Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pardon My Rant

If there's one thing that bothers me more than anything else these days about the state of broadcast news, it's the chicken-or-egg syndrome that has paralyzed so much of the media and so much of our nation.

Let me explain.

I hate the stereotype that news stations buy into--the stereotype that says Americans are stupid and just want to see fluff entertainment. To the extent that's true, I would say the stations themselves are as much to blame. If Americans don't care about the war in Iraq or negotiations with North Korea, then in large part we are failing to tell those stories well. As embarassing as our nation's ignorance can be at times, the strength of a student is often a reflection on the strength of a teacher. I think it's quite fair to consider us, as journalists, to be in the most important role of educator.

While working as an intern at MSNBC, I was taken aback by an executive announcement stating that producers should use figures' names as little as possible unless the figure was a household name. The list basically included celebrities and President Bush. With everyone else--foreign presidents, American senators and congressmen, et al.--we were to use their name as little as possible. The idea was that we lost viewers if they heard a name they didn't recognize.

The problem is, how will they ever recognize those names if the news stations aren't familiarizing viewers with them? How can we expect citizens to be able to name all Supreme Court Justices or the Treasury Secretary if we don't assert that these are names worth knowing--and if viewers don't know them, they should.

I think the dilemma doesn't ultimately boil down simply to giving viewers what they want verses giving viewers what they need. I think the challenge is to give viewers what they need and to do it in such a way that it's what they want, as well. I don't think a story exists that someone wouldn't want to hear if it were told really well.


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