Blog Essay Week 11

EJ  Chapt. 8: Engagement and Relevance

This week’s element of journalism is probably the most interesting one so far: that journalists must make the news engaging and relevant in their stories, newscasts, and photography. To introduce this idea, the authors give the example of an 1,100-page book on an urban planner written 40 years ago. In a journalistic landscape that currently focuses on brevity and up-to-the minute news, that seems like the polar opposite of “engaging”. Their point, which is justifiable, is to show how focusing on power struggles and telling one person’s story to explain something larger can make newswriting more compelling. However, it still seems like a somewhat poor choice to get the conversation started.

The authors discuss what they portray as a fall dichotomy of engaging vs. relevant: that the important stories are at odds with the interesting ones. I definitely agree with the sentiment that storytelling and information are not contradictory. Any journalistic story needs some sort of relevant information to qualify it as news, just as any information-dense story should be made engaging, lest it be just a bunch of facts and numbers randomly splayed out on a piece of paper or web page.

Despite it’s seemingly out-of-touch introduction, the chapter does eventually get down to some modern implications. Specifically, the authors discuss how cutbacks in the newsroom are affecting the quality of news stories for the sake of quantity, something we saw discussed in the “Page One” documentary of the New York Times. This obviously damages both the ability of a news organization to gather relevant information, as well as the ability to make it engaging. Additionally, the authors argue that space is a factor in limiting engagement of news stories. I would say that, while the attention span of the audience has supposedly gotten smaller, the Internet as a medium allows for more in-depth storytelling when used correctly.

The Lewinski/ABC News example clearly shows the quest for engagement trumping relevance, as talk of whether President Clinton is “passionate” and “a good kisser” overshadows the legal and political aspects of the interview.  Sex certainly sells. While I think there is a place for this kind of information, (the public does care about it, after all) it should not have taken center stage in the interview.

I like the characterization of infotainment as basically a self-fulfilling prophecy. If news organizations shift too much towards entertainment and trivia, they lessen the appetite of the audience for real news and drive away those he genuinely still want it.

The many alternatives the chapter gives in response to the call for more relevant and engaging news are all good ideas. I especially liked the Hour Glass structure, as it flies in the face of what they drilled into our heads in Reporting class about the inverted pyramid. I like breaking down preconceptions. Anyway, for any of these to work, however, news organizations must simultaneously clear out much of the infotainment and junk news.

 

ME Chapt. 9: New Media: Continuing Questions and New Roles

Billie Joe Armstrong, of Green Day fame, said he did not want a nation under the new media. (He also said some decidedly unpatriotic things about America in the same breath, but that’s beside the point.) Unfortunately for Mr. Armstrong, the new media—websites, podcasts, blogs and, likely in near the future, telepathic messages—is here to stay, and that’s what this week’s Media Ethics chapter discusses.

As seems to often be the case, the chapter begins by eulogizing the old guard of trained journalists for major publications, their places being taken by tweeters and bloggers. Fortunately, the chapter focuses on some positive aspects of citizen journalism, such as the live recording of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Even at the height of foreign bureaus, now news organization would have had the manpower to cover the protests as extensively as a bunch of people with cell phone cameras did.

The authors claim that citizen journalism lacks information verification, and that this is where professional journalists come in. I would argue that citizen journalists certainly have the ability to verify information. They just don’t have a structured organization of editors to make sure that it happens.

The hypothetical about cutting a photo into pixels and rearranging them into a new photo is intriguing, but ultimately flawed. A pixel is literally just a tiny dot of a certain color. You could probably rearrange a big enough picture into practically anything. A photograph is the arrangement of pixels, not the sum of the pixels themselves. Claiming the end product as copyright infringement would make about as much sense as trying to claim infringement on some pop song because it’s in the same key as that song you wrote for your garage band in 9th grade.

It sort of blew my mind that the forerunner for Google News was created more than 30 years ago. I didn’t even think the Internet existed in the early 80s. I thought people just communicated via messages tied to luftballons back then, or something. I found it even harder to believe, however, that interviewing was once considered a controversial practice in journalism. Did writers just get their information by divine providence before that?

 I can see how the Internet would bring issues of anonymous sources to the forefront. Who knows whose behind that Reddit username? How can we know if @Lord_Voldemort7 on Twitter is really the Dark Lord? In the case of anonymous Internet sources, I think the same standards used in traditional reporting should apply: journalists should use whatever means necessary to verify a source’s identity and publish it, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, such as to protect the source’s safety.

I don’t think the Internet’s origins as a government communications medium hamper its potential as a journalistic medium. Most web space today is on private servers and computers, and the connective infrastructure is largely owned and controlled by private utility companies. Of course, come to think of it, that could be even worse for journalism than if the government owned the Internet infrastructure. We are a democracy, after all, something that corporations cannot call themselves.

In the chapter’s conclusion, I think the authors do too much line-drawing between citizen journalists and “professional” journalists. It’s quite a broad assumption to say that bloggers aren’t interested in education and city councils. The line between the two supposed camps is already blurred, and that blurring is just going to continue as we move forward.

 
Case Study 9-A

1.                    The case concerns the reporting done on the 2012 Supreme Court case on the constitutionality of “ObamaCare.” The issue at hand is whether Fox and CNN should have focused on getting the news of the case out as quickly as possible without adequately verifying the facts.

2.                    By acting as they did, the news organizations may have been able to get the news out as quickly as possible, but risked sacrificing accuracy, as was the case. Alternatively, the organizations could have waited to confirm the initial rumors, potentially losing their ability to report the news before competitors, but while saving face if the initial reports were inaccurate and making sure the public was well informed.

3.                    The organizations should definitely not have acted as they did. This was an issue that had been anticipated for weeks in advance, and would not have any real effects until years later. There was no tangible reason to report it in the manner that they did. Doing so only hurt their audiences and their own credibility.


Case Study 9-B

1.     The major issue in this case is whether it is ethical to aggregate news stories by other news organizations and journalists if proper attribution is given.

2.     One option would be to not aggregate at all. This would take care of any ethical considerations, but jeopardize the existence of publications like the Hartford Courant. Another option would be to aggregate with proper attribution. This calls into question the ethicality of republishing the work of another, even if it is attributed. Is a byline the only line between plagiarism and fair use? Finally, one alternative that can be decisively crossed out is aggregating without proper attribution.

3.     It is ethically sound to aggregate news stories on the Internet, provided that thorough attribution is used and the original story is linked when possible. This can be beneficial to both the aggregator, allowing its continued existence, and the original authors, bringing increased readership.

 

Ethical Issue: Last week, the NPR ombudsman released this (http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2014/03/19/291479274/ethics-morality-and-a-ticking-clock-for-how-to-report-on-the-r-skins) epic tome detailing its stance on using the name of the Washington Redskins in its programming, despite the racial controversy surrounding it. The piece followed an incident in which the host of Weekend Edition refused to say the name, causing varied reactions from listeners. Despite having “bleeped” the name out in the title, the author does not appear to come to a meaningful conclusion about NPR’s stance by the end of some 5,000 words or so.

 

Discussion Question: What is the best method for news organizations to make the telling of news more engaging without sacrificing relevance?

 

Vocabulary

Spin alley: the meeting area for press members to interview public policy experts after political events. Notably criticized by Jon Stewart on his infamous Crossfire appearance.

 

Fair use: Uses of authored material that do not constitute copyright infringement, such as for criticism or educational purposes.

 

Echo chamber: a situation in media where ideas are simply repeated and reinforced while drowning out opposing views. 

 
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