Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Banning Bad News in Iraq

This week, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the Iraqi government is now censoring the press. It was reported that last week in the Guardian that, "police in Baghdad fired warning shots into the air to force a group of Iraqi journalists to leave the scene of a car bombing that killed seven people." This struck me as ironic, seeing that Iraq is trying to become democratic, yet, they are destroying a fundamental component of democracy--free press. In fact, the Iraqi government issued a decree stating that journalists are no longer allowed to access sites of car bombings or other violent attacks. According to Iraqslogger, the Iraq Interior Ministry Operations Director Brigadier General Abdul Kareem Khalaf gave the following reasons for censoring the press:

*the ban is to protect journalists from getting hurt (but embedded journalists already and journalists working in war torn countries already know they are at a heightened risk of injury or death)

*journalists need to be kept away from these sites because they damage/tamper with evidence (however, photographs and video are good tools to preserve a crime scene)

*journalists are disrespecting the dead by taking photos and video footage.

*journalists reporting on terrorism and attacks gives the attackers and victimizers information that they achieved their goals.

Clearly, the only reasons I could possibly accept are the latter two. But, there is something so inherently wrong with firing gunshot to scare away journalists. Not to mention, this is completely against democracy. First and foremost, these journalists are reporting on incidents that occur on public not private property for the most part. I can only wonder, how can Iraq become a democracy if it is going to suppress a free press? In all honesty, I believe coverage of these events is vital because it informs citizens and foreigners of the state of security in Iraq and the progression of the war.
Perhaps what is more disturbing is that last November, the Iraq ministry created a media surveillance unit to "watch over" journalist. Thus, if journalists reported things that were deemed unacceptable to Iraqi government (i.e. anything that diverted Iraqi attention away from the war on terrorism) legal action could be brought against the press. This is absolutely shocking, not to mention, the press was forbidden to cover parliament there too. So, in a system where checks and balances is suppose to include the press, how can Iraq ever be a democracy? In fact, how is this still not a dictatorship?--With the ministry at the helm, deciding what gets shown to viewers and what does not get shown or heard.
While I do believe Iraq is a deadly place for journalists--I do not believe the Ministry is looking to save their lives. After all, they are shooting warning shots to get journalists away from bombings...therefore, if one does not yield to the warning they get shot. So, I do not buy this story from the Iraq ministry. In addition, war reporters are well aware that their lives are in danger. Even Medill offers a 3 day seminar at Quantico to teach aspiring journalists how to remain safe when embedded for war reporting. Journalists who choose to do this type of reporting know why they are in for and do not need the government babysitting them or acting like a big brother.
Overall, while the images of dead soldiers, dead Iraqis, totaled cars and gruesome images have inundated us for more than four years now--we still need them. As CJR states, journalists who report from these sites are recording history. I have to agree with CJR that although it gets redundant, "this is the job of journalists, to continously cover these stories--and a democratically-elected government should know that."
But the larger picture may be the treatment of journalists globally. In Cuba, Fidel Castro has imprisoned journalists, in Colombia journalists are kidnapped and used as political pawns and the Chinese government constantly interferes with its press. But in terms of press restriction, we do not have to look far, even in the United States, journalists have few protections and rights. Everyday, journalists are being subpoenaed for their notes and placing the core of journalism (source confidentiality) at risk. Clearly, Journalists Without Borders Needs and other journalism organizations need to band together on a global scale to ensure the rights of journalists and to protect the trade before it becomes another arm of the government.
On a further note, I am curious to know what the Iraq government plans to do with soldiers and Iraqis placing homemade documentaries and footage on YouTube? For now, the Pentagon has banned the use of YouTube by soldiers. Is this not a form of censorship? I believe that because the U.S. is partly responsible (actually solely) for Iraqi freedom and democracy, that Iraq is learning to censor the press from the U.S.--after all, we are Iraq's role model. Therefore, if Iraq sees our government jailing journalists, forcing the release of records, ignoring FOIAs and censoring on YouTube (which is not a journalism/media outlet), they will mirror this behavior. I cannot help but think the U.S. government banned YouTube use because the U.S. Army and other soldiers created their own news channel, Multi-National Force Iraq, that shows firefights, destruction of bomb-making facilities, etc. In the end, the U.S. is essentially doing the same thing as Iraq (or vice versa) by shutting down firsthand accounts of war and other compelling reports. While the station will be back next month, guess what, it will be edited by the Pentagon---so censorship here we come!

