Saturday, April 28, 2007

YouChoose on YouTube

YouTube is gaining traction on television. That’s just my own empirical evidence from watching tv. A few weeks ago, one advertiser for a hygiene product called on viewers to submit their best video on YouTube for a national competition. This week, Fox was asking viewers to submit videos of why they supported any particular presidential candidate.

I logged on to YouTube and came across its YouChoose 08 channels, complete with a patriotic-looking logo that encourages you to “Face the candidates” on its site. A channel, by the way, is described as “YouTube members who upload videos.”

At least 15 candidates are currently featured and channels are aptly named for the one they endorse, such as Brownback4President or BarackObamadotcom. Each channel contained a host of videos about the candidate of choice. GovMittRomney had the most videos, 92 in all, while Brownback4President only has two. But then again, Brownback4President only joined the YouChoose 08 ring a month ago, a mere new kid on the block, while johnedwards had been around for more than a year.

As we look back in history, election campaigns, like wars and other political events of significance, have always seemed to leverage the latest technology and in doing so, pushed the media’s reach and limits permanently.

This will certainly be true once again in this election cycle.

I’m sure politicians are looking for YouTube and other social networking sites, like MySpace, to reach out to younger audiences…(I’m not trying to age-discriminate, but I guess the general presumption is that younger folks tend to spend more time on those Internet sites.)

But -- will it have the effect that everyone, at least the candidates, are hoping for?

Last week, JP showed us in class that pundits and politicians hoped the same when television began to gain popularity but failed to deliver. Will the YouTube/TV combo go down the same path?

With Fox possibly featuring some of those videos on its airwaves, and as with some other YouTube videos making the evening news, it is possible that somehow younger voters will be more attuned to what’s happening on the campaign trail and respond, not just with a mocking video but by…voting.

We’ll just have to wait until after the election to see, but for now, there is hope (yes, again) at least for those of us who are optimists. Pessimists will surely decry the new developments as undermining credibility, fairness, accuracy, etc. ..the traditional mainstays of journalism.

The Daily Show: So over?

Maybe it's just me -- although I don't think it is -- but has the Daily Show gotten incredibly stale lately? At this point, I just slog through it because a) there's nothing else on TV at 10pm and b) I can't wait for the Colbert Report, which has put the Daily Show to shame over the past couple of years.

To me, the Daily Show's best weapon is its incredible tape library, and its willingness to challenge people on the things they say. It also works incredibly well when it makes fun of the ridiculousness of cable and network news.

My favorite thing the show does is when it will play a clip of something someone said the day before, then compare that with something they said two years or three months or even a week earlier that completely contradicts what they just said. In that, it does a fantastic job of attempting to keep politicians and officials honest, when cable and network news never has the guts do to anything like that.

The other thing the show does well is when it takes something like the State of the Union address or Alberto Gonzalez's testimony before the Senate, and keeps a count of how many times the President says "liberty" and "freedom" or how many times Gonzalez says "I don't recall" (64 times, if you're counting, according to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). It illustrates just how much these people try to stay "on message," at the expense of concrete promises and believeable answers.

Additionally, it's fantastic at keeping tabs on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and even local news affiliates (such as when it made fun of the attack ads that one Fort Wayne station ran against another's weather team). It shows us how ill-informed their anchors can be, and how the incessant cycle of 24-hour news networks can lead to some terrible news coverage.

Indeed, the show does seem to have the ethos that the world would be a lot better off without constant cable news and pundits (its "Great Moments in Punditry" series, where kids read transcripts of arguments between TV commentators, merely serves to remind us how ridiculous 90 percent of the things they say are). Jon Stewart's demolition of "Crossfire" for emphasizing the differences between America rather than embracing constructive goals we can work toward together is a part of this as well. The Daily Show, by mocking TV news, does, I think, hope to make TV news respond to the criticism and deliver better journalism rather than the puff pieces, weird news and silly human interest stories that we see all to frequently. And through the way it satirizes those stories (e.g. the piece it did a while bHack about a guy who guards the US-Canadian border in Vermont for illegal immigrants) does make it a goal to snap TV news out of the lazy holding pattern it's been in recently. And it's actually changed the profession -- we no longer use those reporter reaction reverse shots as much because the Daily Show has made such light of them. And for this it should be commended.

So if I think the show does so much well, why do I think it's gotten so bad? Well, the problem is, it hardly does any of these things anymore. Instead, it's now more of the Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" variety, which is "Have person say first half of sentence, cut to anchor, have anchor deliver punchline completely different from person's intended end of sentence." Yuk, yuk, yuk. There's nothing particularly brilliant about writing a bad joke from an easy set-up. And while Weekend Update is occasionally funny, it's only on once a week. When you get that same style four days straight, it becomes tiresome.

And while the satire of those long feature packages was clever at first, I think the shtick has worn off. Now, we know what we're getting and it just doesn't have the same resonance.

Finally, there's the problem with Stewart. He's a solid enough host, but he differs from a real news anchor in that he tries to put himself front and center in an obnoxious way. Sure, anchors are prima donnas a bit, but Stewart is over the top, to the point where it's beyond satire. His imitation of President Bush's voice, his high-pitched "Nutty Professor" whine, and his mannerisms during the show generally have just gotten more prevalent lately, which has made the show worse.

The joke with the Daily Show should be all the ridiculous things our leaders say -- especially on CSPAN (see Sen. Ted Stevens' comment about the Internet being a series of tubes) -- that go uncovered in the mainstream media. The joke shouldn't be made by Stewart preening in front of the camera.

Meanwhile, Stewart is a very good interviewer -- when he has someone on who is worthy of being interviewed. He's great with authors, politicians, officials, business leaders and other journalists. I think the guest list should be limited to those people. But far too often, it's actors, musicians and other celebrities -- people who, generally, have very little of substance to say. How can Stewart not find it hypocritical when he and his writers make such fun of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but then he turns around and wastes six minutes of the show having a random actor pimping a movie on as a guest?

One more quick point: I think my view on this has been impacted by the launch of the Colbert Report. The writing for Colbert is far fresher, the formula less stale, the host far more engaging, the satire more blazing, and the segments just more downright hilarious. I realize some of the Daily Show's decline could be because it lost a number of writers to Colbert, but as I mentioned above, the show can do what it does best without a tremendous writing staff. All it needs is a bunch of interns logging tape.

I'm curious what you all think: Has the Daily Show lost something off its fastball? Has it jumped the shark? Has it been eaten by the shark that is Colbert? Let me have it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Debating the Debate

It seems so far away, but the presidential campaign is in full swing. And this Thursday we were treated to the first debate, aired on MSNBC. All eight declared Democrats squared off and for the most part each candidate received equal time.

The viewing public was probably focused mostly on whether Hillary would look presidentital or if Obama would have any substance. But people like Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the unbleievably obscure former Sen. Mike Gravel were the ones who created the most excitement. But seriously, we're so far away from the election, what's the point? Will anybody even remember this debate?

In my opinoin, the answer is a resounding yes.

TVNewser has the ratings and viewership numbers for the debate on MSNBC. Over 2 million people were watching, and the usually last place MSNBC won the ratings battle for cable news. the debate also aired on the NBC network affiliates in the critical primary state of South Carolina. We may be months away from any votes being cast, but the American public is paying attention.

MSNBC hosts the first Republican debate next week, featuring titans like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, along with the Mike Huckabees and Duncan Hunters of the world.

A lot has been written and said about this early start and the media focus on just the frontrunners limiting the ability of a Jimmy Carter like dark horse to emerge. Well MSNBC including all of these candidates and giving them equal time could provide some much needed exposure.

Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd made strong showings last night, and being on the same stage as Clinton and Obama will only raise their profiles. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is often overlooked in this race, but he made some provocative points about gun rights and his experience on the world stage.

So what does this all mean? It means that we're beginning the process that will determine our next leader. And it probably deserves this much time, debate and attention. The next president will determine the course of the war in Iraq, the future of our Supreme Court, and the agenda for a host of other domestic issues.

CNN and Fox News have debates scheduled for the near future. Though Fox's Republican debate on May 15th, will not include all the GOP candidates. Instead the network will limit the participants based on polling and other criteria.

But it's at least worth noting the programming that Fox News was airing while MSNBC was doing post-debate reaction and coverage.

Greta Van Sustern was doing a hard hitting story on Hugh Grant and unfortunate incident with some beans. She was also in LA for an interview with Prince von AnHalt, you know one of those weirdos who claimed to be the father of Anna Nicole's baby.

Quite a contrast in journalistic priorities and programming. I wonder if MSNBC can get Howard K. Stern during the Fox News debate on May 15th?

