Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘news

Transformation-Oriented Counterpublics

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dive

While doing research for my book about the public radio pledge drive, I came across this quote from, “Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History” by Ralph Engelman.

Mr. Engelmen, in the conclusion of his book, was explaining whether or not Pacifica was trying to do too much by being totally self governing and at the same time, trying to give voice to all of the voiceless.  He quotes John Mclaughlin of the Mclaughlin Group, in 1994;

“Because so many social and economic inequalities cut across group interests and prevent the realization of a truly democratic public sphere, an effective strategy would seek unity amongst transformational-oriented counterpublics for a collective struggle, to form coalitions that extend beyond micropolitics.”

This sounds a lot like employing the in/out argument versus the left/right argument to find common ground between those for whom, on the surface, there seems to be no common ground.  I wanted to show that this idea, in the wake of the results of the presidential election, is not new thinking.  An earlier blogpost referred to how many in the media missed the groundswell for President-elect Donald Trump while also not noticing how many Trump supporters would’ve also voted for Bernie Sanders.  They wanted foundational change and they were looking at both ends of the political spectrum to get it.

These ideas probably just dive beneath the surface once they have served their purpose in earlier times and resurface into public consciousness when they are needed again.  Perhaps in the future,  news and public affairs programs will look for more of these non-traditional, counterintuitive connections.  Maybe finding them will spark more meaningful conversations across groups rather than on the echo chambers within groups.

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The Video Appears to Show an Explosion

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Dubai Explosion

Has TV news and its newscasters become so pre-occupied with qualification that they don’t trust anything?

This morning, Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning was reporting on the explosion of a Boeing 777 in Dubai.  The circumstances of why the jet was on the tarmac with apparently broken landing gear was unclear.  It was explained in an earlier report that the jet has an excellent safety record.  In that report, the correspondent said that only an analysis of the black box would show what happened.

But, a jet with its fusalage on a runway would appear to indicate a very hard landing.  Of course, since we don’t know why the fusalage was on the ground, there are other possibilities, like maybe the landing gear failed during a normal landing.  If you’ve seen the video though, you might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous.  Of course a hard landing broke the landing gear.”

Yes, of course.

So, later in the report, when Mr. Rose says “Video appears to show an explosion …” as the the left wing is blown into the air and the fusalage is engulfed in flames, I realized my head was tilted in confusion.

Appears?  Was the video a YouTube fake?  A computer simulation?  Nope, it’s pretty clear that this was an actual jet airliner blowing itself to smitherines and burning itself to a crisp.

There is a criticism of news these days of how, in order to be “balanced”, it presents both sides of an argument even if those argurers are not equally yoked, credentialed or experienced.  A crackpot is paired with a scholar in an effort to appease everyone in the audience and meet the ideal of journalistic objectivity.  This wrinkle in professional broadcasting ethics is still being worked out.

But when something explodes with smoke and fire and 300 people escape from it before it kills any of them, that’s not appearances.

That’s real.

Written by Interviewer

August 3, 2016 at 22:37

The Springwater Corridor and self-imposed limits by KOIN news.

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Springwater Corridor

The Springwater Corridor is a public space that until earlier this year, was a walking and bike path most of the residents who know the area enjoyed.  But after Portland Mayor Charlie Hales declared a housing emergency last year, and relaxed the city’s restriction on homeless camping this year, the corridor has become a pop-up community of the homeless. For months, residents of the camps and the nearby homes have been trying to find a way to live together.  But tensions have risen and the city is promising to remove all homeless people from the camp in the wake of complaints by homeowners of theft and trash by and from its residents.

That was the context with which I watched an excellent report tonight on a “community meeting” by KOIN 6’s Jennifer Dowling.  Earlier, members of a group called the Portland Tenants Union were meeting with the homeless and some homeowners trying to broker a dialing down of the tensions.  Meanwhile, some of the homeless have defiantly said that when the city comes through on August 1st, they will refuse to leave the corridor.

Although several residents of both communities spoke with Ms. Dowling, a PTU representative asked that KOIN not come close to the meeting to videotape it because, he said, those participating deserved to be able to speak honestly without them and their comments being broadcast to the world.  Ms. Dowling asked if his group was doing to the media what the community/city sought to do to the homeless; essentially exclude them from a public space.

What fascinated me was that Ms. Dowling and her crew seemed to not videotape the meeting and, in fact, did keep a distance of what looked like about 100 feet.  Normally, the press claims the right to be wherever it wants to be in a public space.  This PTU representative had no legal authority to restrict the movements of KOIN.  That Ms. Dowling chose not to tape the meeting was at least as interesting to me as the circumstances which brought about the meeting itself.  It has made me wonder how often the media self-imposes restrictions for any number of reasons, including a sense of ethics, fair play, privacy, practicality, logistics, etc.

To be clear, these types of decisions are made by reporters, producers, news crews, sound people and videographers all the time.  But this the first time I’ve noticed it taking place on tape.  Is there something going on within news organizations or academic journals examining a different relationship with the public?  Does this represent a change in how news interacts with communities?

Or was this just a freebie?

