Friday, August 24, 2012

Ex-NPR Reporter Talks About Lack of Context in the News Media

One of the topics that often comes up in media training sessions and in client meetings is what compels the media to cover certain stories while ignoring others.  While there are many factors depending on the client, the timing and the substance of the news, one of the explanations has been that today’s media is very event-driven.  This is not to say that the media only covers special events, but rather, that the media more often than not will decide to cover a story that it can say has “happened” today, rather than spend more time on a timely issue or trend that can’t be tied to something that actually happened within let’s say the last 12 hours.  Sometimes an “event” is nothing more than the fact that someone of note said (or Tweeted) something new about a hot issue. 

For example, if I tell a reporter today that my favorite color is blue, that’s not news.  Or if I tell a reporter that I notice Lady Gaga likes to wear blue outfits a lot of the time, that’s not news.  But if Lady Gaga Tweets that her favorite color is blue that may be an “event” worth mentioning, surely to be followed by an investigation on why the color blue is so important to the pop star. 

All too often context gets lost for the stories that are covered, and since stories are often covered as described above, when important new developments generate news, it often feels to news consumers that the event just happened out of the blue.

I remember once working for a legal client and trying to get reporters to pay attention to a piece of legislation that would have a serious effect on the way businesses operate.  Because “nothing happened” on the days I called leading up to a congressional vote, many reporters weren’t interested.  But on the day the legislation was passed, all of a sudden it became news.  It was only then that some of these same reporters showed an interest in the topic and then they needed to quickly educate their readers on the happening and what it meant. 

For thousands of readers who relied only on their newspaper dailies, this news caught them totally off-guard.  On the other hand, the issue had been well covered in several industry trades in the months preceding the law’s passage, so for those who got their information from these sources they were not surprised.

All of this came to light for me once again this week when I read a Politico article about an ex-NPR reporter, Andrea Seabrook, who decided to quit her job covering Capitol Hill to start a new blog and podcast that she says will help clarify the inner workings of Washington.

Andrea’s comments to Politico reinforced how the media today tends to cover things in event modules, though I think her explanation is much more illustrative:

From Politico: “’I realized that there is a part of covering Congress, if you’re doing daily coverage, that is actually sort of colluding with the politicians themselves because so much of what I was doing was actually recording and playing what they say or repeating what they say … And I feel like the real story of Congress right now is very much removed from any of that, from the sort of theater of the policy debate in Congress, and it has become such a complete theater that none of it is real…I feel like I am, as a reporter in the Capitol, lied to every day, all day.  There is so little genuine discussion going on with the reporters.’”

While I think she made her views pretty clear, to reinforce, what she was saying is that too much of her work involved covering the “theater” of government and politics rather than the substance of governing.  This can be said of many corners of news media today.

Reporters will cover what people say but rarely have the time or take the time to verify whether in fact the statements made to the media are in fact … fact.

Going back to that color example, the point Andrea is making that if one side of a story says the sky is blue, the other side will automatically say it’s green.  So the media will spend all of its time covering what each side is saying about the color of the sky, rather than independently doing its own investigation to determine the actual color of the sky based on scientific fact, as opposed to conjecture.

If this was done more often, the news would change.  Perhaps ratings and readership would drop, because we all know that theater is far more interesting than real life. 

But one thing is certain, if more newsrooms focused their energies on making sure more fact-based, historical context was provided with each story, you’d probably have fewer stories that make it into the public domain.  But the ones that are produced will be of higher quality and of better value to news consumers and society at large.

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