Court TV has a new schedule...

You may not know his face, but you probably know his work - "To Know Him Is To Love Him," "He's A Rebel," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby," "Then He Kissed Me," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin"...even if you hate oldies radio, you've heard these records in countless movies. They may be credited to different artists, but these records were all produced by the same man: Phil Spector. One of the most influential figures in rock, he's also had a long history of emotional instability, and in 2003, his turbulent personal life finally caught up with him. Now facing homicide charges for the death of Lana Clarkson, Court TV is planning to broadcast the whole trial.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the last time a California megatrial was televised, the defendant was O.J. Simpson."

Personally, I think the public should have plenty of access to the court, but I have a lot of conflicted feelings regarding access and all the extra baggage that comes with covering high-profile trials.

In the article, media attorney Kelli Sager says "studies have found TV cameras to have no effect on jurors, witnesses or trial proceedings," but you have to wonder how this study was conducted and whether an accurate scientific study is even possible. Even if the impact is minimal, looking back at the O.J. Simpson trial, the whole thing was a circus from start-to-finish. A brutal double homicide was diminished by endless camp and bad talk-show jokes (Dancing Itos?), and nearly everyone involved cashed-in on their 15 minutes of fame. Court TV wasn't a public service anymore - it was the ne plus ultra of "reality" television, long before Survivor hit the airwaves on either side of the Atlantic.

Then again, why should anyone complain? More than half the U.S. population saw the verdict live on television, which is really impressive considering the verdict happened in the middle of the day. I was in calculus at the time, and my teacher stopped the class when she saw the other math classes rushing by the doorway to the nearest TV. None of this was planned, the whole school just stopped and headed for a television set like trained cattle. I was grateful to get out of calculus, but the fact is, there were a dozen other things I could've done, and I went with the rest of the herd without protest.

If I was a gambling man, I'd bet against the likelihood of a repeat. Spector doesn't have the same celebrity status as Simpson, his lawyers' argument probably won't have the same level of controversy, and even if Spector is eccentric in the most unendearing way possible, I don't think it'll be enough to draw the same audience.

Still, the groundwork has been set, and with TV ratings still experiencing a gradual, downward slide, it'll be interesting to see how this will be covered (or marketed, if you want to be REALLY cynical about it).

The Politics of Politics

One of the topics that appeared throughout the week on television news sites was the first Democratic political debate, hosted by MSNBC. I came across a range of criticisms, from the ridiculously early timing to the overblown full-day coverage. I've been thinking about these objections and my own distaste for gimmicks, but--the more I thought about it--the more I found I had very little to complain about.

I think it's commendable that a news station would make a point of devoting 24 hours to discussing politics, whether a marketing ploy or not. The promotion of informed political activity/discussion is one of the key foundations of journalism, and I think too often there is too little time devoted to really covering the issues and the people that represent us and make decisions on our behalf. In some ways, it's never too early or too excessive to spend a full day talking politics.

What I think people are criticizing though, and understandably so, is just how much of a charade it's all become. Sure, politics may always have the air of the theatrical, but news coverage doesn't have to be like that. It's almost as though the stations themselves are buying into the "rock star" politics and promoting the station's image in much the same way a candidate would.

I do think that MSNBC has some fantastic political minds that know the issues inside and out, but I also think they let the conversation get stale more often than they should. They regurgitate the same fluffy headlines about Clinton and Obama, blowing insignificant details out of proportion and disregarding important issues because they take too long and too much "inside baseball" to explain.

But I suppose, in the end, I think something--however gimmicky--is better than nothing. If it gets people thinking about politics for a day, or if it simply makes a statement about what a news station thinks it should commit its resources to, then I think that's an effort worth getting behind.

Alec Baldwin on The View

This was a dry media week for me. I saw Alec Baldwin on The View this morning. Clips from the interview with Barbara Walters and Rosie O'Donnell had been played on many other newscasts that I'd seen before The View's airing. Baldwin gave an "exclusive" to talk about the phone message he'd left for his daughter. And it wasn't much of an interview - it was Rosie, Alec and Barbara sitting on a couch all facing forward - kinda awkward. Rosie and Barbara never really asked questions of Baldwin that put any pressure on him. It was more Baldwin making points and saying "can I finish this? when do you have to go to break?" Baldwin introduced us to the term "parental alienation" and explained how his ex-wife makes his daughter feel as if she is betraying her mother if she loves her father. It was like Baldwin's petty gossip mixed with a Dr. Phil episode. I guess I was impressed that Rosie did not go crazy on him, but it ended up feeling like a Baldwin public relations exercise (he has a book on parental alienation coming out). If Barbara was going to have him on at all, how could she have not lassoed some appearance or comment from the "evil ex-wife" Kim Basinger? Maybe when she's on The View, she's not a journalist. But I expected more from her.

Honoring our journalism heroes

Next Thursday is the 17th Annual World Press Freedom Day. Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit dedicating to helping investigating, exposing and protecting human rights violations against journalists, is commemorating the day in a number of ways. It will be publishing a list of "predators," men and women who directly attack journalists or instruct others to do so. This year's list will reportedly includethe president of Laos and Azerbajian along with members of Mexican drug cartels who killed journalists.

It will also be dedicating a journalist's memorial in France, which will include the names of the 1,889 journalists killed since 1944.

I had no idea a day like this even existed and that groups like Reporters Without Borders exist. I really feel like I take freedom of the press in our country for granted. Freedom of the press in America is why I can walk down the street and start filming, it’s why people give me permission to enter into their lives and capture their most intimate thoughts, and it’s why I can ask government officials the tough questions and then go home and not worried about being harmed.

The number of journalists killed or imprisoned this year alone is shocking. 23 journalists and five media assistants have been killed. 124 journalists and four media assistants have been imprisoned this year. And, there are 13 journalists currently being held hostage in various countries.

I cannot express how horrible these numbers are. These are the people traveling the world and asking the tough questions. They are examining drug corruption and reporting on wars. They are standing up for the people with no voice, and they are facing death for pursuing such a noble cause. These people are so dedicated to human rights and are truly fulfilling the tenets of journalism by traveling to these places and asking the tough questions.

Should I feel guilty, as a journalist, that I'm nowhere near as courageous as them?

When I hear about reporters traveling to dangerous situations, I always ask the same question..."how can they stand to voluntarily put their life on the line like that?" I imagine how much their families and loved ones must be suffering as they worry about them. I feel so guilty and wrong for thinking that. It makes me feel like a lesser journalist than these people when I admit to myself that I probably would never want to travel to a war zone.

Any journalist that goes to Iraq or goes to any dangerous situation is a hero in my book. Anyone who who potentially sacrifices their life for a story in these places deserve way more than a day to be remembered.

More than two sides

This week immigrantion-rights activists protested a raid on an alleged fake ID ring in Little Village. They were outraged by arrests made Tuesday midafternoon at a strip mall. The protestors said ICE was trying to intimidate people who want to participate in a May 1st immigration rally.

Click here for news report

This issue sparked a blogging firestorm on the Chicago Tribune Web site. Columnist Eric Zorn published an online piece about the raid and following protest on Wednesday. By 4:30 p.m., readers posted five dozen blogs on the subject. The opinions ran the gamut, from Minutemen rhetoric to ardent illegal immigration support. The spectrum of opinions represented this issue's multi-faceted nature.

Often we hear from two stock characters in illegal immigration news stories -- the Minuteman and Mexican community activist. But the issue is not so black-and-white. There are many shades in-between, so to speak. Chicago is home to immigrants of many nationalities. They would also be affected by immigration law reform. Let's hear from them, too.

Also, much of the debate revolves around the economic ramifications of illegal immigration. Often we hear impassioned arguments driven by anecdotes. While personal stories are critical to humanizing the issue, this story also screams for hard numbers. The problem is that economists disagree about the net effect of undocumented immigrants who buoy industries -- like agriculture and construction -- and those that sap social services. The conflicting opinions aren't easy to sort out on television, which explains why I haven't seen much economic analysis (involving statisitics and graphs)on local TV news. The director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors wrote an enlightening column about the complexiities of reporting on immigration on Poynter's Web site.

This story may not have garnered the same media attention as the MSNBC presidential debate, but, in a hyper local way, it gave an interesting glimpse into what's sure to be one of the hot-button issues of 2008.

Something to laugh about

It's been almost two weeks since the tragic events at Virginia Tech. When students returned to class on Monday, the news media covered it to signal the healing process had to begin. It also seemed to signal the end of nonstop coverage from Blacksburg. That left a tremendous news hole to fill.

