Friday, January 23, 2009

News From Nowhere

Premise: Reporters are Lazy (Ouch!)

The journalism think-tank Poynter Institute ( often causes me to stop and think about the state of the news business. Sometimes, they their reach is beyond their grasp, but that’s the job of a “think tank”, I guess.

Amy Gahran posted a piece this afternoon positing that a linear approach to following a story in the media, following the events day after day, results in little depth or understanding. The stories assume the past and present only the present, providing only snapshots and little context. At least, that’s the sense I made of it. She was grappling with a post by a colleague Matt Thompson. Find it at:

Well, I wrapped the cloak of “journalistic priesthood” around me and replied with a comment. Poynter’s comments section only allows for a set number of characters, so I had to edit myself with a dull knife. Not wanting all of my words to go to waste, I’m posting them on my own blog where I can use all the characters that I want!

My full comment:

Yes, the media continually change, but this phenomenon is not new. I stared at my bookshelf and pulled down an “old” one with pages tanned with age, “News From Nowhere” by Edward Jay Epstein, ©1973. He wrote:

“More than fifty years ago Walter Lippmann suggested that newspaper reporting was in large part a process of filling out an established ‘repertory of stereotypes’ with current news. In a similar way, network news is involved with illustrating a limited repertory of story lines with appropriate pictures. One NBC commentator, Sander Vanocur, observed that ‘network news is a continuous loop: There are only a limited number of plots—“’Black Versus White,’” “’War is Hell,’” “’America is Falling Apart,’” “’Man Against the Elements,’” “’The Generation Gap’”, etc. which we seem to be constantly redoing with different casts of characters.”

Why does this seem so both at the local and national level?

Over lunch recently with two former colleagues, seasoned journalists who now work in PR, we agreed: Reporters are lazy. I’m going to post a blog on the role of public relations and public information officers in the news-gathering process. If PR people and PIOs are doing their job, they spoon feed the harried media who are trying to do more with less during this day and age. Their goal is to make covering the story at hand easy with just enough background and the right interviewees giving tidy, but meaningless :15-second sound bites.

The result is a product that fits a formula, also talked about in Chapter 4 of “News From Nowhere”. The reporters, always on deadline, do not have time for reflection and context. Perhaps their editors or producers ax it out, for lack of space and time. No wonder audiences and subscriptions are down.

The only answers include the Internet where ostensibly one can hear the context of the sound bite, programs with extended interview including opposing views such as PBS or some cable programs, or (gasp) books.

I am not ready to give up on traditional media and their web sites to live in the existential moment. We are evolving to a new model which will, most likely give way to something else. In the mean time, reporters must rage against the temptation to be lazy. News managers must allow elbow room for context and creativity.

© Jim McNabb, Austin, TX

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