Some thoughts on the reports

I've seen everybody reflecting on their Medill Reports, and I can understand. My issues have been slightly different though. It's not about the access, its about what happens once you get the access.

The background on my story is that I'm follwoing the story of a young man convicted of murder, but who might have been wrongly convicted. The sole witness on whom the entire conviction was based has told people he was lying, now he has to be found.

But there are a ton of inherent risks involved in a story like this. The first is that on Tuesday, I'm going to jail to interview a convicted murderer. Yea, it was a tremendous feeling knowing that I got the interview, but now what? First of all, it is a little unnerving to conduct an interview in a maximum security prison. And while I generally believe in this guy's case, I've never spoken to him before. I don't know what he's like. And my entire story hinges on his ability to communicate his point of view.

I also get one shot at that interview. One chance to ask the questions, one chance to get all the shots I need. That's a lot of pressure.

The second part of my story was the part that got me on edge. The murder was gang and drug related. And while I do believe this man convicted was probably innocent, that means there is somebody out there who did do this. And that person probably won't be too happy with attention being refocused on a case they considered dead.

The murder took place on the far west side and it was important that I go out there and shoot some locator video and get a sense of the neighborhood. When I told this to an investigator at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, he insisted that he come along, to have our back. And I'm pretty thankful he did.

It was a complete culture shock. He would point out drug dealers on the corners, every car would slow down and look at us. Someone came up to us asked what we were doing there, he told them a story on real estate. I would never have come up with that one on my own.

But I started thinking about what it would have been like to go out there alone, or me and another Medillian. I would have feared for my physical safety. I don't know, after you get the interview, after you find your story, there are still so many more hurdles.

Youth News

A couple of weeks ago I came across a quick blurb on Media Bistro about a news magazine show that NPR is launching in September, called--tentatively--"The Bryant Park Project." The program is self-described as targeting 25 to 44 year olds and will be a daily, 2-hour news show.

Jay Kernis, the senior vice president of programming at NPR, describes it this way on NPR's website:

“When we first announced this program, we said it would serve a generation of public radio listeners and online visitors who want the high-quality, fact-based journalism of NPR News, but in a different voice."

The voice he's talking about is a younger, hipper, tech-savvier one.

This is a concept that intrigues me from the start. I have always been frustrated by the lack of strong, young programming available through traditional media outlets. What frustrated me even more were the constant reiterations that media giants are trying precisely to find new ways to engage and attract my demographic. From the looks of it, they haven't been trying very hard. At least not when it comes to news.

Since reading the quick blurb about the NPR launch, I've been thinking about my frustrations even more. And this project--for once!--seems to be exactly what I want: smart, thoughtful news programming that has a young, fresh perspective. Now all that remains to be seen is whether this show will really be all it says it will, or could it be just another gimmick? A way to attract a particular audience without, ultimately, doing anything to keep it?

Even with the research I've since done on the show, I'm not quite sure. Alison Stewart will be one of the hosts. She comes off of MSNBC's "The Most." which was a creative show that did it's best to blend online and broadcast. It's clever and certainly spunky, but is it at the end of the day really a fresh take on the news? In my opinion, it's all about packaging. But the more I think about it, the more I conceed that packaging is not only a large part of it--it's a legitimate part. Sure, the news I care about as a young person might vary somewhat from the news my parents care about. But, at the end of the day, a good and important story can resonate with anyone if told from a perspective she can relate to.

Whether mere packaging or not, NPR's endeavor is one that I find truly worthwhile and long overdue. I'm crossing my fingers that it's fresh from start to finish. But even if it's just a young wrapper on an old package, at least it's a start.

Rewarded for good reporting

A friend of mine has a relative who produces a morning news show in Detroit. Recently that friend got to accompany his relative and the news show staff to a Detroit Red Wings playoff game and sit in their suite. As a big hockey fan, I was naturally very jealous (not to mention the free food and drink). Then he told me the suite was provided by the team's owner.

I was a little supsicious about those circumstances but he was emphatic that the owner had provided the suite. According to my friend, the owner called up his relative and commended him for the morning show's fine reporting on the Wings' latest playoff run. As a thank you, he offered the suite up to the news team.

I first wondered about what kind of coverage would get a team owner (or perhaps a corporation, etc.) to call and say "good job." Did that mean it was actually quality reporting, favorable reporting or just a lot of coverage? People pay attention to themselves (or their properties) when it makes the news, but do they value quality coverage (accurate, fair, balanced?) or just being in the news?

