Tuesday - January 31, 2006
Support Our Reporters Dept. Part II
- Journalists and the People Who Love Them
Jackie and Jenny Spinner are twins who had never been completely separated for an extended period of time until Jackie went to Iraq to cover the war for the Washington Post. In their book Tell Them I Didn't Cry, they talk about Jackie's experience in Iraq and Jenny's experience as an English professor back home. This is a very personal story of twin's who had to deal with all that war means to a relationship, and who are both talented writers. (For example, Jackie survived an attempted kidnapping which her sister overheard part of through a cell phone call.) The main link here is to Brian Lamb's interview with the Spinners on this week's edition of C-SPAN's Q&A, the show that replaced the long-running Booknotes. While there is a transcript on the site, please take the time to view the program as streaming video. (I watched it on my kitchen television Sunday night while baking banana bread.) For an audio interview, along with links to stories that the Spinners have contributed to NPR, go the Fresh Air archive.
- Stories by the Spinners
- Jackie Discusses Her Time In Iraq For the WP
"When I called Jenny later, my voice shook. "These guys tried to kidnap me!" I exclaimed. I had already talked to my editor back in Washington, had heard myself begging: "Please, do not make me come home. I want to stay. Please, do not call me home." "
- Jenny Discusses Jackie's Decision To Go To Iraq
"When your twin goes off to war, she never really returns. And you are the one left desperate, grasping for an arm, a leg, anything familiar to hold onto, to push her back into the womb you once shared." (WP)
- Jackie Chats Online About the Jill Carroll Kidnapping (WP)
- Cooking in the Red Zone
OK, now we're getting personal. Jackie discusses cooking in dangerous area outside the highly secure "Green Zone." (WP Food Section)
- In One Night, Iraqi Turns From Friend to Foe
2005 article by Jackie on Iraq from the Post.
- Video from Spinner on Iraqi Elections
MSNBC story by Jackie from January 2005
Monday - January 30, 2006
- Support Our Reporters Dept. Part I
Covering War In Iraq Is A Dangerous Business
As you no doubt know by now, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were seriously injured in a roadside bombing by an improvised explosive device in Iraq on Sunday. Although they are among the most high profile journalists to be injured, killed or kidnapped in Iraq, they are only the latest in a long line of journalists to pay a high price for doing their job in covering the war in Iraq and the war on terror.
Garrett Graff has thoughtful entry at FishbowlDC on whether this attack will finally make the American public realize what incredible sacrifices our soldiers and press are making in Iraq. As he notes (in referencing a recent story from the NYT):
Bob Woodruff was in Baghdad for ABC reporting the good news that the Bush administration complains is ignored by the news media, and he ended up as a glaring illustration of the bad news.
Woodruff and Vogt are just two of the journalists who have been injured or killed covering the war in Iraq and the war on terror. For example, Jill Carroll, reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, was kidnapped last week. And as story on NPR points out, more journalists have died in the war in Iraq since 2003, than died during the entire Vietnam War.
Throughout this week we're going to be looking at the sacrifices journalists have been making to cover the war, along with other dangerous stories around the world.
Friday - January 27, 2006
- A Million Little Problems Dept. - Fall Out From James Frey's Fabrications
A week or so ago I ran a guest commentary by my colleague John Temple about his outrage at the apparent fabrications in James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces. I have to admit that prior to seeing his comments, I had given little thought to the book. Drug memoirs (other than Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) hold little appeal to me. But over the last couple of weeks there has been a firestorm of criticism of Frey for either grossly exaggerating or outright fabricating what happened to him as an alcoholic and drug addict. Criticism seems to be particularly harsh because fans of the book feel betrayed by Frey and the emotions he brought out in them with what they thought was a true story.
No reader has been more public in her upset than media maven Oprah Winfrey, who had featured Frey on her book club. In the days immediately following the charges against Frey, Oprah stood by the author based on assurances that the book had only a few minor exaggerations. But Thursday she had Frey back on her show and let him have it with both barrels.
While Frey's major outing came from The Smoking Gun, a few critics had raised questions about the book's authenticity when it was first released in 2003. The best example comes from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which addressed the issues in an article from July of 2003. The StTrib took on the issue largely because the rehab clinic Frey was treated at is located in the Minneapolis area. Frey's story made the famous Hazelden Clinic look very bad, and the clinic has been fighting the image ever since.