One of the stories getting play this week was President Bush's dance routine with an African drum group. Across TV and the Internet, this "story" was all over. I saw it for the first time Wednesday on Letterman as part of his segment "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" and I really laughed. I thought it was an old clip the Letterman writers had dug up. The next day, I began to see it everywhere and realized it was pretty fresh when Letterman picked it up.

It wasn't just the late night talk shows that re-played it over and over. It was getting actual coverage on news programs. What makes me wonder about this story was what made it newsworthy. I have three hypotheses.

1) It was captured on video and news outlets had the video, so they showed it.
2) The leader of the free world did something silly and it was noteworthy to show it.
3) We all needed something to laugh about after the long 10 days covering Virginia Tech and there was a huge news hole to fill.

Without cameras there, I doubt newspapers would have tried writing up this dance. This goes back to an earlier blog I wrote about the omni-presence of cameras (about another GOP dancer, "MC" Karl Rove) and the changing ways we can see our government leaders.

As for the second hypotheses, it was noteworthy - not necessarily "newsworthy" - to show the president having a little fun and being silly. How could you resist showing this video and talking about it when you saw him banging on that drum? Love him or hate him, the dance was fun and funny to watch. It was something to laugh about, not laugh at. The problem with this type of coverage is that the event was lost. Obviously Letterman won't say what the event was for, but I only heard one news outlet say why President Bush was jamming with that group - they were there as part of a malaria awareness day. (CNN Pipeline did a story about the clip's appeal - watch it here

The third hypothesis seems pretty likely. Consciously or not, the decision was made to show this and slap it all over the Internet by many news outlets and it may be related to giving the viewer something softer (much softer) after the intense Virginia Tech coverage. It probably still would've gotten play if it hadn't followed the week in Blacksburg, but maybe viewers gravitated to it more because of what we all collectively felt like we had gone through. There was also a tremendous amount of resources dedicated to Virginia Tech over the past 8-10 days and this story was an easy "get." The cameras were already there to cover whatever press conference had gone on, and then they were still rolling when this little nugget happened. If news directors could fill a minute or so with Bush's boogie, then why not?

My one contention to the reporting was the after-thought given to what the press conference was actually about (if any thought was given at all). At least for the sake of context, tell the viewer what led to this happening!

This was a funny clip but journalists need to vet funny stories just like they would a hard news story. Why are we running this or posting this to the Web and what can we do inform as well as entertain? Just because something is funny or soft doesn't mean it can stand on its own without journalistic decision making. Now if only the cameras could catch Cheney dancing.

The superficial

Lately my collegues and I have been joking around in the newsroom and brainstorming catchy, alliterative "broadcast names" to replace our hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-spell, non-TV-friendly surnames. As someone with a last name that has been mispronounced and misspelled my entire life, this topic of discussion is especially interesting. (I also have to admit that I have always been interested in names for some odd reason.) But these fun little talks have made me wonder about what bearing superficial things, like your name, have on your future in broadcasting. I would like to think very little, but I guess I can't be entirely sure.

I read in interesting article in Slate a few months ago about how names have affected the fate of political candidates. It was quite clever, but it's hard to determine if things like this have more to do with coincidence than anything else.

I hope that we've moved on from the cookie-cutter newscaster persona and are willing to welcome diversity in terms of name, looks, hair, style and personality. But I think we've all succumb to some pressure to conform to broadcast standards. Most of us recently cut our hair, waxed our eyebrows, bought expensive makeup, shopped for conservative clothing and some, who shall remain nameless (no pun intended), have toyed with the idea of changing their names. I can't lie; the thought has crossed my mind. I have decided against it mainly because A. Even though I'm not crazy about my last name, I don't really want to change it and B. I don't really know if it would make any difference anyway.

I would hate to think my name really determines my success as a journalist. Even more, I would hate to think that wearing dangly earrings or getting on the desk without a blazer would affect my journalistic ability. But don't get me wrong, I'm not downplaying the importance of appearance for television personalities. It's the first thing people see. You have to look nice and speak well or otherwise viewers will miss the important story you have to tell.

I'm also starting to think that with so many people competing for broadcasting jobs, diversity may work in a prospective employee's favor. As a caucasian female, I don't exactly stand out in the pool of applicants. Therefore I have to stand out as far as talent, personality and unique style. I hope that we will continue to embrace diversity and judge at skill over the superficial. For now, I'll wear my broadcast suit, tease my hair and hope that my unfortunate last name doesn't work against me.

Move over Medill...interactive television at Ball State

Ball state in Indiana is taking journalism to a different level. The university has an Interactive Video Design course that combines computer science and journalism graphics students to produce an interactive news television broadcast-live! The newscast aired at the Center for Media Design at Ball State Thursday night.

According Vinayak Tanksale, a Ball State Computer Science instructor who oversaw the students that worked on the project, the newscast allows viewers to control the content of the show. The results and feedback seem promising. The software and design Ball State students created allows viewers to pause and shrink live television to see related content, check stock quotes or scan news tickers for more stories. People are also able to go online and customize what information they want to see, such as local weather and sports scores

Apparently some media companies in the United Kingdom are using similar technology to create this interactive type of T.V. news, but the concept is fairly new in the United States.

We want to prove that interactive television can be done on deadline, on a daily basis," instructor of journalism Jennifer George-Palilonis said. "This broadcast is a really great way to move forward and inform the industry."

John Dailey taught the course and noted that the 25 students who worked on the project exceeded his expectations.

"[Interactive television] gives you ownership of your television again," Dailey said. "With television now, you just sit back and watch while someone else drives the content."

Does Medill know of this?? It is obvious our program is retiring its traditional ways of teaching journalsim, preaching the "Medill 2020", multimedia approach...but should Medill start teaching and producing interactive television news? Maybe--if it's the next big thing in television news.

But that is the real question, if interactive television news will take off. Will people want to be more involved in their T.V. watching? I question if Americans will jump for joy over interactive news on their T.V. sets, or if they will want to continue to sit back and zone out in front of the tube.

Check out these other interactive television websites:

Junk Mail Journalism

Every morning I need my four cups of coffee with some CNN news. I like a little dose of politics and international news to get my day started-- what I don't need to see is a piano-playing cat.

The video first appeared on Youtube debuting Nora the cat. Supposedly this was all the rage on Youtube and therefore was picked up by CNN. But seriously? The anchor lede went something like, "You've probably seen this video on Youtube, but...." Exactly. Why show it again?

They even assigned a reporter to the story who came on set to give us more details. I was just appalled that a story like this would even make it on a rundown. Sure maybe some would say the video is "way too cute" to miss but it's not like people would've missed out on it since the video is making its rounds everywhere. I'm not sure why I was so upset by this story, but I just felt that CNN was playing into people's hands and giving them a useless story. Plus Nora was a bad player.

So I guess my point is that there are too many stories that come from lazy reporting. Videos from Youtube shouldn't be a daily occurence on the news. I don't think I would've minded as much if this story was just on (or another media outlet's Web site). But when people tune in on weekday mornings to know what's going on in the world, Nora the cat just doesn't fit in.

And that brings me to Ryan Fitzgerald, the guy who has nothing to do but talk to random people all day on the phone. This again was a Youtube posting.

Fitzgerald posted a video with his cell phone number on it and offered to "be there" for anyone who wanted to talk. The media outlets ate this story up. CNN also invited him to come on the set of Amerian Morning. Not surprisingly, he was on his phone most of the time even as he was on live TV. Supposedly he's recieved more than 5,000 calls and text messages and it's great that he's being a friend to all, but I just don't find something like this informational at all.

