wave of reporting that ultimately rocked the Vatican.

–The first Watergate story (the one with Al Lewis’ byline, on June 18, 1972) had only a tiny fraction of wapo-front_18june1972the readership that the “last” Watergate story 26 months later (the one with the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 9, 1974)

–Then there was Sy Hersh’s original story about Lt. William Calley and the massacre at My Lai.

One takeaway from those historical cases: some stories need time to build.

–Or what about the columnist Westbrook Pegler? Incredibly popular, but a crackpot who was wrong about everything. His metrics would have crushed the likes of Walter Lippmann (in terms of actual readers, not just people who said they read Lippmann.)

–The first-day stories about the Gettysburg Address barely mentioned Lincoln’s little speech, because (by the lights of the day) it was considered dull and inconsequential compared to the stem-winder of a speech given by the day’s main speaker, Edward Everett. (Who?)

–For a few weeks in 1835, the New York Sun had a wildly popular (and exclusive) story about life on the moon. The paper really racked up eyeballs — until the story was revealed as a hoax. Oh, well. It sure sold papers.

–Or, how about the summer and early fall of 2001? The media were in full cry to “prove” that

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

the disappearance of a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, was somehow connected to married congressman Gary Condit. (Who remembers them now?) You could look it up: this was a huge story for months in 2001, right up until 9/11. Anyone want to go back there?

Just as some stories need time to develop, some writers need time to develop.

What was Samuel Clemens’ first story, for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada? If he had not been given time to develop as a writer, he would have ended up as the funniest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but there’d be no Innocents Abroad (his first big success), not to mention no Huckleberry Finn. What about the first news stories ever written by Ernest Hemingway? Is there a new Martha Gellhorn or Joan Didion chasing clicks today at Gawker?

If we only work on stories that are popular, we might soon become so popular that we won’t matter any more.

The original moonbats.  New York Sun, 1835

The original moonbats.
New York Sun, 1835

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JFK shooting: TV news grows up fast

By Christopher B. Daly 

With the approach of the 50th anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas, I thought it might be worth re-visiting my account of the assassination. Here is an excerpt from Covering America that looks at the media response to the shooting:

During the Kennedy presidency, television news became more powerful than ever. In the years since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, television executives had been atoning by lavishing resources on their news divisions. Television sets were in the vast majority of homes by 1960, and the audience for the TV networks dwarfed that of any newspaper and even the readership of the entire Time-Life empire. The media president, Jack Kennedy, also introduced live television coverage of presidential news conferences and proceeded to thrive in the new forum. Television carried more news than ever, to more people.

On November 22, 1963, television was the medium by which many Americans first got the news about the shooting. There it was, right on TV. The president and his wife were in a motorcade with Governor John Connally and his wife. Shots rang out, and the president was rushed to the hospital. No word on the shooter’s identity. It may not have been apparent to viewers, but television executives were scrambling to keep up. The networks did not have the equipment and staff needed to “go live” and put news on the air as it was unfolding. Just off camera it was pandemonium, as executives met to decide how to cover a presidential shooting in the new medium. Eventually they reached a consensus: they would stay with the story, without interruptions and without ads, for the duration. So it was that for three or four days the American people did something they had never done before: they stayed home and attended a funeral via television. If they were watching CBS, they saw Walter Cronkite dab at his eye when he announced the bulletin confirming Kennedy’s death. No matter what network they watched, viewers saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald; they saw the flag-draped caisson and the riderless horse; and they saw the salute given by the president’s young son. For the first time (and almost the last, as it happened), nearly the entire country had nearly the same experience at the same time.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite struggles to keep his composure on-camera as he announces the news of the death of President John F. Kennedy live on the air on November 22, 1963.     —Getty Images.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite struggles to keep his composure on-camera as he announces the news of the death of President
John F. Kennedy live on the air on November 22, 1963.
—Getty Images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the New York Times, on Monday, November 25, 1963, the front page featured a banner headline across the entire page, stacked three decks deep:

PRESIDENT’S ASSASSIN SHOT TO DEATH

IN JAIL CORRIDOR BY A DALLAS CITIZEN;

GRIEVING THRONGS VIEW KENNEDY BIER

The funeral was planned for later that day. Below the big headline was a photo (from the AP) of Jackie Kennedy and Caroline kneeling next to the president’s flag-draped casket. Underneath was a little single-column story headlined:

JOHNSON AFFIRMS

AIMS IN VIETNAM

Then, this ominous subhead:

Retains Kennedy’s Policy

of Aiding War on Reds

 

[To read my book, order Covering America from Amazon.]

 

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The re-making of the news media

By Christopher B. Daly 

We are living through a period of great flux in the news business. There are new ventures, new hybrids, new devices for gathering and disseminating information, documents, and polemics. It’s a treat to have a front-row seat (Goodbye, Google Reader! Hello, Feedly!), but it can be disorienting at times.

To wit: the decision by the mighty Time Warner media conglomerate to abandon its shiny, still-new namesake building at Columbus Circle in Manhattan and decamp to a still-unfinished tower in a lower-rentPennStation district the developers refer to as Hudson Yards. (Does anybody really call it that? It’s really a vast wasteland on the Far West Side between Chelsea and Hells Kitchen, but it is slowly becoming a new media hub within Manhattan.)

But not to be missed is a more powerful trend sweeping through much of Big Media: the break-up of many of the big conglomerates. At Time Warner, at News Corp., and at Tribune Co., the same de-conglomeration process is underway: the division of those big companies into a print division and a (for lack of a better word) video division.

–Time Warner is spinning off its magazine division, which has been the cornerstone of the Time empire since Henry Luce founded Time magazine in 1923.

–News Corp. took out a double-truck ad in the NYTimes on Monday to signal its separation into two divisions. One made up of the Wall Street Journal, the NYPost and many, many other newspapers along with some magazines, almost all of which lose money. The other is a new company (called “21st Century Fox”) made up of the highly profitable television, cable, and movie-making subsidiaries. (The new video division began trading on the stock market on July 1; shares opened at $29 and basically stayed there all day. The new print division has not started trading yet.)

–Tribune Co., which traces its roots to the Chicago newspaper empire founded by Joseph Medill and taken over by his grandson, Col. Robert R. McCormick, announced this week that it is going to spend $2.7 billion to buy 19 local television stations around the country. At the same time, Tribune Co. is trying to sell “some or all of its newspaper properties,” including the cornerstone Chicago Tribune, according to a story in today’s NYT business section.

–The New York Times Co., which traces its roots to the founding of the New-York Daily Times newspaper in 1851, began selling off its broadcast units about six years ago and completed the process a few years later. The Times Co. is apparently pursuing a strategy of shrinking to its core business and trying to defend the castle keep with a paywall.

The big open question: What will any of this mean for the quality of the journalism that is carried out by these companies?

Stay tuned.

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The bombing case: “Total Noise”?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here is a fine piece that features the author Jim Gleick thinking in print about the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and related events. (Full disclosure: I have known Jim since we were in college together, and I admired his books Chaos and The Information; I am not currently in touch with him.)

Gleick’s piece from New York magazine was also noticed by Maureen Dowd in her column today. She added value by actually taking him out for coffee and interviewing him.

Photo montage by New York magazine (including photo by BU student journalism Kenshin Okubo).

Photo montage by New York magazine (including photo by BU student journalism Kenshin Okubo).

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