One of the most interesting stories I've heard on the Frey case comes from NPR's On The Media. In the interview, Brooke Gladstone talks with Andrew Goldberg of TSG, and book critic Adam Kirsch. The issue is not so much why Frey lied, but what why the book industry publishes a book that raises these kinds of questions.
Thursday - January 26, 2006
- Media Merger Mania Dept. - "They" Are At It Again:
- Disney and Pixar to Merge
Disney is merging with (acquiring?) computer animation studio Pixar for $7.4 billion in stock. As you may have noticed, every film Pixar has made (Toy Story I & II and the incomparable Incredibles, to name just a few) has been a blockbuster hit. Pixar's chair and major stock holder is Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple Computer. The merger will make Jobs the largest Disney stockholder and will give him a place on the Disney board of directors. Given that Apple is positioning itself more and more as a digital media technology company rather than just a computer maker, this could get really interesting. (And Steve Jobs says he isn't trying to become a Hollywood player. Right.)
- The WB and UPN Hook Up To Become The CW
The WB network (owned by Warner Brothers) and UPN (owned by CBS/Viacom) have both been losing money, and neither has managed to attract much of an audience, so what are they doing? What any good media properties would do. Merge! But what will this new network be called? The CW.... Excuse me, does neither Warner Brothers nor CBS have anyone at them with any notion of marketing? Anyway, that means that now instead of two networks nobody watches, there will now be two. (Of course, people made snarky comments like that about the Fox network, and look where it is now.) (USA Today)
- Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)
Wednesday - January 25, 2006
UPDATED AT END: Once again, I'm putting up some links for the benefit of my students; in this case, the links are for my ethics students. But all of you want to be brushing up on your ethical principles, don't you? Watch for additional material here later today.
Also, be watching tomorrow for updates on media consolidation. Lots of news on the Disney, Pixar, CBS, Warner Brothers fronts.
- A Look at Aristotle's Golden Mean
On my ethics exams, I typically ask students to define Aristotle's Golden Mean. And every year I get a few students who define it as the midpoint between foolhardiness and cowardice, with courage as the midpoint. This is, of course, an example of the golden mean (and a frequently given one at that), but it does not define it. This link takes you to a range of examples to give you a better feel of what Aristotle really meant.
- Tom Bivins' Great Philosophers Pages
Tom Bivins, who teaches journalism ethics at University of Oregon, has put together some good resources on journalism ethics. Here are links to several of them:
- Meet Sissela Bok
Hear an interview with ethicist Sissela Bok on the topic of honesty and public life.
It is far beyond the scope of my ethics class to try to reach a full understanding of the concept of truth. Entire semesters could be spent on the topic. My goal is to get past the idea that "truth is things that are true," and get my students thinking about what does it mean for something to be true.
Here are some definitions of truth from the web:
- Creation Stories
One of our oldest notions of truth is the oral tradition. Stories that are handed down from generation to generation, and are accepted as true because they tell us something about who we are, what we stand for, and where we come from.
An example of the oral tradition are the creation stories that every culture has. Here are three examples from around the world for you to take a look at. As you read them, keep in mind that each culture accepts them as true. Does that mean that one group is correct and the others are wrong? Not with the oral tradition.
Douglas Preston, in his book Talking to Ground follows the route on horseback depicted in the Navajo creation story. He speaks with many Navajo on his trip, who give differing versions of the story. None are bothered by the fact that his story is different from theirs. "For you it is true," they say.
The truth in the oral tradition is in what the story means about ourselves and our cultures. Think about the stories in your own life that you hear told and that you tell. Why do you tell these same stories over and over again? What do they mean to you? What function do they serve? Don't try to view the oral tradition in terms of a literal portrayal of a "factual" truth. That's not the kind of truth we're talking about here. (Please, I'm making no judgment on the value of your creation story! You are welcome to interpret your stories as you best see fit.)
- Plato's Allegory of the Cave
Here is an illustrated explanation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, one of our conceptions of reality/truth.
- The Enlightenment
TheWorld Civilization's Web site at Washington State University gives an excellent summary of the concepts of the enlightenment.
- Why Do We Worry About Conceptions of the Truth?
