Posts Tagged media

Canceling the snowpocalypse

Mailbox in Worcester, Massachusetts.What would Marshall Stacker Pentecost–Idris Elba’s oft-quoted character from Pacific Rim–say if he encountered not a giant monster from another dimension, but heavy snowfall?

New Englanders are supposed to dismiss each snowstorm as “just a dusting,” then go back to swigging Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and counting the minutes until opening day at Fenway.

That’s not the case though. With the snow piling on, many people are getting anxious, and the media would have you believe that the world is coming to an end. The Puritans wouldn’t be impressed.

Perhaps it has to do with the many ways we are now warned of impending precipitation.

Every time it snows, I get a weather alert on my phone, watch meteorologists discuss it with a perverse mix of dread and joy on television, and read about the aftermath in my local paper.

This might be a case of too much information. The constant bombardment of warnings may be making people more anxious than they were in the old days, when even school closings weren’t always properly broadcast.

Of course, one thing has changed in the intervening decades: the planet’s temperature.

Ask someone to trade in their car or washing machine for a more-efficient model, and all they’ll see is dollar signs. Ask them to look out their window in February, and all they’ll see is global warming.

This part of the country had a mild winter last year, which makes this one seem worse than it might actually be. Without crunching the numbers, I can say that past winters have left the landscape looking very much like it does now.

So while it’s good that people are starting to acknowledge global warming, it can also become another source of meteorological anxiety.

An easy remedy would be to just stop getting anxious about the weather. After all, things could be a lot worse. Remember the snowstorm that knocked out the region’s infrastructure in October 2011? Remember that there’s a place called Buffalo?

People may not be able to let go of it that easily, though. There may be a mass-execution of weathermen instead.

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Is Chrysler still “Imported from Detroit?”

2015 Chrysler 200SIt’s funny what advertising can do when it’s not superficial.

Three years ago, Chrysler launched a Superbowl ad titled “Imported From Detroit,” emphasizing the obvious parallels between the carmaker and the city.

While most Superbowl ads feature animals and hijinks, this one was almost inspiring, even if the car it was meant to sell–the 2011 Chrysler 200–was pretty terrible.

For a moment, it seemed like corporate America could sympathize with the rest of America, instead of just finding ways to avoid paying taxes.

However, in the car industry, things change quickly.

Chrysler has established a modicum of stability thanks to its merger with Fiat, revamping its lineup and even producing daring new models like the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee.

Earlier this week, Chrysler unveiled the 2015 200 at the North American International Auto Show in–you guessed it–Detroit.

From Eminem’s purposeful stare in that 2011 ad, you’d think this would be a fulfilling moment, a sign that a city and a car company are climbing out of the pit of doom, together.

In reality, it was just another car unveiling. Journalists were impressed by the new 200’s sleek European styling and high-tech powertrain, but it’s a car divorced from its surroundings.

Detroit, on the other hand, is worse than ever. The city declared bankruptcy last year, and now everything from its art collection to its workers’ pensions seems to be up for grabs.

I wouldn’t want to take a drive through Detroit in the 2015 Chrysler 200. I’d be afraid of getting car-jacked.

Of course, the solidarity depicted in Chrysler’s 2011 Superbowl ad was just an illusion; all advertisement is illusion. Still, it’s not easy to watch corporate fortunes rebound faster than civic fortunes.

Chrysler still has a long way to go to secure its future, but only its investors will be unhappy if progress doesn’t continue.

Corporations can (and do) fluctuate. Cities can’t afford to.

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The algorithms of progress

After 200 posts, I still have a love/hate relationship with the Internet.

I mean that in the most literal sense: I love the opportunities the Internet has made possible, but I hate most of what comes with using it and interacting with people through it.

Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have a job right now. I certainly wouldn’t be able to cover the car industry from a house in Connecticut.

However, the Internet has also de-valued skills.

For many jobs, remote working has opened up a pool of applicants that literally spans the nation. People with job-specific skills are much more interchangeable than they ever have been.

That’s great if, like me, you want to write about cars without moving to Detroit, but it also means that being good at something just doesn’t cut it anymore.

People are expected to bring much more than relevant skills to a job; they’re expected to bring specific training, connections, and name recognition.

Some call this the entrepreneurial spirit; I call it blurring the line between work and life.