UPDATE:  Just learned that the city is moving it’s sweep back to September 1st.  I’ll be there then.

UPDATE:  On August 2, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales repealed the urban camping edict he had issued earlier in the year which was the trigger for much of the conflict over the Springwater Corridor and other areas where the homeless set up living spaces.   The city said it will provide 72 hours notice to any such camp to give its residents time to leave before they are in violation of the law.  Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Officer Pete Simpson said enforcing that change will be a “low priority” because there are just too many locations to police.

I was so Disappointed

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Fanning a Fire

As I listened to the Friday News Roundtable, which is hosted every week by OPB, one of the panelists said how “disappointed” they were that Republican nominee Donald Trump did not pick a more explosive and contentious vice-presidential running mate.

I thought to myself, “So, to be clear, you are disappointed that a potentially destructive candidate did not pick a more equally destructive running mate because that will make for a more boring story for you to report.”

This is another one of the long list of problems I believe permeate the news biz.

I loved the mid 2000’s TV show “Scrubs” because of its biting commentary on medicine, hospitals, doctors and culture.  One episode I remember was an argument between long time staff nurse Laverne and Chief of Interns, Perry Cox.  Laverne was asking about the tendency of surgeons to always choose exploratory surgery over other options and Cox said, “When was the last time you ever met a cutter who didn’t want to cut? Laverne! You have been here 40 years now, have you ever heard such a thing?”

Likewise, news people apparently don’t prefer a news story that is interesting but without the poisonous consequences over one filled with prurient and insane interest that also results in horrible consequences.  Part of the reason, I think, is because the more messy, complex, bigoted, disgusting story is guaranteed to have plenty of news babies; each of which can then be teased out ad nauseum and in gruesome detail.

They might say they don’t choose the stories they must report, and I expect that’s right.  One problem with the media is it is a competition.  Whoever can claim to be the fastest to report is seen as the best, the “news authority”.  That brings ad dollars.  And the worse, the better.  But there are a list of other “reasons” that I’m sure would be a counterpoint to each of the four points in the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists.

But here’s the bigger problem.  Societies run by demagogues or plagued by fanned fires don’t suffer free media for long.   And I harken back to a Saturday Night Live bit for some support.  When Sarah Palin had appeared on the October 22, 2008 airing of SNL, with her Tina Fey doppelganger, there was a segment with Ms. Palin seated comfortably in an easy chair facing and talking to the camera directly.   And she essentially said that once she and John McCain become president, there would be some changes in how a TV show like Saturday Night Live could parody cultural figures.

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.  After all, SNL is a program of humorous satire.  But there was no hint of humor, and her veiled threat of censorship sounded less like satire and more like a warning.  If Trump becomes president and if he had, instead of choosing Mike Pense, chosen Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie or even Sarah Palin, I wonder how long the sometimes, nose-high Fourth estate would continue feel invulnerable.  He has already threatened the media and the constitutional basis of a free press. A story that delights for its messiness, but raised to a sufficient temperature, can cook up some really nasty policy consequences.

So when I hear news people lament over how they wish a political story was more spectacularly shit-filled, or how they futz that a personal collapse is less compelling because the sufferer isn’t doing more to blow themselves up in front of cameras or microphones, I wonder if the American people (whoever that really is) might have a point when surveys show large swaths on both sides of the political spectrum say they don’t entirely trust the media.

I don’t mean the hard working journalists who report the facts and refuse to prognosticate or editorialize.  I mean what’s left.

When Elephants Fight

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elephant-fight-far

“When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” – African Proverb

In the course of working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I stumbled upon a conversation between two leaders in the public radio realm. Adam Davidson, who has been a content producer for NPR and APM with a particular interest in economics, and John Sutton, a long time radio researcher and fundraising consultant who has been following audience behaviour for decades.

Mr. Sutton responded to a conversation Mr. Davidson posted about the future of audio content and how public radio in general is facing an existential threat from new, long-form journalism from podcasts like “Serial”. Mr. Sutton responded that people don’t use podcasts the way they use radio as it currently exists and even with the technological changes that have rocked public radio, their effect in the long term will be smoothed out.  As time went on, their conversation got a lot livelier and their critiques of each other’s point of view, much more, … um … pointed.

Fortunately, what I’m working on isn’t specifically about program production, audience behaviour or technological innovation as it affects public radio. There are people are much smarter about those things than I will ever be. But it reveals the problem with experts. What is the public to do when standing between two people who have the credentials to clearly and cogently defend opposite points of view?

Pubcasters do everything they can to keep the public happy and in a giving mood and that means drawing as little attention as possible to such conversations. But in the deep underbelly of public radio, they ultimately direct bigger conversations. Like, for example, those over the success of Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new CEO who wants to bring more high value donors into NPR. It’s a strategy that drew justifiable skepticism from the host of OPB’s daily flagship radio news program in 2014.

Maybe the extra cash will help public radio rely less on pledge drives, give producers more freedom to produce higher quality programming and help it avoid future bloodbaths like the one that rocked the network in 2014. ICYMI, NPR made deep cuts in staff and programming in a cost saving move.