Then I began to wonder why they would take the owner up on the offer? Of course stations want to reward good ratings and good reporting, but couldn't they have done it on their own nickel? I don't even accept sodas from sources let alone lots of sodas inside a suite at a major sports arena.

If my friend's story is right, it really makes me wonder. I don't think it was acceptable to attend the game on the owner. Even if the owner was commended them on fair, accurate and balanced reporting, I think it may get altered to "favorable" coverage after attending the game.

It is probably hard to be too negative about a team that is on a playoff roll (and sports are one of the few things Detroiters can rally around), but it can't all be favorable coverage. Ticket prices are a major pain for fans in Michigan's bad economy and there were lots of empty seats throughout the first two rounds. I'll bet this didn't show up in any of the morning show highlights. There are also always opportunities to discuss bad in-game decisions and to have tough interviews with players.

In journalism we all walk a fine line between news and promotion. I know you can't do a "high ticket price story" for every game, but that would be one way to have a balanced collection of newscasts.

This just shows me that there are more decisions in a newsroom that need to be vetted. Outside-the-newsroom factors deserve the same kind of careful examination that in-story decisions receive.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


The new age of media is all about interactivity. We see that trend unfold via blogs, Web forums, user reviews, etc. all over the Internet. But how about interactivity with your television screen? No, not the type you’re thinking of (hint: It doesn’t involve cousin Joe screaming at the TV when his home team doesn’t score.)

IPTV is the buzzword. Okay, I have to insert a disclaimer here: That’s according to my brother, who works on Microsoft’s IPTV product. But a recent Google News search for IPTV revealed the following sample of headlines: “Motorola to Buy Another IPTV startup,” “IPTV drives merger and acquisition surge for telecoms equipment makers” and “BroadcastAsia 2007 to focus on IPTV.” But also: “Can IPTV really compete?”

IPTV is a new form of delivering television, as the acronym implies, via Internet Protocol. Internet providers, such as AT&T, provide you with access to the Internet via cable modem and also transfer data into video stream to display it on the television set.

But IPVT is not simply watching the Internet via your TV tube.

It means that you can potentially get the same advantages from watching television as from surfing the Internet. Read that sentence again. That’s huge! The opportunities are vast. Interactivity is just one benefit.

With cable, you can only set the screen to one channel at a time, much like radio. But with IPTV, you can send multpile video streams directly to a set up box, which can display multiple videos at the same time.

You can watch a basketball game from three different angles, or you can view a video inside a screen, for example different channels at the same time. Video will truly be on demand when you actually want it. You could vote for the next American Idal straight from your remote. Or zoom into that detail or manufacturer’s information on James Bond’s car, during the newest 007 movie. Incoming calls to your phone during your favorite sitcom will be easy to deal with because caller ID is displayed on your TV – since AT&T provides both information anyway. Or you can discuss Oprah via IM chat with your friends while you’re watching. The possibilities are limited by our imagination.

What does this all mean for the broadcasting world? If we think about how the Internet has exploded in the past decade or so and how it has become such an integral part of our daily lives, it’s fair to say IPTV is the future of television.

Television viewers have traditionally been more captive and more passive than Internet users. (Note how we refer to television audiences as viwers, and to Internet audiences as users.) IPTV will certainly change the way we watch TV, and if nothing else, I hope that it will force us, media people, to think about providing content that's more intelligent and engaging.

Pick up your phone!

Getting a good story is all about access-- and it's extremely frustrating that as more people are skeptical of reporters, getting people to talk on camera becomes a power struggle.

Setting up Medill Reports interviews this week was probably the most stressful week, contrary to what I was expecting. I thought that with more time, this week would be comparatively more laid back in terms of scheduling interviews. I was dead wrong.

My stress level steadily increased from Monday to Thursday trying to get a hold of people. Four straight days of worrying whether or not your story is going to fall through is definately not a good feeling. I would sit in front of my computer looking for different numbers to call; I would have a friend (who doesn't even live in Chicago) to check my gmail for me every 10 minutes if I needed to leave my computer.

It was amazing-- and I probably would've found it a little humorous if I wasn't so strung out-- how no one was calling me back. The worst feeling was that this woman, who decided not to be in the office from Monday to Thursday afternoon, had the fate of my story in her hands. Maybe a reporter should never give someone that much power, but I didn't know who else to turn to since this person was the director of my program, the holder of all the statistics and connections to my "face."