What has happened to news value and judgement? Maybe I'm being naiive when it comes the news business, but I think journalism is also about remembering that stories can be popular but pointless and that it's your job to demand better.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Playboy's "Girls Next Door" to Become Journalists

This past week, I was watching an episode of "The Girls Next Door"--the reality TV show about Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends (Bridget Marquardt, Holly Madison and Kendra Wilkinson) that made me re-think journalism. In this particular episode, Bridget had Hugh Hefner hire a video editor to put together a resume tape so she can fulfill her dream of being a reporter. While Bridget does have a master's degree (in real estate), on television, she appears to have nothing between her ears. Not to mention, she is always in the nude, jumping out of birthday cakes in corsets or talking about inappropriate things. And, while I thought there is no way this girl will get a serious journalism gig, I was wrong. This week, I learned that news directors all over the country have flooded the Playboy mansion with calls to hire Bridget--without even having seen her tape, only her obnoxious behavior on her reality show which always revolves around her being naked, drinking or partying. I just find this completely discouraging that local stations would want to put someone like Bridget on their staff. Somewhere deep down in my heart, I believe in real journalism and being a watchdog. But, when things like this occur, I am led to believe that this business is shallow and that real journalism has died. After all, Bridget has never reported for a station or done one internship. Nevertheless, could a viewer really take Bridget seriously after she has posed nude and starred in Playboy films? Where is her credibility--because with me, it is in the toilet. But, that has not stopped Los Angeles Stations (the #2 market) from making her offers to anchor. Not to mention, it is rumored that she will fill in on the View! I mean, she appeared as a guest on the View last year where Barbara Walters literally made fun of her and told her what she was doing with Hefner was "sickening." Now, she is going to be her colleague?!? Oh and let me not fail to mention, ESPN is dying to get their little mittens on her...and what is her sport besides having met Peyton Manning at last year's Midsummer Night's Dream Party at the mansion.
And, there is more to this frightening story people. Another member of Hefner's "Blonde Mafia" is entering print journalism--Holly Madison. In this episode, Holly started working for Playboy magazine, shadowing the editor-in-chief, a position she hopes to take over (Note: There are many students out there that would just die for an internship with this female editor or even to have five minutes or her time...but they do not get the time of day). So, she headed into the magazine's headquarters and directed a photo shoot for the cover, headed up layout and managed content. Now, she is an associate editor-in-chief...a job created for her by Mr. Hefner. Mind you, while Holly is a little more conservative, she still has no journalism background. However, she contends that "Hef has secretly been teaching her the ropes!" Now, everyday, I see my fellow Medillians in magazine work so hard to get stories and hope for a job when they gradaute...and this girl just gets to jump to the front of the line because she is with Hefner? Now, I am not saying that everyone or even anyone at Medill wants to work for Playboy, but let's face it, it is a successful magazine and a job is job. If your only offer to write or do layout came from Playboy, I am betting that a Medill grad would take it--even I would. But, again, in this situation, maybe this playmate picked the right medium to work for...since they made her what she is. But, she certainly did not pay her dues and is making a joke out of the position.

However, the part that really irks me is that these girls have absolutely no journalism experience or exposure. They do not realize that journalism is serious business, not just a chance to be on television or a way to get their name in print. They are getting involved in this because they think, I am already a reality star, so I can be on television, and another television gig is a reporter/anchor. I would not have a problem if they hosted a stupid show, but to put them on television to tell hard hitting stories or to write articles is an absolute atrocity. Bottom line--in my opinion--these girls are missing the point of being "watchdogs" and just want to maintain their celebrity status. So, what better way to do it than become a journalist? I think not. And, to the news director that hires Bridget for a reporting position (and she is not looking to do sports or entertainment...but serious work) shame on you...I hope you get replaced by a playmate one day. Then, you will know how I feel about this issue, disgusted that no talent people are getting jobs people work at and train for for years of their lives.

Was a line finally drawn by ABC?

I have been a fan of “The View” for a very long time. I watched it all through college almost everyday… and to pass up the opportunity to discuss Rosie leaving the show, for whatever reason, is just too good.
I will say first, however, I was a very loyal viewer, no pun intended, until she came on the show. Honestly, the best way to describe it… I just couldn’t take her. It definitely qualifies for a talk show, but the women on “The View” can be considered journalists. If I had a spot on that daytime program, I would think of myself as a journalist. Everyday, they discuss issues in the media. Yet, one of the women on the panel always took it too far… Rosie. While it did seem to boost ratings, her rants were ridiculous. Most famous… making fun of Donald Trump openly about giving the former Miss America a second chance.

Second most famous… calling Kelly Ripa a homophobe after she hosted a show with Clay Aiken (who by the way has never publicly said he is gay).

Third most famous, all of the comments made on the war in Iraq. She is extremely outspoken about this, mostly fighting with one of her own co-hosts, Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Now, as an aspiring journalist, I am disgusted by her comments. I believe it is not normal to not hold an opinion, yet as a journalist it is our duty to the American people to first give the facts and if our opinions are allowed, as they are on a show like “The View” to give them in a tactful manner. Call me out if I am wrong… but I just think she is crude.
According to Rosie and Barbara Walters, it was a contract disagreement. Apparently, Rosie wanted one more year and ABC wanted three more years. Somehow, I find it hard to believe. And, I am not alone. Meredith Vieira asked media critic of Vanity Fair Michael Wolff on TODAY if it was true that was the real reason of Rosie’s departure. He responded, “Let me put it simply: Baloney.”
With all of the controversy she has stirred up, I completely agree with Wolff. It is baloney that they could not agree on a contract. I truly and honestly believe that she was asked to leave. Making comments, such as the ones she has, publicly is a turn-off to me. I think that as public figures, which journalists and talk show hosts are, you have to be careful. Obviously, this is a show that supports stating your views. But, in this case, it has gone way to far… and on national television.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Will campaigning help CBS?

We've seen them all before -- the large billboards jutting up from an undisclosed location off highways across the country plastered with a team of anchors smiling and bug-eyed, looking straight into the cars driving under them. Since I was little, I'd look up at these station advertisements and I'd imagine my portrait blown up fifty times and plastered on the billboard. What i didn't think about was that these boards serve as advertisements and campaigns for not only the stations, but the faces. Those larger than life smiles seem to say, "Watch my show and listen to my station because my friendly smile and perfectly groomed appearence means I'll give you the news you care about." I never took them to be serious. But I was driving on the highway yesterday and noticed a billboard that took this idea to the extreme in a last ditch effort. Splashed across this particular billboard was a familiar face with her familiar smile and head tilt: Katie Couric. But it wasn't just her smile that made me think, "Oh god, it's Katie Couric again." The billboard read, "Choose Couric."
Now we are not only advertising, we are campaigning! In what I can only interpret as CBS's desperate effort to climb in the ratings and not have to fire Couric, they are resorting to campaigning and telling drivers on the highway to "choose" and essentially elect to watch Couric.
I think CBS could have done better. Understandably, Couric is not fulfilling her purpose in helping the network's ratings -- in fact, she's has proven to be counterproductive. I read an article that said she was in danger of being let go because CBS remains in third place. But there was nothing that verified this fact more than a tacky highway billboard with a message that resembled a cheap political campaign without any substance.
Since when did journalism resort to such political tactics? I think we are in a dangerous spot if viewers are gauging their devotion to news anchors and reporters from the campaigning they receive.
Another scary thought is networks resorting to billboard advertisement. I have always asociated billboard advertisments to be cheap and desperate -- they are overdone and larger than life to catch attention for a product that needs advertising. More often than not, you find law offices that promise to get you all the money you deserve from your personal injury. The billboards are more often than not covered in tacky coloring to catch your attention, contributing to my opinion that these billboards are obnoxious advertising.
Has CBS really resorted to advertising Couric in this way? If I were Couric, I would never allow myself to be on a billboard that demanded people to "choose" me. That phrase plastered on the billboard diminishes her credibility further, in my opinion. It's a cheap and tacky attempt to gain viewership -- I would be extremely surprised if this works for CBS.

The closest picture I could find that is the background for the billboard.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lost in the shuffle

The Virginia Tech shootings rightfully dominated the headlines across the country for most of the past week. But there are two significant events that occured that occured this past week and both didn't get the attention they usually would have.

Attorney Genearl Alberto Gonzales' testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee was a critical moment for his personal job safety and the future of the Bush administration. The hearings would have led the nightly news and captivated the front covers of newspaper's across the nation. As it turned out, even though the hearings were covered, the story was buried behind Virginia Tech.

And that is a completely understandable decision by news organizations everywhere, the country is still reeling from the shock of that horrible tragedy. But Gonzales' testimony shouldn't be ignored. In fact the Chicago Tribune ran a long editorial about the testimony. With both Democrats and conservative Republicans assailing the Attorney General, it seems like only a matter of time before he is forced out.

Howard Kurtz, the brilliant media columnist for the Washington Post, discussed how the media covered the Gonzales testimony. (He links to Dahlia Lithwick, of Legal RPA seminar fame) The moral of the story is, even though the story got somewhat buried, Gonzales is in serious trouble.

Here in Chicago, there was an election this past week. I know some people might have missed it, and by the voter turnout numbers its pretty clear that a lot of Chicagoans missed it too. But the end result of Tuesday's runoff elections were that Mayor Daley suffered what could be a major setback.

His favored candidates including Shirley Coleman, Ted Matlak, Madeline Haithcock, Dorothy Tillman and Michael Chandler all lost. And the new aldermen say that change is on the way. That remains to be seen, especially here in Chicago where Daley always looms as larger than life.

But here's where the aldermanic story gets tricky. There was coverage, from the Tribune to television, it was certainly noted that Mayor Daley suffered a setback. But are the media outlets in this city prepared to hold the new aldermen accountable for their campaign promises?