Why have you spent this time looking at notions of the truth? Because if you are going to talk about the ethics of reporting (and advertising, and PR, and...) you need to think about what it means for something to be true. Is something true because the president said so? Is it true because your rabbi said so? Is it true because you were taught it in school? Is it true because it is useful to you? Is it true because it's provably the way things really are? (Better not go with that one, or not much is going to be true!)
Tuesday - January 24, 2006
Who Are The Media?
When you think about "the media," you typically think about the channels that you see the cable networks, the movies, the newspapers, the CDs, the magazine, etc. These links take you to the corporate side of the media business rather than the entertainment/news side. (Today's entry is being posted specifically for my Intro to Mass Comm students, but the rest of you might find it interesting as well. Remember, the primary purspose of this blog is to assist in teaching journalism and mass comm classes.)
- Who Owns What
Want an up-to-date list of what all of the major media companies own or control? Columbia Journalism Review’s Who Owns What site is perhaps the most informative of the group, giving detailed, up-to-date information about the top six media companies, and many of the slightly smaller ones as well.
- Time Warner
You know the various Time Warner media sites, but here is the company’s corporate site. This site contains a mixture of corporate news, financial data, and previews of upcoming Time Warner products.
Go beyond Mickey Mouse for the inside look at the Disney Corporation. Disney is somewhat unusual in that it doesn’t separate it’s corporate site from it’s content promotion site, though Disney as a brand is much more significant and known to the public than any of the other major media companies. Disney has an well-developed internship program that many business and journalism majors will be interested in.
- Viacom & CBS
Get the latest on the business side of MTV and Nickelodeon. Along with the standard business information, there is a fascinating page here that gives a graphic links to all of the Viacom properties. It provides a wonderful illustration of the range of media controlled by one company. Viacom and CBS are now trading as separate stocks, though the ownership of the companies hasn't really changed.
Chances are very good that most of you will not be familiar with Bertelsmann as a company, though you have probably heard of the BMG recording label.
- News Corporation
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is truly global in scope, as the brand logos on the News Corp. homepage so clearly illustrate. The News Corporation site has links to the company’s various properties ranging from the racy London tabloid the Sun (Check out Page 3 on the Sun if you're curious; I won't give you the link.), to the Fox broadcasting services.
- General Electric/NBC-Universal
The merger of NBC and Universal under ownership of GE was completed in 2004. This makes NBC the last of the Big Four networks to be associated with a major movie studio/content provider. But General Electric is much more than just a media corporation.
Friday - January 20, 2006
Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)
- When Will Schools Learn That They Can't Control What Students Want To Publish?
High schools have always had an urge to control what students publish in yearbooks and student newspapers, and since the Hazelwood decision, teachers and principles have had pretty much a blank check to censor whatever they want. But now students can bypass traditional means of publishing and simply post their ideas to the Internet through sites such as Xanga, MySpace, and LiveJournal. Schools are still trying to find a way to get students to stop posting materials administrators find offensive. How so last century of them! (Seriously, students may well be posting unwise material, but I don't see how anyone is going to stop them.) (Washington Post)
- When Is Nonfiction Fiction and Fiction Nonfiction?
So everyone in the literary nonfiction world is all aflutter over whether Million Little Pieces is true, and whether memoirs need to correspond to the actual facts that took place. But the latest Oprah book club selection raises the opposite question -- Can a book be labeled a novel and really be a truthful memoir? That's the question raised in this AP story from the Washington Post.
Oddly enough, book critic Adam Kirsch gives an answer to this question in a completely separate story from NPR's On the Media. Kirsch says that in the past, young writers made names for themselves by writing autobiographical novels that were actually thinly disguised memoirs. But since they described their books as novels, they were free to depart from the facts as much as they pleased. But in the last decade, young writers have started selling these same style of stories as true memoirs rather than as novels. Very interesting reading.
Wednesday - January 18, 2006
- Have You No Sense of Decency? Dept. - Protesters, Funerals, and the Press
- Can Protesters Be Banned From Picketing Funerals?
Illinois is considering a law that would ban demonstrations outside of funerals to keep groups from disrupting them. But would they be constitutional? The Associated Press quotes Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn as saying, "It is not right, it is not legal, it is not constitutional for any person to disrupt a funeral." Which at first glance sounds reasonable, but read the article from the First Amendment Center to see some other thoughts on the topic.