To give some background, my MR is on a preschool program that's facing a decrease of federal funds. And my "face" had to be a family attending one of these centers. Of course the major obstacle was to somehow shoot broll of preschoolers. At first, Chicago Public Schools told me I had to go through their communication department, who then had to go through their legal department, etc. etc. Luckily-- after going down an extensive list of preschool centers-- I found a school that was approved for me to go visit without me having to go through CPS' numerous hoops.

As of now, I'm still having problems getting a simple comment from CPS on my preschool program. I understand that I have to go through communications, but when the comm director ignores my calls and emails, what do I do? When I try calling the board members directly, of course they transfer me back to the communication director's answering machine. When they finally do touch base with me, it's usually to say that they haven't found anyone yet to talk to me and that they won't be able to meet my deadline because of the short notice. Um, does the media relations office not understand the deadline pressures?

My point is-- maybe I don't really have one and just wanted to release some of frustration (and some anger and outrage). But doing this story, I felt like everyone else controlled my access to the classroom, to the individuals I spoke with, to the board members, etc. I really felt that people were suspicious of my story so I definately made a conscious effort to distance myself from anything that could make me look like a voyeuristic creep who wants to just take footage of young children.

I know it's all part of the system and there are rules to follow, especially when it comes to schools. But as a reporter who really believes there's a good story to tell, it's dissappointing and disheartening when it's like pulling teeth just to get someone to pick up the phone.

News To Me

News To Me, the first cable news program comprised of user-generated video, debuted on Headline News on today, May 19, at 12:30 p.m. The program is hosted by Eric Lanford and showcases the most compelling videos, pictures and stories traversing the Internet. The program will air on Headline News each Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

With content ranging from serious to humorous, Lanford updates viewers on current events through the eyes and lenses of citizen journalists. Lanford also interviews many people who have submitted CNN I-Reports, content captured by CNN viewers with personal cell phones, cameras or other devices. By speaking directly with I-Reporters, Lanford gains insight into what it felt like at the scene as they captured their footage.

Viewers can submit material through a “Send Your I-Report” link at CNN.com or by e-mail at ireport@cnn.com. Submitted I-Report material undergoes the same extensive vetting process CNN employs for all content that goes on air or online.

To me, even though it airs on television, the program looks very fit for the web and looks somewhat like what we're trying to accomplish with our webcasts. It's very untraditional and combines citizen journalism with host segments and interviews. The thing that stands out the most is that the material is nothing you would ever see in mainstream media. It's very specific to people's lives and situations and gives a view of America most people wouldn't see.

I think it's interesting that Lanford talks with the people who sent in the material about their submissions. They talk with each other as the viewer explains the video he or she submitted. It's also interesting that a lot of the material sent in is cell phone video footage. It makes for a very amatuer look to all of the footage, which is unique.

It will be interesting to see what viewers think of this show. I also think it is something that could eventually move toward the web. I think it's a fun addition to slower weekend news programming and I look forward to see where it goes and if it leads to other similar programs.

Remembering the fallen

It was a devastating night Thursday for ABC News and the entire journalism industry. Two of its men were ambushed and killed in Baghdad after leaving the ABC News Baghdad bureau. Few people know these men's faces, or even their names, but they were the eyes and ears for ABC News in Iraq. These men went behind the lines, where American journalists couldn't go due to danger and the intense risk of death. Cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf captured footage of the war so we can better understand what is going on overseas.

It is a terribly horrifying job, but these men were brave enough to do it. I commend them and their sacrifice made me think of the other journalists in Iraq that get little recognition, yet do what most journalists wouldn't think of doing. They report the hardest news, the most devastating news, and clearly the most dangerous news. They don't appear on our television screens, nor does ABC flash their names or pictures on the screen when they use feed they have collected, but they are the reason we are able to see footage of the war in Iraq.

It was interesting reading some of the comments that articles surrounding the deaths of Aziz and Yousuf created. One blogger suggested that war correspondents be given small handguns to protect themselves in emergency cases. Here is an excerpt from his comment: "I feel journalist should have to have a small arms course and be issued handguns as personal protection to at least give them some security in themselves and their comrades." This really made me think, and I have to somewhat agree that this may not be a bad idea. Journalists should be able to protect themselves when reporting in cases of war, where danger lurks around every corner, and where the unexpected could be deadly.

