The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, December 01, 2003

Media: Pessimistic, but not fatalistic

The words are from a BBC guy [1] on the TV earlier tonight, talking about AIDS.

But they seem equally apposite to describe a proper attitude to the performance of the media (I'm thinking US and UK, mostly).

Romanesko returns from a weekend of turkey stuffing with a bumper bundle of the groanworthy - plus one or two reasons to be cheerful.

A piece in the New Times (way down in Chad country) reveals a spoof that various Sunshine State rags fell for - anarchists planning to disrupt a GOP meeting. The scribe's moniker? Greg O'Shube (anag).

He played pretty fair with the hacks: mentioning the URL for a site, with an email address for the head of the outfit, one Michael Bakunin. Seems that Mr Google doesn't penetrate as far as South Florida...

Also, a piece from the NPR ombudsman [2] on the ethics of radio editing. Once upon a time, taking out the ums and ers was down to a guy with a razor blade; now it's all digital, all sorts of curves are straightened.

The piece quotes an internal report suggesting that
In fact, the public is far less aware of editing on radio than on television or in print. For example, to eliminate words, a TV producer has to use more visible means, such as a cutaway shot or jump cut. Newspaper reporters, by form, must put a break between non-consecutive quotations, among other constraints.

The most recent furore in the UK over radio editing arose over an interview by Today presenter John Humphrys of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He asked the Bish whether the Iraq invasion had been immoral; there was a delicious, 12 second pause (which, as radio dead air, would have seemed like half an hour). The whole section on Iraq got cut. Humphrys was livid.

Lastly, in the light of the decision of the Pulitzer Prize, the Miami Herald has an excellent piece by Edward Wasserman castigating the media for its selective attitude to journalistic errors. Mentioning Stalinophile Walter Duranty and Janet Cooke, of Jimmy's World fame, he says
When it comes to media accountability, there has long been a double standard. News outfits fall all over themselves to own up to relatively minor wrongdoing by employees, like Cooke. But big mistakes, the kind that call into question the judgment, bias, intellectual timidity and overall wisdom of the organizations themselves -- uh, not so fast.

Just like the police departments with which they work hand in glove (and, sometimes, a good deal more intimately!), the media work on the rotten apple theory: get rid of that (occasional) apple, and rest of the barrel will stay fresh and wholesome. Neither sort of organisation does systems failure: there's just too much at stake.

The problem is related to that of the press pack: a story gets covered to the point of overkill, but only so long as it's hot. Then - for reasons entirely unconnected with its merits as a circulation-grabber, let alone its social importance, the story gets dropped all over - as if there were some JFK-style conspiracy at work.

Also related is the obsession with events: news organisations will not, generally go to Bongo-Bongo Land unless there's a famine, or a coup, or a woman's being stoned to death for adultery; a story from some European cushy billet needs a general election upset or a serial killer.

Or a PR stunt, or report, or speech. TV news is notorious for covering the stories that give good picture - but all media are generally cursed with a dependence on events.

It rolls into the question of what is news? (The temptation is to say that News is what's happened lately.) And also into the distinction (illusory over a pretty wide margin) between news, analysis and comment.

At least this stuff's being talked about now in front of the children - which I'm fairly sure it wasn't ten years ago.

  1. The Graham Norton of economics journalism, Evan Davies, to be precise.

  2. The head quotes 'my' Casablanca line, so perhaps I'm biased!

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