When an overwhelming story such as the Virginia Tech tragedy strikes our country the media go into a single-minded mode. And for a case like this, I believe overwhelming coverage is justified. I just wonder at what point the media needs to start recognizing that other things are going on around the country. And especially the local media, at what point do local stories come back to the forefront?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Sports as a distraction, until it gets distracting

The Virginia Tech tragedy was hard to avoid this week and most people didn't want to avoid it. We were all drawn in by the terrible week in Blacksburg and we wanted to soak up every detail to answer "why" and "how."

I reached my personal breaking point mid-week when I grew exhausted of the tag "Massacre at Virginia Tech" and seeing image after image of devastated students. I had to abandon the around-the-clock coverage and tune into something else - sports.

Personally I was relieved to stop thinking about Virginia Tech because this week saw the NHL playoffs in their first full week, baseball getting going and the NBA wrapping up its regular season. I watched a bunch of the talking head shows on ESPN and on more than one occassion, the hosts said they hoped their half-hour of air time could make us forget about Virginia Tech for a few minutes. It was working for me.

The sports news really let me escape my thoughts for a while. But then I slowly began to realize how mind-numbing it can be. Perhaps ESPN has been consumed by the 24-hour news beast, but their news style is really stale and when it's not, it's all speculative.

I'm glad Greg Oden is going pro not only because I'm a Michigan fan, but because I get to stop hearing the SPECULATION of whether he would go pro after his first year of college or not. Along with the speculation surrounding Kevin Durant's future, this was the non-story of the century. Sports media made it a story, thought it had some buzz and wouldn't let go all year. It was as if everytime they mentioned "Oden" or "Durant" along with the words "who will be the number one pick" this year, they got a bonus. Now we only have to suffer a few more months of guessing who - Oden or Durant - will go number one because they are both foregoing the rest of their college years. Then we can forget about them for a few years while they wallow on some pro team's bench.

A story that is not being covered is the NHL playoffs. I'm not going to make a personal statement about how enjoyable hockey is, I will just say that ESPN's "coverage" is embarrassing - there is none! If Barry Melrose wasn't under contract, would ESPN ever talk about hockey? Instead of beefing up Sportscenter with more game highlights and playoff analysis, I get to hear more about Pacman Jones and more speculation about who will be the NFL's number one draft pick (anyone who's seen the nauseating "On the Clock" segment for NFL teams knows what I am talking about). The lack of attention hockey gets is frustrating and makes me wonder how ESPN makes its editorial decisions (see j?'s post a few weeks ago).

I'm watching ESPN right now and they are actually COUNTING DOWN to a game tonight between the Red Sox and Yankees. It's April! And after this game they'll only play EIGHTEEN more times this year. I don't know if this is "East Coast bias" or if ESPN really thinks we want the Sox-Yanks rivalry forced down our throats. It's fun when both teams are in the playoff but the only story here is that Alex Rodriguez is red hot. That could be discussed in a minute or two and the other 28 teams in the league might then get some attention. I'm a baseball fan, but it seems like ESPN has realized Sox-Yanks is an easy ticket to cover, but it is so uncreative. There is no justification for this type of coverage other than stirring up the hype machine (I must own up to the fact that I felt the Michigan-OSU football game countdown last fall was disgusting).

So much of sports journalism now seems driven by who has big endorsements, who is getting in trouble off the field and which experts are picking who for what. There is little analysis of games, little examination of player performance and too much hype.

We demand a lot from our "regular" news but what about sports journalism? I turned to sports especially this week to escape reality and instead I was driven crazy. When the news gets stale and repetitive, we don't seem to cry foul. Is it because we consider sports journalism "easier" or "softer"? Are we just looking for our favorite team to get some love? I may be making the accusation but I'm guilty of not changing the channel.

It's not journalism if you just show it

The Virginia Tech massacre was also a lesson in journalism, from the way the shootings were covered to what was covered.

I have to admit that I’m still conflicted about how and what the media should have covered, especially after seeing gunman Cho Seung-Hui’s home-made video that was aired on NBC and then picked up everywhere else.

I have to ask myself over and over again, how I would have handled this assignment. I have read some stories about Cho with interest, I would even call it a dark curiosity for morbid details, like what the writing on his arm could mean, how his roommate met him on the way to the bathroom, his speaking manners. But after having read the stories, I would often ask myself, was that necessary? Did I take anything valuable away from this or did I just satisfy my own desire for drama. In other words, was it news or was it entertainment?

As I struggle to find the answer, I’ve come to think that at least for me, and for now, there is one yardstick to measure newsworthiness: whether or not we learned something from that story. Now I know not everything on the news is pure information: There is a need for kickers, some fun stories every once in a while. But clearly, the Virginia Tech shooting is not one such instance.

In the case of Cho’s video, executives at NBC and other stations tried to justify their decision to air the video, while at the same time giving the mic to experts or man-on-the-streets who generally found it “disgusting” and “sick.” I would have to say I sided with those who find the video aweful and I fear that it glorifies Cho, at least to some disturbed or impressionable minds out there.

What, if anything, did we learn from watching that video? What was the message producers were trying to send? Now it wouldn’t be so bad if news outlets used only clips of the video to discuss larger issues, like mental health or depression. But on, the video, listed at the top of its Most Popular section, was pretty lenghty (2:07 minutes) and published without any type of expert comment or digestion, except for this short title and caption: “Chilling video of a killer - Photos and videos sent to NBC by Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui give a glimpse of his psyche.”

I just don’t see any journalistic value or process in that. Yeah, I’m sure they “edited” it… to make it short enough for the Web. But what was the message the producers wanted to send to viewers - or did they simply want to be an outlet for Cho’s message?

If they didn’t, they should have digested it for the viewer. And it’s not enough that they have done so in other parts of or on the television broadcast. The video itself should have contained some analysis or background. Granted, viewers drawn to Cho’s destructive message can just skip all the journalism and analysis, and get straight to what they want, especially on the Internet. just made it really easy for them.

Telling Tragedy

Throughout this week, I've found The New York Times' coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy to be particularly compelling. But one of the most interesting articles was not on the front page, it was on the cover of the arts section--and it was about the role nightly news anchors have played in this week's television coverage.

The article started with a referrence to Charlie Rose's interview with Brian Williams, when Williams said this:

Broadcast has changed. But a few things have not changed: that is, sometimes when there's tragedy, people come back to the so-called mainstream, they come back to the television networks and the newcasts--like the one I anchor. We believe that still to be a societal trend.

After I read the article and watched the Charlie Rose interview, I started think more and more about Williams' comment. I think back to September 11th and how glued I was to my television screen, despite the fact that the tragedy was unfolding practically outside my Manhattan apartment window.
There's something inexplicably reassuring about the connection you can have with a television anchor. Of the many memories I have of September 11th, one of the strongest is of watching Peter Jennings for what felt like 76 hours straight. There was a comfort in seeing his mix of steadfast composure and insupressable grief.
I agree with Williams that the role of newcasters as protectors and informers is never more apparent than during a tragedy. But I also, like The New York Times reporter, found the nightly news coverage this week a little too effusive. Perhaps the difference was my own proximity to the tragedy. Perhaps the difference was the danger I felt during one and the pure grief I felt in the other.
But perhaps the difference was simply the reality that, with each new tragedy, the media is more and more prepared. On September 11th, it seemed that newcasters were trying to remain composed and neutral but physically couldn't because of their own overwhelming grief. This week, it seemed the newcasters made a choice to show their grief and to make their own presence particularly emotionally driven. It's a subtle difference, but one that I think translates dramatically.
The Times writer, Alessandra Stanley, pointed out Katie Couric's quick arrival in Virginia--only to set up shop inside the Alumni Club, from where she conducted interviews that felt particularly like a psychologist's session. The notable exception, Stanley said, was Charles Gibson. Not only did he wait a day before traveling to Virginia, but he also remained significantly more composed throughout his coverage.
When tragedy strikes, all eyes may turn back to traditional television news. But there's a delicate balance to walk as a newscaster when those eyes are turned.

Newsgathering during a tragedy

Like everyone else, I cannot let this week go by without mentioning the horrific disaster at Virginia Tech. I too was glued to the television and Internet for days following the tragedy.

As a journalist, as I followed the story, I was captivated by the role of the Internet in the newsgathering process. It seemed like so much of the information was coming from online sources. Reporters were able to find out what was going on inside the school by getting access to instant message chats that had taken place between students and their parents and friends while they were on lockdown in their classrooms.