Other comments sparked my attention as well. ABC devoted a lot of its Friday news coverage to the death of their employees. It was necessary I feel for them to do so, but it stirred up a lot of emotions for their viewers. One comment read: "These guys signed up to be combat correspondents. It comes with the job. What about the AMERICANS over there that are dying leaving families behind to weep. I wish ABC had this much devotion when it came to covering fallen AMERICAN soldiers as it does to one of its own employees." It is a catch 22 for ABC News and other stations--they have to cover the war in Iraq, but should they report every death of every American solider that falls victim to the war? I wish they could, every solider that goes overseas to fight for freedom, democracy and peace deserves praise, remembrance and devotion, but is this realistic?

My heart goes out to EVERY family and friend that has lost a loved one in Iraq. It is a terrible loss and I hope and pray that all this war and terror will end very soon. May all those that have risked their lives and lost rest in peace.

Remembering the fallen

Friday, May 18, 2007

Interactive Web article dilemma

I just read this article (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=103&aid=123269) about an article posted on a California newspaper's web site and the comments it elicited. The article was about a 40-year-old woman who had a full-term baby 2 days after finding out she was pregnant. The woman's sister had called the newspaper about this "miracle" - the woman had been trying for years to get pregnant before unknowingly conceiving and then delivering the healthy baby. The article featured a picture of the woman, who happens to be overweight, and the newborn. What was supposed to be a feel-good story turned awful after people started posting rude and disgusting comments about the woman and even her baby. They said the woman ate donuts and fast food all day, couldn't clean her house because she was too fat, was immobilized by her weight and most appallingly, that the newborn was alternately going to be taken away from the mother or would grow up to be a fat, drain-on-society. The editor and reporter were horrified for subjecting the woman to the comments. This was supposed to be a feel-good story after all. Interactiveness and participation are the future of news, but how do we deal with idiots who post horrible inaccuracies as amendments to stories? Will sources and subjects be in jeopardy in the future for fear of stinging posted comments? How can readers' comments be controlled without exercising censorship?

The Long Interview

Working on Medill Reports has allowed me to experiment with different techniques as a reporter. Usually, when I am daily reporting, I go into a story already with a pretty good idea of what I’m expecting people to say. Sometimes, when my last interview is pretty late, I will begin scripting before I have even finished the last interview. I go into that last interview with an idea of the exact bytes I need, and as soon as I get them, I pretty much close up shop.

I sometimes feel bad after these interviews—sometimes I’m more worried about deadline and getting good sound bytes than taking the time to get to know someone and hear their story.

However, with Medill Reports, I have the luxury of a little extra time. Last night, I decided to try something new. I am focusing on postpartum depression for my story, and I was interviewing a woman who went through severe postpartum depression and also her husband. I decided I would take as much time as I wanted and let her answers really guide my questions. And I’m really glad I did that!

I went in thinking of postpartum depression in a certain way. I had read articles and listened to doctors, and had my own notions of the disease and what I thought she was going to say. However, her case, her symptoms, and her emotions were so different than from what I imagined. My interview with the woman lasted an hour and I also got to spend some time with her children, shooting them, and talking to her husband.

I left her house feeling so satisfied—knowing that I really let this woman talk and tell her side, and now I can go into the edit bay and sort through what she said and let her story guide the direction of my story. It won’t be me plugging her sound bytes into a pre-written script.

However, now I’m faced with a second dilemma. This is a four minute piece. I spent a good two and a half hours at someone’s house and now I’ll probably use a minute at most from that. I know I have to get over it—but it makes me feel bad!

Originally, I was going to cover postpartum depression for a daily reporting piece—but after making some phone calls—I knew I could not do the topic justice in a minute and thirty seconds. That is why I chose it for Medill Reports. Now—my challenge is piecing together all these stories and perspectives into four minutes. I still don’t think that’s enough time!

Whose story is it?

This week I've had to ask myself a lot of tough questions. I'm reporting on incarcerated mothers for Medill Reports. I've had trouble convincing incarcerated moms to let my videotape them interacting with young children. Nearly all of the seven women I've tried to recruit as my "face" have had reservations about including their kids in the story.

Some mothers worried that students at their childrens' schools would see the film, then stigmatize their young sons or daughters. Mothers who are working on regaining custody of the children worried that participating in the piece would jeopardize their parental rights. Other mothers worried about what they might accidentally say or do -- and whether that could affect their already strained relationship with their children in the future.

Regardless of why they resisted being interviewed, I found most of the women cared about their kids.

I had to ask myself, did I care about their kids, too? To be honest, I admire the hesitation these women showed about letting my shoot video of their little ones. Most of the children were elementary school age, when other kids can be mean.

