24 hour news networks, a disservice to us all

A discussion about “disaster porn” in class last week, as it relates to the 24-hour news cycle, reminded me of one of my ALL TIME favorite interviews: Rachel Maddow interviewing Jon Stewart in 2010. (Skip ahead to the 4:02 mark to hear what Stewart has to say about the 24-hour news cycle.) He says:

“The problem with the 24-hour news cycle is it’s built for a very particular thing: 9/11. Other than that, there really isn’t 24 hours of stuff to talk about in the same way. Now, the problem is, how do you keep people watching it? O.J.’s not going to kill someone every day. So that’s gone. So, what do you have to do? You have to elevate the passion of everything else that happens that might even be somewhat mundane and elevate it to the extent that this is breaking news. ‘This is developing news. This is breaking, developing news.’ The aggregate effect of that is that you begin to lose the lexicon…The language then has to become sharper—louder—to cut through more of the noise.”

I tend to agree with his take on the sensationalization we’re seeing more and more of—especially in TV news, but also in online news media.

The general public tuned in to watch every news network in record numbers during 9/11 and the aftermath, and they will still tune in to stay updated on major events, natural disasters, and other major events that have threatened the safety of innocent people in a major way. So many of us will do this because we care about the outcome of a disaster, about those who survived, about knowing the whole story.

However, this sense of urgency is not something that can be replicated everyday if you still want to call what you produce “honest journalism.” The heightened sense of imminence news producers cultivate is damaging because we lose an understanding of what “urgent” really means. The minute CNN interrupted programming to announce “breaking news” about Justin Bieber, I realized how little those two words have come to mean when they come from the mouths of reporters. And it’s not one station that does this; it’s just about all of them.

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The content of a story is what gets people to turn on TV news in record numbers. An important story should be developing for that to happen. It’s not something that should be conjured if truth-telling remains the goal.

If there is some kind of immediate danger, the public should be informed about how government services and individuals are reacting. This accountability of people in power to the general public is part of what makes media so necessary. All of the sensationalizing is clouding that.

I propose treating sensationalized storytelling and news entertainment the same way reporters and audiences treat lying by omission. If and when news media omit important information, they are held accountable and criticized. To prevent poorly telling stories, good journalists double and triple check themselves to be sure they are including all important viewpoints and not leaving anything out.

Potentially dramaticized stories should be treated the same way: with judicious forethought. Its viewers will respect its creators far more if they don’t feel like they are being manipulated.



Miss Representation: media coverage of women politicians

Miss Representation (which is now streaming on Netflix) covers an array of issues, and the whole thing is worth watching. If you’re like me, you’ll re-watch it a few times, and you’ll want to break it down and take it apart piece by piece, especially the part 41 minutes in that digs into the gaping gender disparity in politics.

After a long and all too familiar sequence of political commentators disparaging the credibility of female politicians based on looks and gender, Pat Mitchell, who is the president and CEO of Paley Media Center and the former president and CEO of PBS, says:

“There’s probably no more powerful influence on the way we view power than the way media treats power, and media treats power as defined by men because it has been, throughout our generation and the ones before, generally defined that way.”

Interviewees in that section of the film goes on to explain that writing articles about a politician’s looks or insulting a piece of clothing she wore is not only irrelevant and objectifying, but it also trivializes that individual, making her appear less powerful or credible.

At a panel I attended last year, former NC senator Ellie Kinnaird’s final words to the audience, nearly all of whom were women, was to run for office. She brought up the fact that women are often not asked to run for office as persistently or as frequently as men are, so she encouraged us to tell the women leaders that we knew to consider running.

Media is perpetuating the image of what power and intelligence looks like, and with its often embarrassing coverage of female politicians, it affects what we imagine politicians can hope to be in the future, as well. If we see strikingly few female politicians holding public office and watch as so many media organizations follow their careers in a horribly sexist way, how are we supposed to see a future when it will be desirable for more women to pursue public office?

The best we can do now—and absolutely must do—is encourage women to run and demand that the press will fairly cover their achievements and actions and than it will stop visually dissecting bodies and discounting logic as emotional defeat.

TED on abortion: How media producers frame social justice issues

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Now, I sincerely doubt that many people have ever tried to argue that TED is a conservative organization, but it is often attended by incredibly powerful business people and innovators, which is not necessarily a partisan-affiliated professional track. This makes the group’s announcement (or clarification), that they will include and promote the spread of TED Talks about abortion framed as a social justice issue, pretty interesting.

The organization has not made any strong statements to the contrary previously, but TED’s decision to definitively say that it will include abortion as an important human rights issue to be discussed in its forums is an interesting move from a group that fosters new ideas and has a real chance of influencing people who can actively change policies.

On the TED blog, the group said:

“We agree [abortion is] an important issue, and look forward to continuing to promote the discussion of equality and social justice for women.”

I find this to be a more-than adequate response because they have now recognized that reproductive rights are, in fact, a social justice issue that impacts more than half of the world’s population.

As a journalism student with a deep commitment to storytelling, but also a commitment to having some social impact, (I mean, why else do we write?) the ways some news organizations approach social justice issues in an unbiased manner are difficult for me to navigate.

How do I reconcile approaching an issue from an unbiased position, using completely neutral language, when I and millions of other people have a stake in the issue? For me, potential influence I may have is a part of my will to write. But when reporting, I know that turning off my personal stakes in stories becomes necessary—as do most reporters’—and that sometimes sits awkwardly with me.

Obviously, TED is not a news organization, per se. But it has influence on public opinion and acts as a platform for ideas, so I think it’s fair to lend it comparable power. I’m glad that it has chosen a lens through which it will approach reproductive rights and the way it fosters conversation around them. And I think it may be worth considering that more credible sources acknowledge their respective lenses.

News writers, presenters of ideas, producers of content: all of them have individual lenses through which they see “controversial” issues. And I think that, sometimes, their resulting works may lose something by claiming to be wholly unbiased.

HKonJ: Moral March gets national media attention

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people from all over North Carolina (and across the country) assembled in downtown Raleigh to participate in the annual Historic Thousands on Jones St. march. This year, the march became part of the Moral Monday movement that started during the summer, and participants protested a whole host of the GOP-dominated NC legislature’s decisions and inactions.

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I was among the couple hundred UNC students who attended to call for improved public education funding, improved health care access, LGBT rights, women’s reproductive rights, workers’ rights, environmental protection and other social justice issues. The experience was reenergizing. 

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Current estimates of the number of attendees range from the 25,000 (the number expected to attend) to over 80,000 people according to the NAACP. It’s thought that the march may have been the largest in the South since the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. The event grabbed national media attention, too, and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry covered the event on her show.