Because when people expect less from organizations, organizations expect more from people. So much for punching out at 5:00 p.m.

Those aren’t the only terms the Internet dictates.

We work for it: we design content for it, adapt messages to suit it, alter our language so that both humans and Google will comprehend it.

Then someone invents a new “breakthrough in communications” that must be satiated on its own terms.

Earlier this year I got a Twitter account, because everyone else has one.

As far as I can tell, Twitter is just a forum for anyone who has ever been involved with Star Trek, and a gruesomely effective way to relay information during a disaster.

Every time a celebrity does something, it explodes like a healthcare exchange website on October 1, 2013. I can’t see how this leads to productive discourse.

We shouldn’t feel obligated to make room for new social media in our lives, but we do. That’s what frustrates me the most about living in the shadow of the Internet.

After several generations of continuous technological progress, people seem resigned to the Digital Age being just another part of an inexorable historical movement. Nothing stays the same forever.

When I was in first grade I learned to type on beige Macs and play with floppy disks. The teachers said computers would one day be an important part of my life. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if we use a piece of technology, we should still be allowed to evaluate its effect on us, and tailor it to our lives–not the other way around.

The Internet has certainly changed the way people live, but whether “different ” really means “better” — and doesn’t mean “worse” is a determination we need to make. It’s easy to assume we have no agency in the face of progress, but we need to take account of how we use technology.

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The infinitely deep gap between writing about something and nothing

In college, I had a writing teacher who said that, if you have a column or blog, you can write about having nothing to write about. But you can only do it once. For this blog, I’m saving that free pass for rainy day. However, I thought it would be interesting to discuss where ideas come from and how original they need to be.

I’ve always thought that the best way to come up with ideas for news and feature stories is to draw on experience. Talking to sources, finding out what’s actually happening, or learning about an important trend are the essence of journalism. That’s why it’s called reporting, after all.

What happens when you can’t be near the source, though? Or if you don’t have a monopoly on it? The Internet has dramatically changed how news is reported, especially when it’s related to industry, politics, or other subjects that don’t have a geographic base.

Here’s an example: If Ford wants to show off a new car, it will probably unveil it at a major auto show in front of the world’s press, but it will simultaneously post all of the vital information on the car on its website.

That means every media outlet, even ones that didn’t send reporters to show, has access to the same information (assuming the bigwigs don’t take questions). Since everyone is online, people don’t need to rely on their local newspaper or magazine to learn about it.

That’s why angles are so important. A writer can explain how a story applies to their specific audience, or add analysis that others might not have thought to include. Other outlets distinguish themselves with style, taking on a more informal or humorous tone to differentiate themselves from “traditional” coverage.

This means readers are essentially getting several different takes on the same event, which can be informative, or confusing if they don’t agree.

It also shows that many stories are worth covering, even if someone else is doing it. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to piggyback off someone else’s work without contributing anything.

This clip from Portlandia illustrates the problem pretty well:

Anyone who thinks print media is dead should take a careful look at the sources of some of the digital articles they’re reading. Someone has to actually do the reporting, but that doesn’t mean the discussion stops there.

The “all access” scenario described above applies to original news too. Sometimes a story is important enough that it deserves coverage of its own, but that makes it every easy to just repeat the findings without adding anything.

Avoiding this requires a similar approach to the omnipresent car unveiling. Work the angles. Tailor the story to a specific audience. Add relevant analysis and insight. Also, don’t plagiarize.

Obviously this could be easier said than done, but hopefully this shows that you can come up with some meaningful stuff without direct access to sources. That doesn’t mean these types of articles can replace original reporting, so keep trying to get out there too.

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Super journalists

The QuestionOne of my favorite things about comic books is the way they glorify my chosen profession. Many superheroes pick up a camera or notebook after they put away their capes, taking to the fictional streets of America as journalists. Superheroes and journalism really go hand-in-hand, and it’s no accident. In fact, it’s all about realism.

A news reporter or photographer is the perfect secret identity for someone is always making news. If Clark Kent showed up every time Superman made an appearance, and din’t carry a press pass, people would get suspicious. As a reporter for the Daily Planet, Kent is expected to follow Superman around, so no one would ever suspect that he and the Man of Steel are the same person. The same goes for Peter Parker of the Daily Bugle. Of course he’s always around when Spider-Man swings into action! How else would he get those amazing photos?