A 7- or 8-year-old Misa would have been horrified if all of the other students discovered such a family secret. I know I would have faced a backlash among my peers at school. I can't even imagine the kind of stigmatization that might create.

If I were to step outside of reporter mode for a moment, I'd say forget using the kids. I would use the mom, show the children's hands and feet, and assign pseudonyms. But ... I'm still a reporter.

And I need the b-roll. My face is a grandmother who was willing to let me interview her daughter and grandson. I'm still wondering about how much I should show of her 8-year-old grandson. I don't HAVE to use the b-roll of the grandmother and her grandson playing Nintendo or rock-paper-scissors. But it makes the story more compelling, more emotive.

Much of this dilemma boils down to the question: "Why am I covering this subject?" I don't want a series of talking heads. There's no feeling there, no sense of how the treatment of incarcerated women will affect lives.

I tried to think about whom my 5-minute piece will ultimately affect: viewers who know nothing about incarcerated mothers, people who work with incarcerated mothers, and -- of course -- the incarcerated mothers. In this case, the woman I inteviewed will probably be affected most.

She was OK with me filming her grandson and felt her message could help other women like her. It's my duty to make the story worth watching. Otherwise, I'm wasting everyone's time -- the viewer's time, my time and the grandmother's time.

In the end, this is her story and if she's OK with sharing it, I guess I should be OK with it, too.

Something uplifting, for once

We've been talking a lot on this blog and in class about apperance, and how important it is for those of us who want to be in front of the camera. We've talked and written about female sportscasters, redheads, last names and every sort of other thing that we think might be held against us when we go out into the job world. But watching a whole bunch of TV this quarter (and over, say, the past 20 years) I've realized more and more all that stuff doesn't really matter that much.

I'm not going to go all Oprah and talk about how it's all "what's on the inside that counts." But I think it is, ultimately, about good reporting. The more I see, the more I realize that sure, maybe looks and all those other things help, but being a great journalist can trump all that.

Think of all the people who have succeeded in broadcast journalism despite their flaws. Barbara Walters, first and foremost. She can't pronounce her r's and has a lisp, but she's interviewed basically everyone there is to interview, hosted any number of programs and has made a great living doing it. There are some others you probably don't know about. Jonathan Ross, a British TV film critic, also can't pronounce his r's. Diane Rehm, an NPR talk show host who has interviewed everyone from Bill Clinton to Maya Angelou to Sandra Day O'Connor, has spasmodic dysphonia.

Or what about bald guys, or those who wouldn't be considered traditionally "good looking"? Peter Mansbridge, the lead anchor of the national news in on the CBC in Canada, is a perfect example of someone who has had a long and prosperous TV career despite not having a 12-inch high coif. Or look at John Clayton, who has been a reporter for ESPN since 1995 despite looking like (depending on who you listen to) either Stewie from Family Guy, Tweety Bird, or a whole bunch of other things entirely.

But despite the jokes, I'm not trying to pick on Clayton. The point is, the guy's a fantastic reporter. He's so knowledgable that his ESPN colleagues call him "The Professor." So it doesn't matter that he's not telegenic, or that he's got a voice that sounds like he's been sucking helium right before going on air. He can deliver news and content that viewers can't get anywhere else. He's forced the network to overlook his other shortcomings, simply through his journalistic cred.

It's all kind of heartening to me. It's nice to know -- despite all we hear about the superficiality of TV -- that even if I go bald, or my voice isn't perfect, or I have a bit of a Canadian accent, or I have a Jewish last name, my smarts and good reporting skills can win out. It's nice to know that you can find and keep a job just based on your abilities, and that it is possible to be front and center on TV even if you're not the "typical" TV personality.

(Still, I really do hope I keep my hair.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

How do you sugar coat a pill like environmental news?

The New York Times reported Thursday that Alexandra Wallace, executive producer for 'NBC Nightly News,' "plans to beef up the program’s environmental coverage, a process that has already begun with the appointment of Anne Thompson to be the network’s chief environmental affairs correspondent." It was interesting to see because the headline of the article was "New Producer at ‘Nightly News’ Seeks to Regain NBC Dominance." I sincerely hope the implied interest in environmental news is accurate, but I also think it's arguably the toughest beat to cover.

