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Tragedy in the 24/7 News Media

7:02 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by Walter Brasch

CNN is the 24/7 media trumpet for news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that is presumed to have crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia. On that flight were 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

CNN grabbed every iota of information, pumped it full of digital frequencies, and broadcast it to what it thought was a world salivating for every syllable of thought.
CNN Satellite News Truck - Atlanta
When there was news, CNN broadcast it. When there was no news, CNN broadcast it. When there were outrageous theories, CNN was the source to find out who was saying what. When there was a rumor, CNN broadcast that, only to have to retract it hours later. Through chatter and repetition, CNN kept the story alive.

This wasn’t the first time the media became fixated on a story. It certainly won’t be the last. There was non-stop coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials. Fox News grabbed onto Obamacare, President Obama’s alleged birth in Kenya, and the Benghazi story, even when the facts didn’t support its preconceived conclusions. More recently, MSNBC’s evening anchors have given non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” story, another story that was hyped by constant repetition.

“All News-All Day” isn’t new. During the Yellow Journalism age and circulation wars in the late 19th century, media giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer often sent to press several editions a day. Hearst, whose jingoistic determination helped bring about the Spanish-American War in 1898, was not adverse to publishing as many as 30 editions a day to “update” his million subscribers and millions more readers of the New York Journal, all of whom were willing to pay three cents per edition to get even more news each day.

In the early 1960s, the radio medium developed all-news stations. However, the news package was often a prepackaged cycle that ran every seven, nine, 11, or 20 minutes, with new content every now and then.

The 24/7 news cycle, as we now know it, was initiated by CNN more than three decades ago, and became a necessary part of information dissemination during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. CNN had correspondents in Baghdad; the coverage was critical in keeping Americans, especially family members of combat troops, informed of the reasons for the war and numerous issues that developed from that war, as well as hour-by-hour coverage of the war itself.

Since then, the CNN concept of all-day coverage, which had been spoofed and held as an example of what not to do in news, has been successfully copied by MSNBC, Fox News, other cable news operations, and dozens of web-only news-commentary operations.

Newspapers, which have often lagged in innovation, began to go 24/7 by a combination of once-a-day print production and continuous updates in their web editions. Reporters at one time wrote a story, turned it in to the “desk,” forgot it and went to other stories. Copyeditors often improved the story, gave it a headline, put it onto the page, and sent it to the “back shop” where it became a part of pre-press composition and the “press run.” However, in the “we want news right now—and make it short because we don’t have the attention span” world, reporters are writing the story for the print edition, while also recording it on cell phones and digital cameras, sometimes narrating the footage, for the web edition. If anything changes during the day, the reporter then spends the rest of the day juggling other stories and updates on the original story.

But there is a major problem when the media—print or visual—become fixated upon one story, such as Flight 370. Other stories are swept aside. The mudslide near Oso, Wash., that killed 30, with at least a dozen still missing, is one of those stories that should have dominated the news media. The cascade of a 600-foot hillside is the most deadly landslide in U.S. history. Yet, it was often the second or third story on evening news, behind what still wasn’t known about Flight 370.

Dozens of stories, both breaking news and features, could have—and should have—been written and broadcast. While local media did exemplary work in keeping the story fresh, the national news media—apparently believing Washington state is only on the fringe of the continental United States—gave significantly less coverage to the mudslide than to the missing flight or the latest Hollywood gossip.

Among stories that should have been reported, but were either given minimal coverage or shoved aside for the airline story, were reasons why the hill collapsed and the ecological and environmental harm it caused. There should have been stories about why the hillside wasn’t protected and the political reasons why. There should have been stories directed to people in other parts of the nation on how to protect yourself against various kinds of natural disasters. There should have been stories about the emergency management agency and its responsibilities, about the first responders and the 400 search and rescue workers, including their training, what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how they overcame innumerable problems. There were dozens of unreported stories about the work of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other social service agencies. There should have been extensive reporting about the psychological trauma affecting workers and residents. There should have been stories about the city itself, its businesses, and how they responded. There should have been stories about the effects of the mudslide upon the schools, and how the youth unselfishly helped. Yes, there were dozens of stories that could have, and should have, been reported to a national audience.

Both Flight 370 and the mudslide are tragedies. But, CNN was fixated on a missing airline, taking a few hours off to cover the Fort Hood shootings; Fox was fixated upon attacking President Obama; and MSNBC was fixated upon a New Jersey scandal.

Although those stories may be important, not one of them matter as much as what happened in Oso, Wash.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and health and environmental effects of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to mine gas.]
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by brasch

Government Should Not Define What a Reporter Is – or Isn’t

6:13 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

Sen. Diane Feinstein and a horde of members of Congress of both parties want to decide who is and who isn’t a reporter. Sen. Feinstein says a “real” reporter is a “salaried agent of a media company.”

aka Silence Do-Good

She mentions the usual suspects—New York Times, ABC News. She dismisses part-time staff. She dismisses freelancers. She dismisses those who write, often without pay, for the hundreds of alternative publications, and often break news and investigative stories well ahead of the mainstream media. She dismisses anyone who, she says, “have no professional qualifications.”