The online version of the college paper at Virginia Tech school newspaper, The Collegiate, became one of the major sources of news for the story as the website was repeatedly updated by student reporters. The site provided firsthand accounts, articles and information for parents. At one point during the afternoon, the site went down because there was so much traffic and the site’s parent company had to host the site. The editor-in-chief of the paper also appeared on shows all week.

As the victims names were revealed, news organizations instantly had lots of information about them from MySpace and Facebook. News outlets were quoting posts and using pictures from these social networking sites, and they found sources from their stories as well.

The centerpiece of the coverage the first day was video footage from a cell phone that recorded the gunman’s shots as police approached the building. The footage had been submitted to CNN through the I-Report function, where viewers can send in pictures and footage to the network.

As a 21st century journalist, I’m realizing how imperative it is to not only understand the ins-and-outs of the Internet, but I need to know how to be an active participant in the World Wide Web.

Imagine the advantage reporters had who understood how Facebook and Myspace work. They were invaluable sources when tracking down sources and finding information about victims.

Also, in times of breaking news, every media outlet, regardless if their specialty is print or broadcast, update their Web sites every few minutes with more information. Even if I am going into broadcast, I better know how to write for the web. I can’t simply transcribe my packages for air—those stories don’t often translate well to the Internet.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tech and Tragedy

The Virginia Tech shooting is the deadliest in U.S. history. The news coverage of the tragedy, especially as it was breaking, was unprecedented as well.
While I was glued to the TV, horrified, I was equally absorbed in how the events were being reported. Since the massacre on Monday, almost all the broadcast news outlets have been playing the same horrifying images and sounds of the consecutive gunshots that was caught on Jamal Alburghouti's cell phone.

According to CNN, Albarghouti was on his way to see an adviser when police officers ran past him. When Albarghouti was told by the police to take cover, he did. But he didn't forget to take out his cell phone and capture the critical moments of the shooting. "When I saw the policemen taking their guns out, then I knew that this was serious,” Albarghouti told CNN. Albarghouti quickly downloaded his video to his computer and sent it to CNN I-Report. Within minutes, his video was aired on CNN as well as other media outlets. For some reason it was the rawness of his video that really hit me and made the event even more horrifying and real.

Thinking back to 9-11, the first images that the public saw were from home videos that were shot on camcorders that people happened to have with them. But now, everyone pretty much has a cell phone with camera and video functions, which makes accessibility to breaking news so much more convenient.

Web sites like Myspace and Facebook also played a huge part in letting media report its stories. CNN's Bob Franken read a couple Facebook entries on the walls of the some Virginia Tech students on the air. Evidently this was where reporters were going to find their sources. One student actually directed a comment to the media, asking media not to contact him.

It was interesting to see how integral the students were in the timely reporting of what went on. (On a tangent, it's ironic that on such a wired campus, the students who were in imminent danger weren't notified of the first shooting incident in the dorm. While capturing the video and images is great, the technology should've been used to warn people as well. One student who was interviewed even said that the University could've sent out text messages to everyone telling them to get to a safe place.)

But moving on,

Monday was the first time that "citizen journalism" was able to hold its own. In fact, the students of Virginia tech essentially became correspondents. Starting around 8 a.m., I watched CNN cover the shooting. It was the first time I saw students actually holding the CNN mic and acting as reporters-- usually it's the student being interviewed by the journalist. I was definately surprised at this role reversal.

The students themselves as eyewitnesses were obviously integral to news coverage. But the downside of this cell phone reporting is that the images can't be verified. How can you tell whether or not images have been altered or the sounds enhanced? Because everyone that has the gadgets can become a so-called reporter, where does the editorial aspect of journalism come in?

An article by Poynter columnist Amy Gahran, raises the question of the part that citizen journalism plays in breaking news. She writes:

Citizen journalism and other first-person accounts are getting more attention and respect, especially during disasters -- deservedly so, I think. But I can't help but wish that this burgeoning aspect of the media landscape could get known for on-the-spot coverage of something unexpectedly positive and beautiful.

I agree with Gahran and I think that because quantity is more important than quality in terms of knowing what's going on and the images that come with such a breaking event, it takes a huge tragedy for citizen jouranlists to play such a big role.

When an elephant wants to be noticed

Today is different
Today is not the same
Today I make the action
Take snapshot into the light, snapshot into the light
I'm shooting into the light…

All you people in TV land
I will wake up your empty shells
Peak-time viewing blown in a flash
As I burn into your memory cells
- Peter Gabriel, “Family Snapshot” (1980)

After inundating the airwaves with pictures and videos sent to NBC by Cho Seung-Hui, the media has switched course, promising to scale back on the coverage.

I guess anyone would want to see Cho's footage out of morbid curiosity, but ultimately, you're dealing with the rants of a lunatic, and the networks jumped on this the same way they jumped on similar material in the past.

Jon Klein, president of CNN, said airing the material was a tough decision; he felt it deserved some coverage because “as breaking news, it’s pertinent to our understanding of why this was done.”

I understand his intentions, but the material itself is no more enlightening than anything anyone's ever heard from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or Mark David Chapman.

Having only read the print coverage (and for a story like this, print can be far more merciful, even graceful), there doesn't appear to be any surprises - Cho lashes out at nearly everyone around him, passes the responsibility on to the rest of the world, and claims innocence for his own malicious actions. Outside of that, he indulges in ridiculous, juvenile gun fantasies.

Just as Harris and Klebold knew they’d be remembered by millions they’d never meet, and just as Chapman knew his name would be linked to John Lennon’s, Cho sent his record of twisted narcissism knowing he’d get full command of NBC’s airwaves, that his rants and posing would be witnessed across the country.

Inevitably, others will emerge violently from anonymity to make themselves known to the world. We’ll see a repeat of the press scrambling to get the profile first, publishing and broadcasting any word that was planted for them, and again, you’ll have to wonder if passing any of that on will help the survivors and those left behind, or if they’ll struggle harder for any answer that can bring them some semblance of closure.

What else but VT?

I actually tried to find something else to write about this week since so many people covered this one, but really, there was nothing. So I'll give my two cents about what I thought was, by and large, a banner week for the news media.

Unlike Anna Nicole Smith or Imus, I thought this week's reporting wasn't over the top. I tend to be on the short-attention-span side of the news, which is to say that I hate when news agencies overcover stories, and I usually like them to move on pretty quickly. But unlike some other posters on here, I haven't grown tired of this story yet.

I think there are two key reasons I've been riveted by the coverage. One is that, unlike most stories that cable news covers, there have actually been some new developments. Despite a few lapses -- there were a few of times where the witnesses they found weren't very good or had nothing to add, or the stations were going to their correspondents simply because they could but they had little of substance to contribute-- I think we've been given a lot of news.

Indeed, from the initial coverage of the shooting and the events of the morning, to details about the carnage, to reporting the stories and names of the dead, to coverage of the vigil, to revealing to the name of the killer, to reporting the story of how the killer bought the guns, TV news packed a lot into a couple days. (By contrast, on the day Smith passed away, Jack Cafferty on CNN asked Wolf Blitzer "Is Anna Nicole still dead, Wolf?," displaying his feelings that the network had spent way too much time talking about a whole bunch of nothing.)

The consistent news value of this story has only been further heightened over the last 24 or so hours, with the delivery of the package to NBC and our subsequent view into the killer's mind. (And by the way, I am unequivocal in my belief they were correct to air his rants, and am disappointed that they now say they will pull back.) The fact that there have been so many new developments has definitely made this coverage worth the airtime it has received. (On a related note, Alberto Gonzalez seems to have gotten really lucky that almost everybody has stopped paying attention to him; meanwhile, Don Imus happened to get terribly unlucky that his comments had played themselves out before this story broke.)

The other reason I haven't been annoyed by this coverage is that, unlike the two recent media frenzies surrounding Anna Nicole and Imus, there has actually been discussion of a substantive nature. It hasn't just been all surface content, with no meat on the bones of the story. The anchors and reporters have talked about gun control, mental health issues, how the shooting might affect the presidential race in 2008, the VT officials' response to the initial shooting, and tons of other topics that go beyond the simple act. Sure, they have emphasized the fact that this was the "deadliest shooting in American history" about 1,000 times, but other than that, I think the discussion has branched off into interesting and significant issues that lie underneath the story. Broadcast journalists should be commended for that, and for not taking the easy way out in a medium where style-only and skimming the surface reporting are all too common.

One quick thing I didn't like about the coverage was how the networks sent their anchors there right away. Did Brian Williams and Katie Couric really need to be in Virgina to report on this story? I know anchors like to feel like real journalists and get out there and report, but their presence seems unnecessary and some of their reporting has been quite clunky. Also, it seems very opportunistic, as though the first thought of the producers after the tragedy was "How quickly can we get our anchors on a plane and get them down there?"