As a public concern, environmental news probably peaked around the late 80's. I think this was influenced by stories like the Exxon Valdez spill or a garbage barge like Mobro 4000; they seemed simple and easy to communicate, one reason audiences were able to connect with them. By the time Earth Day 1990 rolled around, the environment was a HUGE deal, lavished with a lot of media attention and helped by a huge push for environmental practices in manufacturing and daily activities (recycling, energy efficiency, etc.)

Two decades later, the stories aren't so simple. The most pressing environmental issues are far more complex; like any complex issue that's difficult to pack into 90 seconds, these issues are often considered tougher and less appealing to cover in broadcast. Even in 1990, mainstream media avoided analyzing climate change with much detail; granted, there was less research then, but the topic was simply too abstract, too complicated.

Even worse, environmental news has been politicized, which is incredibly unfortunate because research in natural sciences has always prided itself in objectivity or at least as an academic field propelled by an objective search for the truth.

The problems with environmental news coverage is more disconcerting because according to the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, the public learns much of what it knows about scientific issues through the media.

So how do you report environmental news? How do you make people understand and care?

A few years ago, John Carey convinced his skeptical editors at Business Week to make climate change the cover story. In a media workshop sponsored by the Metcalf Institute, Carey "[recast] the common approach of the scientist-versus-skeptic and avoided scientific 'controversy' by instead focusing on how the world will change, what policies will address those changes and, irrespective of continued controversy, how business is reacting to global warming. The science was somewhat secondary...Instead it was policy that was the hook and how it 'was changing in response to science,' how policies are becoming institutionalized and why."

It's worth noting that before she took on environmental news, Anne Thompson (not to be confused with the Variety columnist of the same name) had been chief financial correspondent for NBC News since March of 2005. Obviously, it brings up other issues to have scientific information framed through a financial analyst's perspective, but it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Your career aspiration is now out of service...goodbye.

At the risk of sounding glamour-greedy, I have been aspiring toward international/foreign network correspondence since I can remember. Christiane Amanpour's work inspired me to pursue a career in journalism, partly because I admired her creative ability to report stories and maintain poise and porfessionalism in any environment. Like Amanpour, I wanted to be based in London, preferably CNN or BBC, and travel all over the world finding the breaking news and delving into the worldy meaning and significance behind them. While my dream to become a foreign correspondent has subsided a bit, I was a bit unnerved when I read on Poynter.org that foreign correspondence is essentially disappearing. Where are they going? According to Fons Tuinstra, who wrote a blog titled, "Foreign Correspondents Abandon Ship," the foreign correspondence job title is becoming obsolete. Tuinstra wrote that citizen journalists have displaced, and continue to displace, foreign correspondent positions - partly because viewers are demanding more local news and news that is relevant to their lives. This means to me that my career aspiration is gradually, or not so gradually, signing off the journalistic scene.
The blog outlined the disappearing act of foreign correspondents and listed some organizations that are trying to combat it. One Dutch publication, called De Volkskrant, placed an ad on their Web site calling for foreign correspondents. Tuinstra calls the media out on this contradiction. He said he was confused because his foreign correspondent peers were "on their way out" and then all of a sudden there is an ad in favor of hiring them. His only conclusion is that an upcoming FCC meeting regarding the foreign correspondent position "changing with the times."

"Tomorrow the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club (SFCC), which has been virtually dead for a year, holds its annual meeting in a desperate attempt to survive the changing times. Today, Maria Trombly -- very briefly -- grieves her departure from foreign correspondence."

I will be grieving as well - aren't foreign correspondents widely respected for their work? I have not encountered anyone who says Christiane Amanpour is a "bad" journalist.

My dilemma arises in figuring out whether I should continue to pursue this position or not. Personally, I am drawn to being a foreign correspondent because I think the global and worldly stories should appeal to everyone in the world. Also, as opposed to local news, you have an entire globe as a medium. In my career, I need to travel and find in depth stories to pursue. But unless foreign correspondent positions resurface, I guess it's time to re-think these aspirations of mine.

Don't Read!! Personal!!

Don’t Read, Personal! Now that to me is a pretty clear message. It was written by Anna Nicole Smith on the inside of her diary. Excerpts are being released to the Associated Press, and they are running with it.

I understand that from a business standpoint it is probably a good idea to let her personal thoughts be known to the public. After all, she had more than her fair share of coverage when she died. But, it still makes me wonder what kind of person would release such private thoughts of a person who no longer has any control over who is reading them.

Now, like I have said in previous blogs, if you don’t release the information… someone else will to get ahead. This is true in many circumstances in the media. But, when do personal values finally play a role in the business decision you make. While I was intrigued with reading parts of the diary, I felt like I was violating her privacy.