Journalism also provides heroes with the resources they need to fight crime. Working for newspapers gives Clark Kent and Peter Parker access to information; they learn about crises first, so they can respond quickly. The Internet has made that less true (the “Miracle on the Hudson” was first reported via Twitter), but working for a major news organization is still important. Would Spider-Man be as effective if he had to read thousands of tweets by himself before getting some actionable intelligence?

One superhero, the Question, goes so far as to make journalism part of his modus operandi. As T.V. news reporter Vic Sage, he investigates criminal acts, exposing the corruption of Hub City in nightly broadcasts. Then, he takes to the streets as the faceless, trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing Question to dispense justice.

Superhero journalists aren’t just reporters, either. The Green Hornet owns a newspaper, the Daily Sentinel and, like the question, uses journalism as a tool in his war on crime. Britt Reid publishes stories depicting his masked alter ego as a powerful mobster, spooking his enemies while concealing his true identity and intentions.

Journalism’s role as the “fourth estate” is wholeheartedly embraced by the creators of superheroes. The heroes are, after all, supposed to be real people with extraordinary abilities. They need day jobs that won’t conflict with their crime-fighting missions and, maybe, on a good day, Clark Kent’s reporting can do as much good as Superman’s crime-fighting.

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Not Everything Is Relative

Last week, NPR ran a story on how people “respect civility but reward rudeness” in politics. The author talked mostly about slights against President Obama, but said the trend actually started when liberals made a sport out of bashing George W. Bush.

People on both sides seem to have forgotten the concept of “respect the office, if not the person,” but saying that Bush was treated as badly Obama is being treated is an oversimplification.

It is important to remember that Bush did some genuinely bad things. He invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. He took a surplus and created a deficit. He curtailed civil rights with the Patriot Act. Despite rhetoric about “the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud,” Bush did not seem personally concerned about the threat of terrorism. He gave up the search for Osama bin Laden, and instead took more time off than any other president.

These are not issues to be debated, they are facts. People disagreed with Bush’s policies at the time and now, with hindsight, we can clearly see that many of them were mistakes. Jaded analysts and high school teachers like to say that “both sides have their good points,” but sometimes one side is legitimately wrong. Did we ever find Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? Did Bush kill bin Laden?

The criticisms of Bush and Obama also differ in their intensity. Some people may have said they “hated” Bush or that “he’s not my president,” but they usually said it with a palm over their face. The operative emotion for many Bush critics was not hatred or fear, but embarrassment.

Bush was not an eloquent speaker. He said things like “strategery” and struggled to pronounce the word “nuclear.” He almost choked to death on a pretzel. Joe Biden may have a reputation for gaffs, but at least he hasn’t shot anyone in the face. How could anyone resist making jokes about that?

In contrast, the conservative critique of Obama has been deadly serious from the start. As soon as Obama was elected, the “Tea Party” rose to oppose him. They called him a threat to American democracy and, despite the fact that Obama had won a convincing two percent majority in the popular vote, felt that he had stolen the election. You would think that the election had been decided by the Supreme Court in lieu of a recount, or something…

While Bush got the benefit of the doubt at first, attacks on Obama started when he took office and grew to a level of hysteria very quickly. People may have questioned Bush’s public speaking abilities, but they did not question whether he was born in the United States. They may have compared Dick Cheney to Darth Vader, but no one compared him to Hitler.

Sideline hecklers are one thing, but what about the other players? Again, despite some outspoken criticism, Bush had it much easier than Obama. Democrats who disagreed with the invasion of Iraq still voted for it, while Congressional Republicans refused to even talk to Obama about issues like healthcare and the deficit until he made concessions.

In politics, where someone is always angry about something, it’s easy to assume that both sides are saying the same thing. However, not everything is relative. Sometimes, politicians make mistakes, and sometimes critics take things too far. After eight years of Bush jokes, conservatives were probably eager to attack Obama, but that doesn’t legitimize what they have done.

Disagreeing with Obama’s healthcare plan is not the same as being angry that we invaded a country for no reason, just as repeating “is our children learning?” is not the same as accusing the current president of being a foreign alien. Failing to recognize objective differences will only make it harder to return civility to politics, because it confuses those two situations.

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