I think we would have been better served by having our anchors in New York talking to correspondents on the scene. That also would have perhaps helped the nightly news cover the other stories floating around (for instance, did you know that 183 people were killed in Iraq on Wednesday? It seems as if journalists still use that old chart where it takes 10 foreign deaths to equal one over here.) I applaud ABC and Charles Gibson for sticking in New York, although I'm disappointed they felt the need to give in to the tide and head down to Blacksburg on Tuesday. But still, maybe the fact ABC showed just one day of restraint is indicative of why the network is gaining in the news ratings.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lack of enterprise

I won't belabor the Virginia Tech media coverage but I don't know if I want to blog about anything else. Up until today I was pretty impressed with the coverage of the event by pretty much every news organization. The stories were fresh and smart and looked at many different angles. There was breaking news and localized coverage. There were 2-hour specials and moving photo montages. I was proud to be a journalist.

Then I woke up on Wednesday morning and turned on Headline News then The Today Show. I felt like I had never gone to sleep. Was The Today Show a repeat? The stories were identical to everything I had seen before. An interview with a victim's parent wasn't so exclusive since he had spent almost half an hour with Wolf Blizter on The Situation Room just 12 hours earlier. I don't want to watch the English teacher answer the same questions over and over either. There was nothing original about any of the stories or the reporting. I was not impressed.

I don't feel like we need to rehash the exact same material just to do it. Think of something original, moving and intelligent. That's what we need in the wake of a tragedy like this. Times like this really define journalists and if you can really enterprise an angle on this kind of story, you probably have a very bright future.

Overall the coverage has been pretty good and I'm happy about that. I think we in the media needed that after the terrible Anna Nicole Smith and Don Imus overkill. But I think things were getting a little stale. Until the video given to NBC turned up....

Okay, this was big news. If you're NBC, you're loving this right now. Not in a sadistic way but in a "this is huge" way. But I think the proliferation of this material is unneccesary. It's scary, it's freaky and it gives this psycho exactly what he wanted. I feel the worst for the victims who sign online and see their friends' killer pointing a gun at their face on their homepage. This is indecent and inconsiderate. But in a way, I don't envy news directors in this situation.

Everyone hopes nothing like this will ever happen again. But if God forbid it does, I will probably be a working journalist at the time. I feel it would be a unique responsibility and it would be something that would define my career. I hope I rise to the occasion; I know I will.

The global shock has still not worn off from this week's Virginia Tech. tragedy. Reporters, bloggers, and writers across all mediums have named the shootings as "the greatest campus crime tragedy of our time." Paul J. Gough from Reuters/Hollywood Reporter described the networks' coverage of the tragedy as "heavy," not because the extensive amount of coverage was undeserved, but because all three broadcast networks flew the major anchors to Blackburg, Va. for the convocation ceremony and memorial, during which the President and First lady were both interviewed by all three networks. Unfortunately, a major part of the story is the killer himself, Cho Seung hui, who we found out was a senior and a Korean immigrant.
His close-up, which I can only look at as a mug shot though I am not certain if it is a mug shot or not, is inescapable in this week's papers. The cover of Wednesday's Tribune's reads "As campus grieves, 'monster revealed," followed directly by a passport size photo of Cho. Why allow a 'monster' to attain such celebrity status as to splash his name and photo across every front page imagineable? As important as the identity of the killer is, I think it is sufficient for the media to say his name, call him whatever they please, and be done with it. I imagine that Cho will now become a household name, depsite the fact that he is known for murdering more than 30 people in one morning. By stamping his name and face on newspapers and television across the nation, we are allowing the killer to enter into our homes and allowing ourselves to become familiar with him as days go by.
One of my friends told me that if he was a parent, he would want the killer to be showcased on every paper and every TV possible to show what he's done. But I fully disagree, because I think focusing on the killer is wasted ink and space. Why would I, as a consumer of news, be interested in the face that committed 33 murders? I am perfectly fine knowing his name and seeing his face once, and now focusing on what is being done on campus crime and any new developments in the story. I can't imagine that families and friends of the lives lost are happy seeing the murderer every day when they open the paper or turn on the tv.
I am not critical of network coverage of the tragedy, but am suggesting that networks are excessively showcasing Cho's crime.
I understand the argument that people want to know "Why?" and "What brings someone to the killing point?" Even if Cho were alive, I don't think we, the questioning public, would not get to the bottom of his crime or thought process.
So if I were editing or producing a show, I would get rid of his face, get rid of his name, get rid of anything that further allows him to enter into people's homes, and focus on how this story will progress from here on out.

Why make a celebrity out of Cho?

The global shock has still not worn off from this week's Virginia Tech. tragedy. Reporters, bloggers, and writers across all mediums have named the shootings as "the greatest campus crime tragedy of our time." Paul J. Gough from Reuters/Hollywood Reporter described the networks' coverage of the tragedy as "heavy," not because the extensive amount of coverage was undeserved, but because all three broadcast networks flew the major anchors to Blackburg, Va. for the convocation ceremony and memorial, during which the President and First lady were both interviewed by all three networks. Unfortunately, a major part of the story is the killer himself, Cho Seung hui, who we found out was a senior and a Korean immigrant.
His close-up, which I can only look at as a mug shot though I am not certain if it is a mug shot or not,

Oprah today - contrasting views regarding VT tragedy

Today Oprah covered the Virginia Tech tragedy with Lisa Ling as her Blacksburg, VA correspondent. Via satellite, Oprah interviewed a psychologist who criticized the English teacher who reported problems about the shooter but did not persist on a personal level to get him help or into the hands of authorities. The psychologist said that the English teacher had followed the "letter of the law" but not the "essence of the law", which would have compelled her to not stop acting on her fears about the disturbed student. I thought this was interesting because the English teacher has been getting a lot of press about how she tried and tried to get someone else to do something about the student. She was on CNN, WGN radio and Oprah, at least. The psychologist kind of scolded the teacher's inaction and simultaneously empowered viewers to act on their feelings. This was pretty refreshing amidst all the helplessness we are feeling about possible future incidents as gun control and campus security remain abyssmal.

Another thing the psychologist said was that Oprah and the media can do their part by not letting the issue rest - by revisiting the fact that we are empowered to act to stop individuals who we know are dangerous. She said that the media should not stop coming back to this issue. I'd say the media is doing a pretty good job of this so far.

The counterpoint to the psychologist was a Columbine survivor whose sister was killed and who lectures around the country about school violence and the need to assimilate isolated students. He said there are kids out there who idolized the Columbine killers. He brought up the fact that their pictures were on the cover of Time. I just saw this cover while I was doing my case study last weekend:,16641,19990503,00.html. It is wrong that their pictures are so much larger than those of the people who died.

This kid said that the media is making such a huge deal about this being the largest massacre ever, and he said, "Records are made to be broken." I think surely there are sick kids out there who might think, "I could kill more than 32; that's my goal."

How can we cover this issue as much as we need to while not heaping mystique or glamour upon a massacre?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sportcasters: Women and Minorities Encouraged to Apply

This week at, published by veteran sports anchor Dave Benz--he expressed his anger that television stations state under sportscasting job opportunities: "Women and minorities are encouraged to apply for sportcasting positions." While he was shocked at this statement, I was shocked at his upset at it. As an aspiring sports female sports journalist, I know I am entering a very white male dominated sector of television. Also, not only are women viewed as less credible as sportscasters (thanks to findings by a Princeton media study), but they also have no margin for error. As Megan Mawicke (Medill Alum and Chicago Sportscaster at CBS 2) told me, "Women in this business have to work extra hard. Read the stats, know there stuff. If I mess up one time I will just be known as the pretty talking face. If my male colleague messes up...well, he just had a temporary brain cramp." So, sorry Benz, but women are coming into this industry whether you like it or not. (Note: Not one person wrote in or called Benz' show to complain about the criteria....I wonder why? one wants to take on this feminist fight.)
However, Benz does acknowledge that without EEO qoutas, many sectors of society would not hire females or minorities for sports reporting jobs. Image my own double burden, not only am I the wrong gender (female) for my dream job, but dear god I am South American. Two strikes...I am almost out (pun intended). Consequently, on the other side of the fence, this probably equates to alot of sportscasting job opportunities for me and other aspiring female minority sports reporters. Currently on record, according to data I have found, in the United States, there are only 50 women sportscasters among the 630 affiliates. Not to mention, I could only find 2 Latin American female sportscasters (Lisa Guerrero...who was a former Playboy model but I will address this later) and 2 Asian female sportscasters. This is shocking considering that in both baseball, football and basketball, caucasian players are becoming the minority?

