Friday, October 26, 2018

Mistakes the media makes in a tense political climate and how they can fix them

As a former journalist, I watched the entire saga of suspicious packages unfold on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.  Time for a quick sidebar from the superhero and TV blogs I typically post.

It is a scary time to be a journalist, for sure.

I think there's plenty of blame to go around --- both sides of the aisle, both media and non-media.

First of all, President Trump.  He talks about fake news all the time.  I've received viewer phone calls from Democrats who, upset with story coverage they received, told me, 'I don't like Trump, but now I know what he means when he talks about fake news!'

It should be made clear from the top down that violence is NOT the answer and is NOT OK.  Make your memes and throw your critiques out on YouTube comments and on Twitter, but don't incite violence, poke fun at it or accept it as normal behavior.

Unfortunately we've had instances on both sides of the political spectrum where politicians have indicated that it's 'OK' to do that.

  • President Trump --- there are various examples ... take your pick.
  • Hillary Clinton --- she told CNN: "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about ... That's why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that's when civility can start again. But until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength."
  • Eric Holder --- he said at a campaign rally a week or two ago: "When they go low, we kick 'em. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about."

That list could go on and on.

People are passionate.  People are angry.  That's OK.  Passion drives people to the polls and gets them involved in a political process that would otherwise go unchecked.

Michelle Obama was right, though.  Regardless of what party you identify with, "When they go low, we go high."  It's a quote that people remember for years.  It was powerful and it's true.

You can't take things into your own hands and go around screaming in the face of senators, imposing your physical will on anyone or encouraging physical attacks --- on politicians, on voters you disagree with or on the media.

If you resort to that, it takes focus away from whatever point you're trying to prove.

Now, I'm not a politician, but I can speak to the media and some issues that they bring on themselves.

The media has been losing trust for a long while, before President Trump took office.

They consistently rank up there with used car salesmen, politicians and lawyers in terms of the least trustworthy professions.

Take a look at the Gallup poll statistics in the infographic here.

They've gone up and down a bit, but since 2002, it's been (mostly) a consistent downfall.

Gallup began asking the question about media in 1972 and on a yearly basis since 1997.

In 1976, the poll indicated 72% of those who took it widely trusted journalism.  The Gallup poll results break down the age demographic that trusts media the least and the voting party that trusts them the least.

Why the distrust?

After spending 10 years in journalism, I've got a few theories.

1.) The line has been blurred between 'Journalist' and 'TV personality'

I can't tell you exactly when this started.  I will say that I first noticed it back when President Bush was in office on Fox NewsBill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes all regularly discussed their personal opinions on their shows on Fox News.

That's fine, if you're a TV commentator or a TV personality.  Drop the title 'journalist' from your resume though.

You're NOT a journalist anytime you are giving opinions on something.  You are supposed to be fair and impartial.  That's the first thing I was taught in college.

Sure, accountability is part of journalism.  If a Senator is arrested for human trafficking or driving while intoxicated or any other charge, large or small, then it's fair game to report.  Whatever fallout does or doesn't happen shouldn't be considered if you're reporting the facts.

But a lot of 'journalists' use accountability as an excuse to take a negative tone while asking their leading questions.  They already have a conclusion drawn before they ask a question.

In the past several years, the 'journalists' are giving their opinions on matters, too.

EXAMPLE: Tara Golshan's Sept. 25 tweet

This isn't a big 'Oh my gosh!' controversial tweet here.  But it does show a 'journalist' giving her opinion.

CSPAN correctly tweeted about an exchange between Sen. John Kennedy and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Tara Golshan, a reporter at Vox, mentioned a 'very awkward exchange' in her tweet.  Don't give me your opinion.

Your job isn't to give me your opinion.  It's to give me the facts.

Granted, maybe that's what Vox wants her to do -- weigh in on what she sees while covering politics.

I'd argue that you should avoid that.  You gain credibility by NOT tweeting that there's a 'very awkward exchange' and going CSPAN's route (complete exchange) if your professional opinion is that there is something important in the exchange.

This issue, of course, is not specific to Tara Golshan.  She's just one example that I saw recently.

Jake Tapper?  He's not a journalist.  Chris CuomoDon LemonTucker Carlson?  They may have started as journalists, but the moment they weighed in on something, they lost the right to call themselves that.

You turn to the experts if you want a political opinion.  Ask the representatives of the GOP or the Democratic Party to weigh in on a political topic, but don't give your own opinion.