I bring this question up because of the loathsome protests conducted by a Kansas based group outside of the funeral for the fallen miners from the Sago disaster earlier this week. My thoughts were not so much that the protests should/could be banned, but rather whether the press should refuse to give publicity to these groups. I'm still not sure what I think about it.
My initial research on the topic shows that this law, and similar ones, are being passed largely as a response to a single group. The problem is that there are legitimate groups that might want to protest outside of a funeral. For example, a city could easily want to shut down a protest about police brutality that is staged around the funeral of a victim of a police shooting. Who would be protected here? The victim's family or the city? Are there alternatives to banning these protests?
- How Should The Press Cover High-Profile Funerals?
The presence of the press at funerals that lots of people are interested in can be disruptive, but they can also help people make sense out of troubling situations. In the case of the funeral for Sago miner Jerry Groves, the family invited the Associated Press to attend and cover the funeral. (Daily Mail)
Tuesday - January 17, 2006
- Wedding Crashers Explain What's Wrong With The Movie Industry Today
One issue that's received extensive coverage here over the last year is why Hollywood is in a long-term box office decline. As I mentioned, there have been charges that too many liberals are making movies, DVDs come out too soon, and there's too much file sharing.
But a recent interview with the team who wrote the raunchy comedy Wedding Crashers suggests that it is a failure of nerve that is afflicting the box office, not inappropriate content/DVDs/file sharing. The writers point out that they had to really push to keep Wedding Crashers R-rated rather than taming it down to the more marketing-correct PG-13. And I find this notion really disturbing. Because let's face it: the movie is still going to be pretty rude at PG-13, but it will then be readily available to teens. But if it is R, it is - at least in the theaters - limited to marginal adults. The gamble paid off, with Crashers being a huge summer hit.
Authors Steve Faber and Bob Fisher explain why they wanted it to be R-rated, along with how the movie is about class conflict and is actually a tribute to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. They also noted that the audience skewed much older and more female than anyone had expected. I was astounded by this interview from KCRW's wonderful interview show The Treatment and urge you to listen to either the streaming content (linked to above) or the podcast.
As a side issue, I've heard charges of how Brokeback Mountain is the critics' darling but is bombing at the box office. Funny, a movie that cost $14 million to make and has brought it $32 million so far to date is not a bomb. Do I think it will cross $100 million boundary often used to describe a monster hit? Probably not. But my economics classes taught me it's not the gross that matters, it's the return on investment. Most producers would love to see box office at 200 percent of production costs.
Friday - January 13, 2006
- When a True Story Isn't So True
Some thoughts from guest blogger John Temple, my colleague and the author of the non-fiction book Deadhouse.
When Michael Finkel’s book “True Story” was published last year, I made regular trips to the bookstore and read it piecemeal for free.
I was captivated by the (allegedly) nonfiction account of how Finkel made up parts of a major New York Times feature story. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually buy the book and enjoy it at home. I didn’t want to be partially responsible for helping Finkel land on the bestseller lists.
I shouldn’t have worried.
While “True Story” garnered some good reviews and sold much better than recent books by other fabricators like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, it never quite caught the wave. I know this because I checked the bestseller lists each week and occasionally even peeked at the book’s Amazon rating.
The average reader may not be too exacting about how nonfiction is put together, but journalists are positively obsessed with fabricators like Blair and Finkel. I’m obviously no exception. With each new scandal, commentators always point out that the readers are being cheated, but I don’t think that’s why these cases get so much press. It’s because the journalists feel cheated.
Nonfiction writers, especially those who study and practice narrative techniques, understand that their hole card is veracity. Even with rough edges, nonfiction can be gripping. Characters can be a little fuzzy. The narrative arc can be imperfect. And oddly, stories that would seem implausible as fiction often read wonderfully as nonfiction.
Readers often forgive the flaws and read on because it’s a true story. But those two words carry a steep price for a nonfiction writer, because real life cannot be sewn up as perfectly as fiction. That’s why journalists who have sweated to confirm the most minor of facts take it personally when other nonfiction writers don’t do the same.
Now there’s a new case, with one notable difference. James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” is no journalist. His bestselling book is a memoir, yet another “harrowing” story of drug abuse, crime and recovery, written in a dashing style that borrows heavily from Kerouac. But it was billed as a work of nonfiction, which landed Frey in hot water this week when a lengthy investigation by TheSmokingGun turned up numerous alleged inaccuracies.