I do not think it is fair to be releasing excerpts from someone’s diary. It is just wrong.

“The public now can discover that she was delighted by rough sex, ecstatic over the prospect of plastic surgery for her breasts, and fearful of a jealous boyfriend,” the AP writes.

First off, is this really news? Second, what kind of person wants to let out this personal, private information?

These questions bring me to my next point. I really did not stop to analyze and think about what is newsworthy until I came to this school. I did not stop to think about how information that is being reported is in direct conflict with everything I believe in. While I always absorbed the information and talked about it on occasion, I probably would not have put it out there. In this business, like I said, someone else will.

It honestly makes me wonder if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. The farther and farther I get into analyzing the news every week, the farther I want to get from it. Most of these stories are not helping anybody. This Anna Nicole story is just down right hurtful. Her private thoughts are now out for the world to see.

This is not the first time I have had these thoughts either. I feel like I am in a compromising situation. I am already here and will have this degree. But, do I really want to cover stories such as this one that I feel is so wrong. Absolutely not! So where does that leave me? Is there a place for me in this business? Everyday I wonder that. I do not think it is worth it to me to compromise my values, in this case, “Do unto others as you’ll have done to you.” I would never want anybody to do this to me. So how could I ever do it to someone else?

Ultimately, stories like this that are released on a daily basis make me question my decision on whether or not this is the right profession for me. While unfortunate, it crosses my mind daily.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

How skeptical is too skeptical?

If you've played the card game "BS", you know that calling someone's bluff can cost you when you're wrong.

Journalism seems similar in some ways. Sometimes you have proof that someone is lying. When you call it, you win. Other times you just have a hunch. You can either call the supposed lie and face the consequences, or remain silent and play it safe. It's a tough decision.

It all boils down to skepticism. How much is too much?

This week Jim Lehrer talked about journalistic cynicism on ABC Australia's Media Report, a half-hour analysis of the mass communication industry.

Lehrer is a veteran PBS reporter who has covered major stories, including John F. Kennedy's assasination and Watergate. He said reporters need to be wary of officials, but they should avoid becoming obsessed with the "gotcha" game.

"If somebody in the media just assumes everybody in the government is a liar, that's no way to operate," Lehrer said. "You have to have a healthy scepticism, you have to be alert, but you also have to try as a reporter, to understand these decisions, and understand what's in the minds of the people who are making these decisions on behalf of the public, particularly when it comes to war and peace."

A question about the media's handling of the Iraq War prompted Lehrer's comment. He said the media shouldn't solely bear the blame for the nation being complicit with the White House's agenda in Iraq. Lehrer said a lack of information was also responsible for the lack of oversight.

Clearly, United States media were not skeptical enough when the Bush administration invaded Iraq. Few reporters questioned the White House claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

What would have happened if a maverick columnist challenged the WMD allegations? Very few experts and officials were casting doubt on President Bush's accusations at the time. Would that rebel reporter sound like a leftist hack, confirming the consertive wing's view of the liberal media? Would she have successfully turned the tide of our zeitgeist, preventing the present problems in Iraq?

I guess it's too late to mull over the hypotheticals. But I do think reporters were pulsing to the administration's drum beat -- and I think some of them still do. Injecting personal skepticism into a story without attributing the cynicims to someone else is always dangerous territory. Sometimes it takes a outsider like Bob Woodward in Watergate. His lack of experience helped him to question the political machine.

When I learned that Carol Lam, former United States attorney for San Diego, was dismissed, I remember thinking, "What in the world? This sounds fishy." On the morning the news broke, I told a Medill grad student who was in the legal RPA that he should check it out. I lived in San Diego when Lam successfully prosecuted disgraced ex-Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. I remember her intellect, her dedication and her blue-ribbon reputation among the media.

Still, I thought I might have I missed something. Immediately after I spoke with my class mate, I wondered if I had sent him on a wild goose chase. I knew nothing about the federal justice system, and I almost felt embarassed to raise a red flag. I first heard about the story on NPR on the "L" -- maybe I tuned in after the reporter explained the reason for her dismissal.

Turns out, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she thought the firings were politically charged immediately after the dismissals were announced. That legitimized my conspiracy theory. If she and other Democratic lawmakers hadn't spoken up, I know I would have discounted my intuition.

When do we dismiss a hunch because of our ignorance? And when do we confidently call BS?