The reason she wants to define what a reporter is or isn’t is because there’s a federal Media Shield Law that protects reporters from revealing their sources. She wants to amend that to take away existing First Amendment protections from anyone not involved in—apparently—salaried establishment media.

There are people who have minimal qualifications to be a reporter. Many write nothing but screeds. Many have problems with basic language skills. Many have little familiarity with the AP Style Book. Many have an inability to ask probing questions of government officials; many merely transcribe what they’re told, whether from the president, a council member, or a local reader who is the focus of a feature. Some of them are paid salaries and are agents of media companies, which Sen. Feinstein believes are acceptable requirements.

There are also those who frequently allow “deep background” and “off-the-record” comments. Many news media won’t allow sources to go “off-the-record.” If the information isn’t available to the general public, it shouldn’t be available only to reporters. Access to news sources is something reporters enjoy that the average reader doesn’t; but there is a responsibility to the reader and viewer and listener not to hide information.

There are those who overuse the “veiled news source,” which is a part of the Shield Law. A veiled news source could be someone whom the reporter identifies as, “Sources close to the Governor state . . .” Often, the reporter doesn’t question a source’s motives for why she or he wants to give anonymous information, or if it is merely a “trial balloon” to use the media to put out information; if the people agree, sources become identified; if the public disagrees with a proposal, no one traces the “leak” to politicians or their staffs.

On more than a few occasions, reporters—whether “salaried agents” of a media company, part-timers for that company or for any of thousands of alternative publications or electronic media, or freelancers—have filled in holes in their stories with false identities—“A 55-year-old housewife in Podunka, who asked not to be identified, says . . . ” Good reporters seldom  use a veiled news source and then have to protect them should there be a court order to divulge the source of information.

On rare occasions, however, a reporter, in consultation with an editor, will allow a news source to be anonymous. Granting veiled news source status should not be given unless a source’s information and identity puts her or him into significant personal jeopardy—and the information can be verified.

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by brasch

America’s Culture Is Signing on the Dotted Line

6:04 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

The signing season has begun.

Look through your local newspaper for the next few weeks, and you’ll see a lot of posed pictures of high school athletes.

Everyone will be at a desk or table.

Around each one will be their parents and their coach. In some cases, add in an athletic director, a principal, and someone representing a college the young athlete is planning to attend.

It makes no difference if it’s a Division I or Division II school; sometimes it’s even a Division III school. Star athletes at the end of their high school careers get photos and applause. They can even get special financial aid and scholarships just for being able to play a sport well. At Division I universities, they also receive special academic tutoring to make sure they stay eligible.

Excel on an athletic field, and the local media will take your picture and write stories about you. If you’re good enough, the sportswriters might name you “Athlete of the Week” and present you with a certificate or small plaque.

At the end of the season—it makes little difference what season or what sport—you might be named to an all-district or all-regional or all-state team. You might even be voted by the sports writers in your area “Player of the Year” for your sport.

If you do extremely well in college sports, at the age of 22 you might be able to command a six- or seven-figure salary in a professional sport. Become a coach of a major sport at a Division I school, and even if your team is only mildly successful you’ll earn several times what professors earn.

Now, let’s pretend you’re a scholar. Even in the world of rampant grade inflation, you’re running an “A” average and are in the top 5 percent of your class. You just aced the SATs and are heading to a Division I university.

You probably won’t get your picture in the paper, surrounded by parents, counselor, mentor, or anyone from that Division I university. It just isn’t done. Newspapers have Sports sections, sometimes 8–12 pages; they don’t have Education sections.

Although some editors may claim that “education” is spread throughout the newspaper, the reality is that column inches devoted to sports coverage is significantly greater than column inches devoted to education news.

The American educational system rated just 17th among 50 industrialized countries, according to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The countries with the leading educational systems, according to the EIU, were Scandinavian and Asian. The EIU analysis looked at both quantitative data (including class size, facilities, and government spending per pupil) and qualitative data (including development of cognitive skills.)

In another major study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that U.S. students were average in reading and science skills, and below average in math skills. Fifteen-year-old students, according to the report, ranked 14th of 34 countries in reading abilities, 17th in science, and 25th in math. As for writing and cognitive skills abilities—just look at any letter to the editor to find out how well students command those subjects. The PISA testing requires students to take knowledge of a subject and apply it to solving real-world problems.

“This is an absolute wake-up call for America,” Dr. Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, told the AP. He said the study was “extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth [and] get much more serious about investing in education.”

There are innumerable problems in America’s educational systems. One is that the gap between the higher performing students and the lower performing students in all areas (including humanities, arts, and sciences) is increasing. Another is that educational systems, spurred by taxpayers who don’t want higher taxes, have learned not how to effectively cut expenses but have sacrificed education by packing more students into a classroom; almost every study (including the PISA testing) shows a link between class size and educational achievement.

