Posts Tagged news 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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The outrage cycle

Rolling Stone cover August 2013I was originally going to use this post to continue the debate over the now infamous Rolling Stone cover photo (as an aside, I encourage everyone to read the article, which was very well written) of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I was going to talk about how people who think Rolling Stone made an unethical decision are wrong, about how Tsarnaev looks nothing like Jim Morrison.

I don’t think that is going to resolve anything, though.

The day Rolling Stone released the cover and story, I was arguing with people on Facebook about the article’s content, the decision to put Tzarnaev on the cover, and the quality of the photography. I got up for a break, and walked past people arguing about something else on TV in the next room.

Public discourse seems to have become a never-ending cycle of outrage. People get outraged at things like this, then other people get outraged at the first group’s outrage. Meanwhile, nothing gets resolved.

People have every right to be upset when they see Tsarnaev’s photo in such a prominent place. They have gotten upset, and it hasn’t stopped there.

What’s amazing is how quickly a visceral reaction to something like this gets cloaked in logic. It’s as if people know that they are overreacting to something and feel they have to cover up that blatantly emotional response with reasons.

So the debate shifts from pure anger over having to look at Tsarnaev’s face every time one walks into Barnes & Noble to concerns over how the image is disrespectful to the people of Boston, or how its “glamorization of terrorism” could inspire copycats.

Consequently, the opposition fires back with reasons of its own: freedom of the press, the importance of knowing something, anything, about this unprecedented act of terror, and the acknowledged difficulty in predicting how potential copycats will respond to specific media images.

It won’t work, though, because the people boycotting Rolling Stone aren’t interested in a rational debate; they’re still just upset over seeing Tsarnaev on the cover. They won’t respond to rational arguments because they aren’t being sincerely rational.

In America, logic and emotion are confused way too easily. We use terms like “belief” and “morality” to bridge the gap between these two polar opposites. We have an initial reaction to something and cling to it tenaciously until Judgment Day.

Instead of being resolved, the issues of the day gradually fade away as people get sick of talking about them. Soon, Willie Nelson will be on the cover of Rolling Stone again, Tsarnaev will be on trial, and we’ll all have something new to be outraged over.

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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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Getting meta over media criticism

In this age of irony and constant self-investigation, it’s easy to lose track of the reasons why people do things. That’s especially true when it comes to the media (I still don’t understand why we have 24-hour news networks). Still, we all know why reporters publish stories on things they observe, right?

As a member of the media (sort of) I guess I sometimes fall into the trap of assuming what readers will think of an article. That’s why I was surprised by some of the reactions to a recent piece on dating in the New York Times magazine.

“The End of Courtship?” was controversial to begin with. It focuses on 20-somethings’ use of texting, social media, and online dating sites, saying that technology has ruined romance. The author claims that social media have taken the risk out of asking a person out, and prevent one-on-one dates from happening by making it too easy to bring friends along.

Having your entire generation described as gutless and emotionally stunted obviously stirs up some strong opinions. In a rebuttal on RoleReboot, Niki Fritz criticized the story’s assumption that women only want old fashioned dates where the man picks the wine and pays the bill. She said there is nothing wrong with having casual dates, group outings, or hookups as options.

I completely agree, but I didn’t expect Fritz to attack the article’s negative tone along with the specific points it made. I’m getting a little meta here, so bear with me.

“All these articles do is scare young women into thinking we are in some hopeless, relationship-less era devoid of love and romance,” Fritz said.

This sounded similar to a comment I saw on a friend’s Facebook page: “I’m just sick to my stomach of article like this complaining with no resolution in sight,” the disgruntled reader said.

They say no news is good news, and maybe that’s becoming too much for people to handle. I could be wrong, but I’ve always assumed that articles like the Times piece are written to identify negative trends so they can be corrected.

People should read articles like this, realize how lame their dating lives are and try to change. But I guess, in the real world, even the people that agree that text-based dating is a problem respond with a simple “I don’t want to hear this.”

There are a lot of unpleasant things in the world, and this isn’t even really one of them. Everyone deserves to be happy, but these 20-somethings are much closer to happy than most people in the world.

Arguing an article’s specific points is one thing, but criticizing it just because it is negative is completely different. Journalists need to report what they see, good and bad, and while they shouldn’t exaggerate or misinterpret the facts, they definitely have a license to be negative.

Much criticism of the media is warranted, but have we really been reduced to this? I hope the New York Times doesn’t pick up this story; too much criticism of criticism might break the universe.

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Newsweek: Grid Edition

Newsweek first coverNewsweek will cease print publication at the end of this year in favor of an all-digital format called Newsweek Global. Progress marches on.

Newsweek’s handlers made this decision for very sound reasons. The magazine was hemorrhaging money, and a digital version will allow it to reach the same readers without the confinement of a weekly publication cycle. It will also be subscription-only, so the shareholders will actually make more money than before.

No one should be surprised that Newsweek will not be available hot off the press for very long; digital is here to stay. A few years ago, the rise of digital news was seen as the death knell of newspapers and magazines. As a college journalist full of spunk, moxie, and a bit of anachronism, I was not ready to accept what some people called “progress.”

That apocalyptic scenario is no longer valid. The New York Times proved that people will pay for online content, and thus showed that print media could upload itself to the interwebs intact. Other papers are following the Times’ example, and news sites like the Huffington Post and Daily Beast (which ate Newsweek) are also popular.