Frey, who portrays himself in the book as a crack-addicted desperado, seems to have been more of a typical college boy with a life story hardly suited for publication. According to TheSmokingGun, Frey “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw ‘wanted in three states.’”
The New York Times, perhaps smarting from the back-to-back Finkel and Blair scandals, jumped on the Frey case this week, devoting several top stories and an editorial to it. The Times’ Jan. 11 story contained the standard justification from memoirists and their agents, editors and publishers (and anyone else like Oprah Winfrey, who defended her book-club fave this week who stands to gain from such work):
"Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence," said a statement issued by Doubleday and Anchor Books, the divisions of Random House Inc. that published the book in hardcover and paperback, respectively. "By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections.” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2006
True to his recollections? So the theory is that Frey remembers highly detailed and dramatic anecdotes from a three-month jail stint, though the evidence indicates he spent almost no time in behind bars. Frey also “remembers” punching cops during a lurid arrest, when the actual police report describes him as “polite and cooperative at all times.”
Great things can be done when writers blend fact and fiction. But as someone who struggles to verify the smallest details in my own work, I resent it when such writers unfairly benefit from the power of nonfiction. Writers should acknowledge any blending of fact and fiction in author’s notes, and perhaps bookstores should have a section devoted to books “inspired by real events.” But I’m not holding my breath.
Coincidentally, Brad Pitt’s production company is reportedly producing the movie adaptations of both “True Story” and “A Million Little Pieces.” I won’t see either one unless I find a way to sneak into the theater for free.
Wednesday - January 11, 2006
- The Long Tail of File Sharing
File sharing is generally seen by the public as those meddling kids sharing stealing liberating rock and pop music so they don't have to pay for it. Most of the media coverage tends to deal with the RIAA lawsuits against young people trading recent big hits, with the occasional story about indie musicians who thrive through promoting their music over the Internet while they make money by touring.
But a story from NPR's All Things Considered takes a long-tail look at file sharing. Put away all the talk of teens, Britney, and profits. What about the 70 percent of all recordings made before 1965 that can't legally be purchased anywhere. Does that music and talk have to just disappear? According to Joel Rose's excellent story, many of these vintage recordings can't ever be reissued because it would be impossible to track down who owns the rights to the recordings. And since copyright law has now been written to essentially keep anything with potential economic value from ever passing into the public domain, almost the only way you can put archives of this content on the Internet is by breaking the law. (It's actually quite complicated, and if you are really interested in the issues involved, take a loot at this LOC publication.) Apparently many collectors of vintage recordings used the old peer-to-peer file sharing services to swap these old recordings.
Do yourself a favor - take the time to listen to the audio version of the story, don't just go for the print version. Lots of great vintage recordings!
Tuesday - January 10, 2006
Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)
- How Ugly Is Internet Rhetoric About The Media Today?
Jay Rosen started off Friday with a provocative post on what went wrong with press coverage of Sago. The post, by Saturday night, had more than 200 follow up remarks, many by prominent bloggers. And it is an out-and-out flame war about how biased the press is. Folks, this is insane. There are a dozen people dead here in West Virginia, and somehow the blogosphere manages to turn it into a loathsome diatribe against the big bad liberal media.
UPDATE: Please don't read this as a critique of Prof. Rosen. I've been very impressed with his posts on the mine disaster. My complaints are with the people who have turned the debate on press coverage of Sago into one more red/blue slugfest.
- What's Wrong With The Term MSM?
The Daily Kos takes a look at how bloggers have become mainstream and use the terms MSM as a quick and dirty way to simply dismiss traditional news media. Must read. (Thanks to Howard Kurtz's Media Notes for the link.)
- Why Do I Like Columnist Kathleen Parker?
Aside from the fact that she is charming in person, I like columnist Kathleen Parker because she writes columns like this one on the importance of civility in debate over public issues.
- Why do I Think The National Press Was Insensitive in Their Coverage of Sago?