Now, what I do agree on is that a company should hire an individual based on talent---not race, age, gender, etc. But, in the sports business, what constantly irks me and apparently Megan Mawicke is the Playboy Bunny/Former Miss USA (i.e. Lisa Dergan)turned sideline reporter. Not only do they undermine the female pioneers in this business who fought to overcome the female stereotyping, but they detract from the credibility of females who aspire to become sportscasters that are actually sports savvy and not just a pretty face with long wavy hair, thick lips and big boobs. Having a brother who played professional baseball, I know baseball like the back of my own hand. I have traveled to all the ballparks and could do play-by-play with the best of them. Not to mention, growing up with brothers, I was always the goalie, the punching bag holder, outfielder, etc...because all we did was play sports. Now, the part that bothers me...all these women had to do was strip for Playboy and get breast implants (some have no college degree or journalism training) and they are getting picked for these lucrative jobs. In other words, they are hired as "Eye Candy" for male viewers--which obviously boosts ratings. So, what does this mean for journalists like me who study the craft who want these jobs?...should I ring Hugh Hefner and find a plastic surgeon stat?

The fact of the matter, there are female sportscasters out there that are good like Melissa Stark, Megan Mawicke, Suzy Kolber, Linda Cohn, Suzyn Waldman and Hannah Storm. However, these women will continously be degraded because of their gender. Just look at the online website: where individuals can vote for female sportscaster with the nicest a**, prettiest face, nicest legs, best chest, etc. Oh and lets not forget the top ten hottest sportcaster list put out by Sports Illustrated. Why can't there be a category of most knowledgeable female sportscaster? Or, who is the better sideline female reporter? Why does everything for women in this professsion come back down to looks? Or is it just that those Playboy models are giving the profession a bad name?
While I know that the road ahead is long, I just want to say, women have just as much right to be on a football field talking about a game as men do (despite Andy Rooney's thoughts). This world is changing and so is the industry. Oh and please, let's start looking at female sportscasters as knowledgeable human beings rather than sex objects. Some of us do know what we are doing when it come to playing sports and talking about sports. Oh and a special thanks to ESPN who was the first network to welcome female sportscasters with open arms.

Virginia's tragedy brings a host of questions

The past 36 hours have been tough. It's been tough for our nation. It's been tough for humanity. It's been tough for each of us during our quiet moments alone. And, of course, it's been more than tough for the wounded and friends and family of the slain. The collective grief since the Virginia Tech massacre has been almost palpable.

I agree with LL. This story makes all of us think: What would we do if we were assigned to that story? Where are our own ethical boundaries -- as people and as journalists? Could we even report this tragedy without breaking down?

I've been glued to the television 24-7 (I left CNN on while I slept last night and stared at the TV monitors unwaveringly while I worked out at the gym). I literally could not look away. My remote is broken, so I've been manually flipping through continually to find out what each channel is reporting. From CNN on channel 36 to CBS on channel two, every news source has been locked into Virginia's grief. The graphics, headlines and interviewees change -- but the message is the same: How could this happen and why?

I found of the best approaches to this story on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. John King stepped in for Cooper, who is in Afghanistan, I think. King introduced all of the victims and provided snapshots of their lives, including their ages and majors. Sometimes he offered a slice of who they were, a sliver so small that it whetted the audience's insatiable appetite. For instance, King described one of the victims by saying that the young man had recently called his mother to announce he wanted to major in English. Those few words transformed the shocking, but impersonal, fatality count into something more real. Thirty-two murders became 32 dreams, 32 mourning families, 32 attractive faces glistening with youth and hope.

The raw emotion has the country riveted to its computer screens and TV sets. It's times like these that brings people into the fold of the news. We're all looking for some kind of explanation, a way to find sense amid the senselessness. Every pang of grief felt in Virginia stings the nation, and sometimes our reporters help to ease the pain. That's why I appreciated the anchors who took the helm, especially Brian Williams on "NBC Nightly News." He seemed charmingly authentic on a grassy knoll at Virginia Tech, with the black backdrop of night behind him and a strong wind mussing his hair. The only other "set" he used was his limo, which nearly shattered the romantic scene he set on the campus lawn.

Such a heart-wrenching horror calls for commensurate images. Most of the major newspapers and news stations featured similar front-page photographs. They were bloody and, in the case of CNN's graphic iReport video, captured the panicked moment. But how much is too much? Parents could have easily seen the bloodied, crumpled bodies of their children being towed out by law enforcement before they were informed. Whose responsiblity is it to make sure the victims' families are notified? Should that even be a factor when choosing which video is fit to air?

Another Thought on VT

I realize that LL has already talked about the mass shooting at VT, but as a fellow journalist how can you ignore this situation and talk about something else. I just can’t. Like LL I sat in front of my television this morning watching the TODAY show and had tears listening to the older brother of one of the victims. I could only imagine what I would be thinking about if I was in a similar situation with my little brother. My stomach sank.

But, as a journalist, rather than talk about how I feel, I want to raise many questions. What was the university thinking? Saying this could have been prevented may be a little too harsh, yet I, myself, think it could have. I always go by the saying, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” The Virginia Tech president is currently saying he did not want to scare people coming on to campus at the time and did not want to shut down campus. First of all, I think it’s safe to say that campuses across the United States from here on out will be shut down if there is a shooting. But, the campus probably should have been shut down. Classes probably should have been cancelled right when the first shooting happened.

University officials are saying they were trying to figure everything out and investigating the situation. Why would they be sitting in a meeting and not informing students? I realize that I am just asking a lot of questions right now, but so many questions are unanswered.

If I were a student, or even my little brother was a student, at the university and the option was not even offered, I would be mad. That would be my immediate reaction to a situation. I believe students should have been informed immediately and then had the choice to make a decision of whether or not to go on to campus. In addition, sending out an e-mail two hours later and not making any calls was probably a mistake on the university’s part.

I was happy, however, with Matt Lauer’s interview this morning with Virginia Tech’s president. He did raise questions similar to this. I am with LL though. I am not sure I could have kept it together in something this tragic.

Another point I would quickly like to make… I think that websites have done a terrific job of updating their sites with new information. On many news sites, new information has been highlighted. I want to be glued to my TV right now, but I cannot be. This tactic is one I have never seen before, but it is easy for readers and people following the developing story to find the new facts. I do not know if this tactic will continue, but it seems like a good idea.

I would like to say finally, and the most important thing, that my thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims.

Covering Atrocity

I couldn't help but find it ironic that the day BB lectured to us on reporting war and conflict, the largest, most devastating school shooting occurred just hours before. Right now, I am sitting glued to my television watching Matt and Meredith report the tragedy for the TODAY Show. I wonder, what if I was sent to cover this story? Who would I want to interview? What questions would I ask? Could I hold back tears? Could I refrain from showing emotion?

While watching friends and family members of innocent victims that were shot and killed yesterday my eyes start to water, my stomach drops and my heart beats faster. I can't help but feel pain, anger, and sadness for the thousands of kids, who are just like me, deal with such a horrific tragedy. I applaud those who are speaking with reporters and agree to be on television to share loving memories of their sisters, brothers, teachers and friends that they lost. I really don't think I could.

As a reporter I know it is important to put emotions aside when reporting, but that doesn't mean it is easy. Whether reporting in Iraq or at Virginia Tech, I think the most difficult story to cover is one of tragedy. As a war correspondent, I think you have to go expecting to see blood, death and horror. But, when something so terrible happens to innocent people who were simply doing what they normally do...I think the story becomes much more difficult to cover.

I do hope the media switches directions in its coverage. I have heard a lot of programs involving psychologists to get a psycho-analysis on 'what makes people snap?', 'why do people go on shooting rampages?'. In my mind, this is good knowledge, but not nearly as important as 'what needs to be done now?', 'How can other colleges and universities prepare their campuses for an event like this?' I remember in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting, my high school had numerous lock-down drills. We were prepared because the same thing could happen there and the school had the responsibility to protect the 2,000 students that attended my high school. The same needs to be done at colleges. Whether a small private college, or a well-known state school or university, the media needs to alert school officials the importance of being prepared.

My heart goes out to all those at Virginia Tech--all those who must return to go on with their daily lives knowing the tragedy that occurred. My prayers are with the families of the victims and those wounded who lie in hospital beds hanging onto their lives. It is difficult for me to distance myself from this tragedy as I was attending the UofA not too long ago. These kids are just like me and my friends.

I sincerely hope I never have to cover an event like this one because I hope that something like this never happens again. But if I do, how do I prepare myself? How do I put on a strong face and report a horrific tragedy like this one?