Too many 'journalists' these  days do that.  The press White House press conferences are a clear example of that.

Jim Acosta taking a hostile or smug tone and line of questioning (even if it is in response to Trump's own hostile tone) makes the entire profession look bad.

Acosta is all big-chested, acting as though he's asking the important questions, but he's really disgracing the industry by letting his bias show.

He's becoming the story instead of reporting  the story.

Don't let it get personal, people!

If you're questioning President Trump on a 'fact' that he gives, cite the person who has come out and disagreed with it while asking your question.  Maintain your impartiality.

Tucker Carlson appearing on Dancing with the Stars?  No.  Not OK.  Not if you still want to be called a journalist.  If you're going to be a TV personality from here on out, fine.  But you can't be a story and report on a story.

Sure, it's just a fun show about dancing.  Why can't Tucker Carlson do that?

When you start being a celebrity, people start to know you more for your celebrity than they do your journalism.  The lines get blurred for you and your colleagues.

Another thing that blurs the line between journalist and personalities is the fact that TV journalists increasingly appear on fictional political dramas.

I'm not a fan of that at all.

Jay Leno, as the host of The Tonight Show, appeared in a lot of movies.  He was in Delivery Man, The Astronaut Farmer, First Daughter, Calendar Girls, Space Cowboys, Contact and a variety of other movies as Jay Leno.

His words were scripted to go along with the storyline in the movie.  They used the actual Jay Leno to portray the fact that the characters in the movies were making headlines.

That's OK.  Jay Leno is entertainment.  That's his thing.

But how about reporter Ashleigh Banfield appearing on House of Cards?  No, not a fan.

I understand using real journalists from the TV show's perspective.  They get an actual TV figure to appear on their TV show, lending some credibility to their product.

The result, however, is that it takes credibility away from the very journalist who is appearing on the show.

These 'journalists' also go on talk shows to publicize the several books they write.  When they're the ones who are being interviewed, they become more of a TV personality than a journalist.

Save your book and interviews for the end of your journalism career.

Unfortunately the researchers are telling television news executives that people want relatable and interactive news anchors.

That's fine, if you're a host.  I love watching Steve Harvey on The Family Feud because he's relatable and hilarious.

But he's a TV show host.  He's not a journalist.

If TV news wants hosts and commentators and personalities, that's fine, but I beg them: make a clear distinction between those roles and their functions.

I'm really happy to see that CNN updated their staffing list, dividing anchors/hosts from correspondents/reporters.

If you don't do this, things get blurry and the viewers will continue to call the media biased because some of the people you see on TV are.

They are giving opinions and that takes away from the credibility of any true journalist.

2.) Quit cherry picking quotes and using descriptive terms

This seems a little odd considering the job of a journalist is to present a story and to use quotes to tell that story, but the quotes that are chosen?

The quotes that are tweeted?  The tweets themselves?

There's a lot of bias in a lot of places.  I see it.  Others, who don't have a degree in journalism, see it too.

EXAMPLE: Take a look at this tweet put out by The Raw Story (which claims to be an online news organization).

Lindsey Graham 'snarls' at the audience?  And the photo of him holding up his finger as though he's scolding them?  There's a clear intention with that tweet.

Someone interpreted it that way and is putting it out that way.

Number one: Graham didn't really snarl.  I watched the video, expecting to see some kind of big exchange and I had to watch the video back to find what they were alluding to with the tweet.

Number two (and more importantly): don't lead me with your damn tweets.  Don't tell me the takeaway from his speech.  As a viewer, I want to know that you aren't biased in your reporting.

Choosing words like 'snarl' and choosing specific photos to illustrate your point puts your organization at risk of criticism.

If I, as a viewer, don't agree with your takeaway then I, as a viewer, am left thinking your purposefully distorted the truth or that you can't figure out what's important to me.

That's why journalists should choose quotes but leave out the

Maybe go with a more boring tweet, reading: "Lindsey Graham speaks about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford at The Atlantic Festival"

Sure, you don't get your clickbait, but you aren't left looking like you are leaning towards a particular political stance either.

3.) There's not a distinction between local news and national news ... there should be

Some of the most unbiased news you'll get are from the local news outlets that are reporting on local news.

They understand the community that they are reporting on.

They typically find views on both sides of whatever issue they are covering.