Despite the fact that I complain above about ugly rhetoric on the Internet, I got a thoughtful note from Ronald E. George, news adviser to The Battalion at Texas A&M, about my first entry on the Sago Mine disaster. He writes:
I appreciate your critique of press performance regarding the Sago mine disaster, and yes, who would not agree that rushing to print the rumor of a miracle [was wrong]. I do not see, however, how this relates to your suggestion that the national press was insensitive to this being “a story about real people with real losses.” Nothing in your critique supports the conclusion that journalists at the scene were indifferent to the gravity and meaning of this catastrophe.
Ron is correct that I didn't develop that point particularly well, and it would have been good for me to do so. I think what happens is that when the cable news networks go wall-to-wall with a story, they tend to lose sight of the people involved. It's easy to start viewing an event in dramatic terms rather than human terms. In the days that have followed the disaster, I think many journalists have sat back, breathed, and thought about what went wrong. As I said on a local news issue program over the weekend, I think the journalists had their hearts in the right place; they just lost sight of what and who the story really was about.
- How Can You Get A Proper Cappuccino At Starbucks?
I know this isn't really a media issue, but journalists drink a lot of coffee, right? Besides, it deals with my biggest pet peeve - how do you get a cappuccino with enough espresso and not too much milk. (I know, get a life....) Actually, this problem is common to many coffee shops, not just Starbucks. I hit three shops in the local area, and only Jay's Daily Grind serves up a cappuccino that I don't have to special order. (Though most of the folks at the local Panera know what I drink and have it ready by the time I reach the counter.)
Friday - January 6, 2006
More Thoughts on the Sago Mine Coverage
Watch for updates throughout the day.
- Coverage of Mine Safety
In my entry yesterday, I suggested that the national press corps could do a better job of covering safety issues relating to coal mines. It seemed to me that the only time the press outside of Appalachia looked at the issue was when miners died. So rather than just pontificate, I decided to take a look at Lexis-Nexis.
Here's the search strategy for those of you who want to play along at home. For 2005, I looked for stories in major newspapers that mentioned mine safety and coal within 10 words of each other, and didn't mention China. (China has had a huge number of mine disasters, and most of the stories you'll find on Lexis-Nexis without that exclusion deal with China.)
The search yielded 17 stories. If you exclude stories from foreign papers, you're left with eight stories. One of these dealt with limits on Christmas lights in a coal mining town in Maryland. That leaves seven. Three of them were from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a major daily in the heart of coal country. That leaves 4 stories on coal mine safety in major newspapers in 2004.
A search of West Virginia media, on the other hand, shows 70 stories on the topic ran. All of these are from the Charleston Gazette or the AP. (The Charleston Daily Mail isn't included in the Lexis-Nexis archives.)
Now I would fully expect there to be much more coverage of mine safety in West Virginia than in that nation at large, but only four stories?
For the sake of completeness, there have been 30 stories run in major newspapers that meet these search criteria in the last week, of which 2 came from foreign papers, for a total of 28.
- CJR Daily - "If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check It Out"
Gal Beckerman points out that the mistakes the press made were understandable, but they need to be ready and willing to admit that they made mistakes.
- Jay Rosen - "Today we fell short." vs. "I'm not seeing any obvious missteps."
A great round up of explanations from newspapers of what went wrong with coverage of Sago. Prof. Rosen gives examples of good and bad apologies. His commentary reminds me of an old joke:
Mother: "Tell your sister you're sorry you called her stupid."
Brother: "Sister, I'm sorry you're stupid."
- Sago Disaster Has Wikipedia Entry
I continue to find myself amazed at how quickly things change in the media world. There is already a massive Wikipedia entry complete with chemical diagrams outlining what may have caused the explosion and screen captures of the botched news coverage from Tuesday night / Wednesday morning. As of this writing, there is also an extensive political analysis of the cause of the accident. Why does this matter? Because once the initial flurry of stories passes, this will be one of the lasting sources students will go to first for information about this event.
Thursday - January 5, 2006
What Went Wrong With Reporting on the West Virginia Mine Disaster
I live in Morgantown, WV, and for the last few days it has been the epicenter of round-the-clock coverage of the Sago mine disaster. For those of us who live here, this is not a made-for-television saga, this is a hometown story. Our friends and neighbors are coal miners. We are not far from where the nine Quecreek miners managed to survive being trapped underground in 2002.
So let me start by saying that journalists, especially those in the national press corps, need to remember that this is a story about real people with real losses. This is not an opportunity to feed the beast with compelling stories - this is a story about the worst thing people can imagine.