In their August 2015 conversation, both men do agree on one thing – the key to public radio’s success is producing programs the audience will listen to and pay for. Their discussion, found here, is probably only one of many such fights between such elephants deep within the public radio milieu.

Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59

Real News

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Thigh Cream

This is a quickie.

The National Zoo in Washington DC helped its panda, Mei Xiang, give birth to two panda cubs overnight.  CBS This Morning has spent a lot of time covering that story, repeating it each hour and dedicating several minutes each time from it’s reporter Jan Crawford, who is covering the story.  Guest anchor Anthony Mason, after one commercial break, began by saying something like, “In our ongoing panda coverage …”.

Anyone who has spent anytime in TV might wonder if what he’s really saying is, “Is this real news?”

This is a perennial conversation in newsrooms.  I remember back in the early 90s, when I worked at WKRC, Channel 12 in Cincinnati, there was a story about thigh cream.  The manufacturer claimed that using this cream would reduce wrinkles and fat on a woman’s thigh.  At the time, reporters were furious that a business product was being elevated to a news story.  And afterwards, it became shorthand for a ridiculous story that masquaraded as real news.  Some people might have accused CBS of doing the same thing a few years ago when “This Morning” featured the new Dyson bathroom hand dryer.

How does this happen?  Sometimes, the news cycle is thin and assignment editors and news directors are looking for anything to fill time.  Sometimes, the more strategic intention is to try to appeal to an important demographic.  And sometimes, (although no one will admit it) the sales department drops a bug in a news director’s ear because a business has just purchased a lot of commercial air time.

Ms. Crawford’s story, however, was likely in none of those categories.  When CBS went to her, she responded to Mr. Mason in her intro by saying the panda story was indeed important because these were the first babies born in captivity in many years.  And she said that because such panda cubs rarely survive, the zoo was essentially in a life or death struggle to keep them alive in their first few hours.

Was it breaking news?  No.  Was it thigh cream?  No.  But this story and many others like it are fuel for the ongoing argument on both sides of the screen.

What is news, exactly?

Pronounciation Guides

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Pronounciation Guide

When I was a reporter for the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), pronounciation guides were a necessity. AFRTS facilities were scattered around the world.  Local military broadcasters presented the news to military and their families serving at those bases and posts.  And the last thing commanders wanted was for one of their people to embarass the command by mispronouncing the name of a host nation dignatary.

A pronounciation guide is a list of hard to pronounce words that occur in the major stories of the day.  It’s purpose is to help news readers say the word as correctly as possible.  Sometimes, that means as a company or country or group decides they want it said.  Remember the problem the media was having with ISIS versus ISIL versus DASH?

Sometimes, pronouncing a word correctly means as a community had decided it will be said no matter what “proper” pronounciation says it should be.  For instance, In Cincinnati, there is a main thoroughfare called Reading Road.  Most people might pronounce it as “Read” with “ing” at the end.  But Cincinnatians say it like “Red-ing”.  A pronounciation guide would be very helpful there.  A new hire at a hometown station that says “REED-ING” instead of “RED-ING” is instantly pegged as not a local.

By contrast, sometimes a name is just a nightmare to pronounce.  But anchors and hosts have to speak with authority and if they continually stumble over words, they start to lose their credibility.   Besides, it’s distracting for the listener because they start paying less attention to the story and more attention to the next time the anchor stumbles.  And that stumbling can take a few forms.  As a reader, you see the word coming in the copy with the horrible realization that you have no idea how to say it.  So you crash into it, trying not to break your pace as you butcher way through it and hoping no one will notice.   Or, you start to pronounce it, realize you are pronouncing it wrong and try again, and again, and again.  Somewhere in there, a part of your brain realizes another part of your brain just isn’t getting it.  So you slam another word in place and jerk yourself to another part of the sentence.

U.N. Secretaries General are especially hard.  There was Dag Hammarskjöld.  There was U Thant.  There was Boutros Boutros Ghali.  Without a pronounciation guide, how many anchors fell into those phonetic pits.

Sometimes you think a pronounciation guide is necessary when it really isn’t.  For example, in the U.S., the word “aluminum” (AHH-LOO-MIN-NUM) is pronounced much differently than how the British pronounce it, which is AYL-YOU-MIN-E-UM.  This is sort of similar to the Cincinnati example except it’s really the difference between homophones (words sounding the same but with different meanings) versus homographs (words spelled the same but sounding differently).

I miss pronounciation guides, and it seems some broadcast outlets are missing them too.  For instance, I recently heard a local commentator call the Oregon community of YOU-MA-TILLA, UH-MA-TILLA.  But this isn’t just something small outlets do.  Earlier this week, a reporter on CBS called the Oregon based sportsware manufacturer N-EYE-K, rather than N-EYE-KEE.

But pronounciation guides can be a pain too.  When you’re writing and producing stories, you’re constantly up against the clock.  When airtime is looming, scanning through a pronounciation guide is a luxury and the last thing you have time for.  So many of us in the business assume we know how to say something.

ASS-U-ME