The world really has changed, but I’m still not comfortable with it. I write for a news site(and this blog), and like it just fine, but can’t there be room for both print and digital media?

Scanning the comments on different versions of the Newsweek story, I found one bit of false astuteness about how communication evolved from cave paintings to the Gutenberg press, and that digital media is the next logical step. That really underestimates the impact paper has had on human civilization.

Putting something down on paper means people can take it with them, and keep it to themselves. The printing press may have made mass production of paper reading material possible, but it was not a paradigm shift on the same level as taking information off cave walls and out of people’s heads to put it on dead trees.

Compared to that, digital isn’t that impressive. It really just makes things more convenient and increases profits for the people that produce media. That’s very important, but let’s not romanticize it.

On second thought, it might not be a good idea to romanticize Newsweek either. It may have been publishing since 1933, but this is the magazine that called Obama the first gay president, after all. The takeaway is that a major title has gone all digital.

So Newsweek is a magazine that has lost its way, and the Internet may save it. The only opposition seems to be grounded in sentimentality: the feel of a page in one’s hands, or the permanence of having important events recorded in ink.

That kind of stuff never plays well in boardrooms or the homes of people who can afford iPads. In the span of a few years, digital media has gone from being a fantasy, to a threat, to a sensible business decision. That might be the most unsettling thing of all.

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Watching the watchers, or, Do we want a moderate moderator?

Watching last night’s post-debate coverage, I noticed that moderator Candy Crowley came in for criticism along with the two candidates. Despite her job title, Crowley’s performance was a part of the media circus trying to glean some meaning from what went down in that Hofstra University auditorium. I like that, and I think people should take it a little further.

I’m not saying that the moderator should be a factor in determining which candidate wins a debate, I think that should be based solely on the facts. We have enough subjectivity in our debate coverage already, and that’s why I think consumers of media should scrutinize the people that produce it.

The starkly different roles played by Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz in their respective debates started this fire, and legitimately so. Lehrer failed to ask specific questions, and couldn’t even get Mitt Romney to answer the non-specific questions that Republicans love. Raddatz, on the other hand, kept both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in line, and forced them to give specifics instead of talking points. Which do you think was more informative?

Now it’s time to take things a step further. We should not only rate a moderator’s performance, but the news organizations that cover politics.

It has to be consumers of media that do this; having news organizations rate each other would be akin to releasing Cthulhu and having him define objectivity. Rather, this should be done informally, preferably on an individual basis.

This more about thinking about what we need to know than judging or punishing people’s stupidity. We simply need to ask ourselves: What do I need to know to make an informed decision in this election? Be specific (you’re talking to yourself, after all) and don’t couch it in terms of pre-existing narratives. Just be honest.

The follow-up is obvious: Is the source of my information, be it a news network, paper, or website, answering my questions.

A candidate’s job is to get elected, the media’s job is to inform the electorate. Said electorate should not have to suffer through ignorance if a candidate misses an opportunity to draw blood in the debate arena. The media needs to tell people what candidates aren’t telling them, and put everything in context.

If you watched CNN, MSNBC, or Fox, or read the New York Times or Huffington Post, on debate night and still don’t know what’s going on remember: you have a choice.

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Fact check fact check

In this brave new world of instant media gratification, fact checking has separated itself from conventional journalism, since time is required to check facts. Through the two national political conventions, the morning after each speech has been followed by a barrage of asterisks from PolitiFact, FactCheck, and other independent organizations. Now, like the conventional media, their work is getting political.

Trying to see if a politician is telling the truth should seem like a straightforward, non-partisan thing, but that’s tough for a party that lies so much to accept.

Republican demigod Ronald Reagan once said that “facts are stupid things,” and his party proved that at their convention last week. A quick Internet search will turn up thorough dissections of each speech, showing where each candidate was less than truthful.

How does a political party respond when it is caught with its pants on fire? Blame the fact checkers! In an interview on the Colbert Report earlier this week, CNN Contributing Editor Reihan Salam tried to take some of the heat off his fellow conservatives.

“I think that people are being obtuse,” Salam said. He said the issue was not whether Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan lied about the closing of car factory or whether he voted for Simpson-Bowles, but that both parties were making claims about lying to distract people from the issues.

“When people hear something that sounds vague, seems like it’s ill defined, they don’t say “Oh, that must be what he meant,” rather, they say, “Let’s define it as narrowly as possible as a lie, rather than have a real conversation about what we’re saying,’” Salam said.

While it’s true that reality is rarely black-and-white, and that political parties deserve to emphasize certain (factual) points to make their candidates’ case at their own conventions, some things are simply false. Salam defended Ryan’s claim that the plant in Janesville, Wisconsin closed during the Obama administration, saying it had only been mothballed in 2008 due to low demand for SUVs, not fully closed. Who’s being obtuse now?

That is a distinction without a difference. The plant was still closed: it was not producing cars, and its employees were out of work. In addition, if the reason for the shut down really was lack of demand for SUVs, then Obama cannot be blamed for it. The President may be the most powerful man in the free world, but he can’t stop poor product planning.

One person’s views do not always represent those of an entire political party or movement (Salam could’ve also been kidding, I suppose), and I hope this isn’t how conservatives plan to deal with their leaders’ penchant for stretching the truth.

If given the opportunity, politicians will endlessly stretch the truth until it’s nothing but Orwellian doublespeak. People get frustrated by political lies, but the media gives them an opportunity to see through those lies. If someone doesn’t want to acknowledge the truth, that shouldn’t be everyone else’s problem.

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