As most of you no doubt know at this point, an explosion early Monday trapped 13 miners deep below ground in the Sago Mine. About 9 p.m. Tuesday, the first body was discovered in the mine, according to a timeline in Thursday's Washington Post. At 11:45 p.m., one miner was found alive more than 2 miles into the tunnel.
At this point, things started to get confusing. According to the Post, at 12:18 a.m. the rescue command center heard a report from a rescue worker that 12 miners were found alive. Apparently this early report was overheard and spread instantly through a crowd that had been praying for a miracle. Church bells started ringing. People started crying, singing, cheering. According to the Charleston Daily Mail, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin had come out to the mine to wait with family members, and says that he asked for confirmation of the good news. Although he didn't get the confirmation, Manchin said he was quickly caught up by the joyous mood: ""[W]e went out with the people and they said, ‘They found them.' We got swept up in this celebration. I said, ‘The miracle of all miracles has happened.' "
Now there would seem to be some level of official confirmation, if the governor was making a comment.
But within the next half hour, reports started coming into the command center that only one miner was alive - reports that were not passed on to families or the press until nearly 3 a.m.
Now if you have ever worked in the newspaper business, you know that morning papers, such as the Charleston Gazette, start going to press around midnight (if not a little earlier). Newspapers have to make really tough calls on a breaking story, and unlike television, they leave a permanent reminder of the times they get it wrong.
For example, the Gazette had the headline "Twelve Alive!" in its early edition, something that was corrected in the final edition.
Matthew Thompson, writing in the Daily Mail, gives a good sample of how the story progressed throughout the night, going from jubilation to tragedy. (This link is to the second page of the story.)
National papers were every bit as likely to have had problems with the story as were local papers. USA Today , with perhaps the best national distribution, devoted third of the front page to the rescue story on Wednesday. On Thursday, this was followed by a pretty intense look at how the story was botched.
I should note here that the Daily Mail is an afternoon paper, and hence did not get caught in the same time trap that hurt so many morning papers. According to industry newsweekly Editor & Publisher, the Inter-Mountain, an 11,000 circulation afternoon daily out of Elkins, WV, managed to get the story right, not only its print edition, but also on its web site. E&P quotes Inter-Mountain editor Linda Skidmore as saying:
"I feel lucky that we are an afternoon paper and we have the staff that we do. We had a reporter there all night at the scene and I was on the phone with her the whole time."
"I was on the phone with her and I was hearing things on CNN and FOX that she was not hearing there," Skidmore said about reporter Becky Wagoner. "She heard that the miners were alive just before it was broadcast, around midnight. She talked about hearing church bells ringing and people yelling in jubilation--but nothing official."
Wagoner, a seven-year veteran of the paper, told E&P she had been covering the story since it broke Monday, and took a photograph at the site that was widely carried by national news outlets. She said rumors about the miners being found alive began circulating at 11:00 p.m. last night, with broadcast reports beginning at about midnight. "We heard that they were found alive through CNN, then it snowballed to ABC, then FOX and it was like a house afire," recalled Wagoner, who said she was at the media information center set up by the mine's operators, International Coal Group Inc., when the reports spread.
"A lot of the media left to go to the church where family members were located, but I stayed put because this was where every official news conference was given--and we never got anything official here," she said. "Something was not right. Then we were hearing reports that 12 ambulances had gone in [to the mine area] but only one was coming out. There was so much hype that no one considered the fact that there was no [official] update."
For myself, I went to bed Tuesday night with reports on the Internet announcing that the miners had been found alive. When I sat down to breakfast and my local paper on Wednesday morning, though, I knew immediately that something was off with the story. The report from the AP read:
Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members and Gov. Joe Manchin III said.
Bells at a church where relatives had been gathering rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation.
Relatives yelled, "They're alive!"
Manchin said rescuers told him the miners were found.
"They told us they have 12 alive," Manchin said. "We have some people that are going to need some medical attention."
A few minutes after word came, the throng, several hundred strong, broke into a chorus of the hymn "How Great Thou Art," in a chilly, night air.
How could a reader tell there were problems with the story?
- There were no official sources cited, other than the governor.
- When the governor made his statement, he noted "They told us..." Not a name, "they."
