Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The 'News': Breaking or Broken?

"When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often.
But if a man bites a dog, that is news."
-Quote attributed to New York Sun editor John B. Bogart.

The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money. - A. J. Liebling
Here's some local 'breaking' news: This afternoon's swearing in ceremony at 4:30 PM, for our new Mayor and Ward 4 City Council Member will be the first time BTV10 has filmed a public event 'live'!

I hope no one feels 'scooped' by this revelation, but it does mark another significant milestone in the evolution of the City's Education & Government Television, Channel 10.
When the City Council decides to do it, every afternoon Council Work Session can also appear 'live'.
Of course, if the meetings are actually filmed, copies will be available for review as well, although maybe not as the fully edited versions currently being televised for the Evening Meetings.

I consider this to be very good news for citizens, including the local media, because it makes important information and discussions much more readily available to the public, and in a timely fashion
But, that's just my opinion.

With all the stuff floating around posing as 'news', maybe its time to question who makes that determination?
And, what about all the latent 'news' that doesn't get reported?
Is it only 'news' because it gets reported?

It has been my observation that the media has a lot of control over what gets reported, and what doesn't.
Maybe the 'media' is not always up to the job?
What is the media's real job anyway? And who makes sure this is being done consistently?
Notice, I have no comment about 'news' being done 'well' - meaning accurately and timely.
No, my concern is whether the 'news' is being covered at all!
And, when it is covered is it being used to titillate or inform?

Please do not construe this as an attack, but an observation that is shared by many I have talked to.
It just seems too easy to cherry-pick controversy, gossip and relatively minor issues at the expense of serious news coverage.
Maybe this tendency is in response to what sells consumers?
If so, do people want to be treated more as consumers than citizens?
Is the em-PHA-sis being placed on the wrong syl-LA-ble here?

Anyway, this subject struck me as something useful to blog about today.
Not because of any one one thing, but because of the cumulative effect of inconsistent reporting on things I consider 'newsworthy' over time.
This has become a problem which seems to be getting more serious, particularly in the fuzzing of the boundary between fact and opinion.
And, in the inconsistency or absolute neglect of subjects that ought to matter more to people.

Here's a short definition of NEWS from the Internet:
See if you agree.

1.a. Information about recent events or happenings, especially as reported by newspapers, periodicals, radio, or television.

1.b. A presentation of such information, as in a newspaper or on a newscast.

2. New information of any kind: The requirement was news to him.

3. Newsworthy material: “a public figure on a scale unimaginable in America; whatever he did was news”.

Some more excerpts from Wikipedia to describe what is meant by the word 'news':

Hard news and soft news are terms for describing a relative difference between poles in a spectrum within the broader news trade—with "hard" journalism at the professional end and "soft" infotainment at the other. Because the term "news" is quite broad, the terms "hard" and "soft" denote both a difference in respective standards for news value, as well as for standards of conduct, relative to the professional ideals of journalistic integrity.

The idea of hard news embodies two orthogonal concepts:

• Seriousness: Politics, economics, crime, war, and disasters are considered serious topics, as are certain aspects of law, science, and technology.

• Timeliness: Stories that cover current events—the progress of a war, the results of a vote, the breaking out of a fire, a significant public statement, the freeing of a prisoner, an economic report of note.

The logical opposite, soft news is sometimes referred to in a derogatory fashion as infotainment. Defining features catching the most criticism include:

• The least serious subjects: Arts and entertainment, sports, lifestyles, "human interest", and celebrities.

• Not timely: There is no precipitating event triggering the story, other than a reporter's curiosity.

Again, from Wikipedia: Concerns and criticisms:

The label "infotainment" is emblematic of concern and criticism that journalism is devolving from a medium which conveys serious information about issues that affect the public interest, into a form of entertainment which happens to have fresh "facts" in the mix. The criteria by which reporters and editors judge news value - whether something is worth putting on the front page, the bottom of the hour, or is worth commenting on at all - is an integral part of this debate.

Some blame the media for this perceived phenomenon, for failing to live up to ideals of civic journalistic responsibility. Others blame the commercial nature of many media organizations, the need for higher ratings, combined with a preference among the public for feel-good content and "unimportant" topics (like celebrity gossip or sports).

A specialization process has also occurred, beginning with the rise of mass market special-interest magazines, moving into broadcast with the advent of cable television, and continuing into new media, like the Internet and satellite radio. An increasing number of media outlets are available to the public that focus exclusively on one topic such as current events, home improvement, history, movies, women and Christianity. This means that consumers have more choice over whether they receive a general feed of the most "important" information of the day, or whether they get a highly customized presentation that contains only one type of content, which need not be newsworthy, and which need not come from a neutral point of view. Some publications and channels have found a sizable audience in the "niche" of featuring hard news. But controversy continues over whether the size of that audience is too small, and whether those outlets are diluting content with too much "soft" news.

What counts as journalism?

Some journalists define "journalism" to include only reports on "serious" subjects, where common journalistic standards are upheld by the reporter. The larger "news business" or news trade encompasses everything from professional journalism to so-called "soft news" and "infotainment", and support activities such as marketing, advertising sales, finance and delivery.

Professional journalism is supposed to place more emphasis on research, fact-checking, and the public interest than its "non-journalistic" counterparts.

"Breaking" or non-routine news is defined as hard, unplanned news that takes the newsroom by surprise, such as a plane crash or earthquake. Breaking news cannot be predicted. However the industry is using breaking news as a label for more than just unplanned, hard news.

Weather and politics are the most frequent breaking news stories.
Celebrity news also makes a strong appearance.

Breaking news
1) is reported immediately,
2) contains new information (expected or unexpected) and
3) is most often market-based (chosen to increase ratings).

This study shows that breaking news stories do not have to be surprising or even important – but they do need to include new information. If this is the case, any story can be breaking news at any time when new information is introduced. Thus, labeling a story as breaking raises a question of credibility for the individual news outlets. Can viewers trust news outlets to emphasize the stories that are immediately important to them? If the practitioners cannot define breaking news for viewers consistently, viewers are sent conflicting messages. The difficulty lies then in viewers trying to establish for themselves what stories are important and relevant.

Adding to the distinction between journalists and anchors and reporters are "human interest", personality, or celebrity news stories, which typically are directed by marketing departments based on a demographic appeal and audience share. It's commonly accepted that anchors are also media personalities, who may even be considered celebrities.

Think its time for more debate and discussion on the subject of what constitutes 'news' and what constitutes 'journalism'?
Let it begin!

Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.
A. J. Liebling

I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better. - A. J. Liebling

I take a grave view of the press. It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy.
A. J. Liebling

People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.
A. J. Liebling