Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Breaking news without excuses

Our neutered press critics are fond of blaming bad reporting on the pressures created by technology and competition. Smaller newsrooms mean fewer reporters are available to cover important news. The internet and the 24-hour news cycle force the poor overworked darlings to tweet, update breaking stories, blog, make TV appearances, and monitor social media. It is just too much for even most noble of humans (i. e. journalists) so we should not be surprised when mistakes are made. Nor should we dwell too much on said mistakes.

As with most establishment press criticism, this argument is mostly special pleading to excuse bias and sloppy behavior.

I recently finished a book that puts the lie to these excuses and demonstrates how good reporters and editors handle tough challenges.

When the News Went Live is a first person account by four local reporters in Dallas who suddenly had to cover the biggest story in the world. These four men wanted to get the story right and they did so despite all the pressures and potential pitfalls.

It was not easy. Not only were they covering an earth-shattering event, they faced the same kind of demands that modern reporters whine about:

We wrote our own copy. There were no news readers among us. Eddie demanded versatility, and all of us were prepared to report and write as well as shoot film and operate audio equipment.
While most of the media handled the story with professionalism, some grievous mistakes were made. Perhaps the most notorious was Dan Rather’s report that schoolchildren cheered when they were told that Kennedy had been shot.

As Bob Huffaker recounts, Rather tried to get the story on the air at KRLD. Their news director smelled a rat, called the school and discovered that the cheering was by children who did not know the reason why the school was letting them out early.

Rather, never one to let the mundane truth stand in the way of a juicy narrative, managed to get the story on the CBS network broadcast.

Walter Cronkite and CBS News were more easily duped than the yokels at KRLD.

Reporter Eddie Barker describes the methods of the big city press that flooded Dallas to cover the assassination:

Most of them, unfortunately, had written their stories on the plane.
Other reporters followed Rather’s path.

I rolled the tape and gave him [Robert Pierpoint] the nod. 'They say that Dallas is not a city of hate,' he bagan. 'And yet, on the streets of Dallas, one gets the impression---' he continued. Then to my amazement, he characterized Dallas as a center of political extremism and distrust, then went on to imply that some vaguely defined sense of unease and hatred still lurked in the city where he'd landed not a half-hour earlier.

He ended his report, 'This is Robert Pierpoint, CBS News, in Dallas." To be sure, he had actually done the feed from Dalla. Its overriding impression was that he had taken time to gauge the mood of the city, but I marveled that he'd managed to accomplish his analysis in a ten-minute ride from the airport.

Pierpoint was parroting the media line-- Dallas was a city of hate after all-- and apparently one could draw that conclusion by landing at Love Field and riding to our newsroom.
Then, as now, the problem of bad reporting had little to do with technology or time pressure. It is a question of bias and the tyranny of the narrative.

Sure, competitive pressure and ambition played a role, but they were subservient to the narrative. As the Dan Rather example shows, a reporter who wanted to cut corners to report a “scoop” could only do it by playing to the biases of the deciders in New York and Washington. “Blame Dallas” stories received instant air play. “Blame the communists” stories were spiked. A reporter who wanted to advance the latter narrative faced push back and had to do much more work to get his story on the air or in the paper. Hence, that counter-narrative drew no support from the ambitious journalist on the make.

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