Their anchors are typically much better at reserving any kind of bias they may have on any kind of political story that is being covered.

If they report on the national news, they are localizing it and getting local reaction.

If not, they are using the information that their television affiliate (FOX, ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC) has reported.

They aren't going to reach out to the White House about what's happening in Syria.

They'll find a local business owner or local refugee family and ask them to weigh in on it, but your local newspaper or television affiliate doesn't have the connections to reach out to the White House and ask them hard-hitting questions about foreign policy.

That's not how it works.

No, the local TV affiliates don't have a big meeting with any of those organizations to determine their coverage for the day.

There's not a big conspiracy as to the message that they have to spread.

Legally, if you're a CNN affiliate and a NBC News affiliate, then you can use their reporting.

If their reporting ends up being wrong, then the local news story ends up being wrong.  It doesn't matter what the affiliate is, it's the same process.

Bottom line: trust local news for local news and get your national news from other places because they have the resources and time to cover it more extensively.

4.) The 24-hour news cycle has prompted a rush to get information out ... and a bunch of errors as a result.

It seems like it's a regular occurrence for news organizations to post incorrect information.

I know as well as anyone in journalism that mistakes will be made.  I made then during my stint as a print and television reporter.

With so much news coming out so fast, mistakes are bound to happen.

I'd argue that what news organizations need to do, especially at a time when journalism's credibility has hit an all-time low according to Gallup, is to promote yourself as being accurate.  Don't worry about all those other organizations that are tweeting at the speed of light.  Make sure your coverage is accurate.

You'll stand out  because you won't have to send out correction tweets like Yahoo News.

You won't be sending out incorrect information like Time did with the suspicious packages this past Wednesday.

EXAMPLE: Time's tweet about explosive devices found in Obama and Clinton family homes

Take a look at their tweet.

According to all of the other reporting done that day, this tweet is false.

Here's what The New York Times said about the devices:

"The device sent to Mrs. Clinton was found late Tuesday by a Secret Service employee who screens mail for her, a statement from the Secret Service said.
A security guard at the Clinton Foundation’s Midtown Manhattan offices said the package was addressed to Mrs. Clinton’s home in Westchester County, north of New York City, not her offices.
The package addressed to Mr. Obama was intercepted early Wednesday by Secret Service personnel in Washington."

And here's what CNN reported:

"Neither Obama nor Clinton received the packages sent to them or were at risk of receiving them, the Secret Service said. They were discovered during "routine mail screening procedures as potential explosive devices and were appropriately handled as such," the agency said in a statement. 
The package intended for Obama was intercepted in Washington, DC, and the one intended for Clinton was addressed to her Chappaqua residence in Westchester County, New York, on Tuesday, authorities said."

Bomb scares are, by definition, scary.  My point isn't on that.  My point is that Time tweeted that explosive devices were found in Clinton and Obama's homes.

That's a much different situation than a potential bomb addressed to Clinton and Obama's homes being intercepted by the Secret Service.

EXAMPLE: NBC News had to make a correction on the same story because they pretty much said the same thing to begin with.

Now, the correction is good.  They're at least correcting the information, but in the world of Twitter?

The tweet with the inaccurate information is still being spread (shared and favorited) while the

The lesson to the public here should be: take everything you read on Twitter (especially during breaking news situations) with a grain of salt.

Information coming into the newsrooms is changing at a rapid pace.  Sometimes the inaccurate information is due to someone in the news organization tweeting too quickly.

Other times their sources are wrong.

Unfortunately, no matter whose fault it is, every correction that gets tweeted out chips away at the credibility of your news organization.

You can say 'But wait!  We corrected it!'

Great, but even though you are correcting it now, your organization still initially put out the wrong information.

Viewers depend on your organization for accurate news.

If you keep messing up, viewers will turn to other news sources.

Every time that correction tweet is sent out, it gives President Trump (and anyone who is upset with news coverage of any time) more of a reason to say 'You're fake news!'

I think it's time that the media (national and local) does itself a favor and:

  • isn't so quick to tweet (it's okay to say 'we're working to get details' or 'we don't have confirmation yet')
  • makes a clear distinction between journalists / reporters and TV personalities / commentators (conflating the two does nobody any favors)
  • makes a strong push to take unneeded opinion and descriptive words out of your stories

Stick to the facts of the story and let the readers or viewers make up their minds on their own.  That's all we really want.

It is actually that simple.

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