Another link is the workload of the average teacher. Many taxpayers and some in the media believe teachers are overpaid and work “only” six or seven hours a day for only 180 days a year. However, the evidence doesn’t support the public perception. Teacher pay averages about 12 percent less than for professionals in comparable jobs, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute; in some states, the pay is 25 percent less than for comparable jobs. The average teacher workload is significantly greater than the number of hours in the classroom. According to a recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, teachers average about 53 hours a week, including time spent on class preparation, student evaluation, and discussions with students and their parents. Even during breaks, teachers are usually developing classroom materials or attending conferences and in-service training. The PISA report links general public respect for teachers with greater educational success.

And, yes, in the educational system are weak and ineffective teachers, school administrators, and school board members who are part of a system that may have become more lethargic than revolutionary.

But, a look at American society, as seen in the pages of the local newspaper, is a reflection of what Americans think is important. When you’re looking at a four-column picture of a smiling athlete at a signing ceremony, ask yourself why do we wring our hands, furrow our brows, and complain about low educational scores.

The answer might be that while athletes are photographed signing on the dotted line, highly-talented  student musicians, artists, writers, and future scientists, among several hundred thousand others, are also signing on dotted lines—but, these are dotted lines on financial loan statements.

[Dr. Brasch, who has mixed teaching and journalism for more than three decades, is an award-winning journalist and the author of 17 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the effects of fracking upon public health, safety, and the environment. The book is available from amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com. Assisting on this column was Rosemary R. Brasch.] Read the rest of this entry →

by brasch

America’s Uncivil Phone Manners

5:53 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

Wednesday, I called the newsrooms of Pennsylvania’s two largest newspapers.

All I got were disembodied voices telling me no one was available and to leave a message.

It was 11 a.m., and I thought someone—anyone!—should have answered their phones. But, with publishers doing their best to “maximize profits” by cutting news coverage and reporters, I figured they either didn’t have anyone capable of answering a phone or figured no one would be calling with any news that day.

So I left a message. It was a routine question, specific for each newspaper and related to verifying information from their papers for a book I was completing.

I left another message the next day. I would have called individual assignment reporters, but unlike the websites of many smaller newspapers, the metros’ websites didn’t have that information. Apparently, they don’t want readers to know who does what at their newspapers.

Nevertheless, no one called back. I wasn’t important enough.

Calls and emails to an agent for an actor, who I was trying to get for a public service announcement for a national organization, a few weeks earlier weren’t returned. Nor were calls and emails to a national talk show host I was trying to secure for a paid speech to a different national non-profit organization.

Nor were several calls and emails to the producers of pretend-folksy “Ellen” ever returned. In that case, I had a “straight-A” student, who was a mass communications major with minors in marketing and dance. She was one of the best students I had ever taught. She wanted to be an intern. You know, the kind who don’t get pay or benefits but get experience. There were jobs available. It took several calls to others who were affiliated with the show just to find out the names of producers or contacts. But no one from the show returned any of my communications, whether by email, letter, or phone calls. Not even to say my advisee wouldn’t be considered.

Celebrities and their companies get thousands of emails and phone calls. To the average citizen that would be overwhelming. But, to corporations, especially those who deal with the public, there should be sufficient funds in an operation that makes millions a year to hire staff to respond to viewer communications.

Most of the smaller media take pride in returning phone calls or responding to letters from readers and viewers. But something must happen when reporters and producers move into the rarified atmosphere of large media.

It’s too bad. Big Media show arrogance to the people, and then spend countless hours wondering why the people don’t trust them.

Unfortunately, the loss of civility isn’t confined to those who are celebrities or part of the Big Media Morass.

A call to a company that installs home generators went to voice mail, and then wasn’t returned. A call to an individual who advertises that he cleans out gutters and water spouts also wasn’t returned. A call to a university department was answered. The receptionist said the lady “isn’t around.”

“When will she be around?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” came the response.

“Do you think she’ll be available later today?”

“Maybe. You could call back.”

In many cases, the people are left with the belief that others just don’t care. Or, maybe they’re too busy. Or maybe they just forget. Or maybe they’re too busy texting and tweeting to have time to deal with people. Unless, of course, they think we’re at least as important as they are. Then, they fall all over themselves to talk with us.

Even with these annoyances, most calls are answered; most times, I (and I would hope others) are treated with respect. Most times, receptionists and staff take extra time to try to solve problems.

Nevertheless, more and more we see a loss of civility by people and organizations that may think they’re just too important to deal with the people. For the large corporations and the celebrities that have multi-million dollar budgets, perhaps their PR and marketing efforts should first be focused on dealing with the people rather than splashing us with large-scale media campaigns to convince us that they matter. Failure to do so will leave us believing that they, not us, are the ones who don’t matter.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, and former multimedia writer-producer and university professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

 

 

by brasch

Fewer Words; Less Filling

9:31 am in Uncategorized by brasch

                        

                                                              by WALTER  BRASCH 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]