- Later on the story said, "The company did not immediately confirm the news."
- There were no details on condition or where the miners were found.
In short, the story read like it was passing along second-hand accounts. When I went back to the Internet to see the latest updates, all the bad news was there.
How did the press go so wrong with this story?
- There was the understandable problem of midnight deadlines. It's very difficult to handle a breaking story under these circumstances. But news organizations certainly could have been clearer on the unconfirmed nature of the reports.
- News organizations have gotten way too comfortable passing on unconfirmed stories that originate in the realm of blogs and rumors. No longer do stories have to be true, it just has to be true that the story is out there. When we are dealing with rumors about misconduct by politicians whose reality is more subject to interpretation, perhaps this is ok (though I don't really think so). But when we are talking about the lives or ordinary people, this just doesn't cut it.
- The facts of the news just didn't match the story reporters were looking for. Everyone was looking for a "miracle story" where everyone would be rescued and everything would turn out fine. Unfortunately, that wasn't the story reporters found.
So what now can journalists do to atone for our sins? I would say that the press, especially the press outside of West Virginia, needs to do a much better job of talking about mine safety standards and enforcement. It's not nearly as easy or as much fun to write about as the latest snarky scandal out of DC, but it needs to be done. We've already started to see some of this. Let's hope that the press doesn't forget this lesson quickly. The people of West Virginia will not.
Tuesday - January 3, 2006
Top 10 Media World Stories for 2005
Over the last year, I've written more than 100 pages of blog entries. Here are the top 10 topics I've covered during 2005:
Clearly I spent more time on this story than anything else this year. And while it's turned out differently than anyone might have expected, it clearly was the big battle of the year over press rights and responsibilities.
Then, of course, there was also the celebrated Plamegate: The Opera, complete with poster and mention at Wonkette.
- Hurricane Katrina
A lot of debate took place over how the federal, state and local governments responded to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This archive looks at the issues surrounding media coverage of these conflicts from September through December. Take a look at the top entry, which looks back at what we've learned about the press and disasters in retrospect.
- Selling Television Shows Directly To Consumers
No, the iPod video is not one of the top 10 media stories of the year, though the device is undeniably cool. But the idea of selling popular television shows directly to consumers the day after they air without commercials is a mammoth change in the media world and qualifies, I think, as an aftershock of Ken Auletta's "earthquake in slow motion."
- War on the "Liberal Media"
Regardless of the actual liberalness or conservativeness of the mainstream (or any other) media, there is undoubtedly a war on the "liberal media" by people who want to promote "conservative" values. (Good heavens, during the whole fuss over Harriet Miers, Laura Bush was accused of being a pawn of the liberal media!) And there was the whole "War on Christmas" front as well.
Interestingly enough, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, said he has not complained about the "liberal media" because he feels the media is "less liberal than it is oppositional."
I would hold that there is no question that the costal media, conservative or liberal, do not understand the rural states between the coasts. And that's why I liked this story about a midwest-born reporter traveling through the red states.
I would also hold that we have some very good media out there that do an excellent job of trying to report what is actually news and not just hit some mythical "balance.
- Buying Coverage
Newsmakers and advertisers have been buying positive coverage for themselves this year in ways that audiences aren't being told about -- record companies did it, politicians did it, bloggers and columnists did it. Advertisers bought their way into the plots of movies, the lyrics of raps, and even into videogames.
- Why We Still Need MSM
With all the fuss over bloggers and new media, we still need the mainstream media, and need to be careful before we get to high-and-mighty about how MSM are so-last-century.
Journalists continue to be willing give their lives to get stories for newspapers and broadcast organizations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 47 journalists died world-wide in pursuit of stories, and 11 more died under suspicious circumstances. This is up from 17 the year before.
The Washington Post's Dana Priest gave us at least two big stories on potential abuses of power that show what reporters can do when they are serving as watchdogs rather than lapdogs.
Even the beleaguered NY Times had a great story on an Ebola outbreak in Africa that you won't see reported on in many blogs.
Of course, the MSM are still quite capable of suffering from the same problems as bloggers do....
- What's Wrong With Hollywood?
According to movie critic Michael Medved, the problem is that Hollywood is too liberal. Funny.... I thought the problem was that they weren't making movies people wanted to pay money to see. I mean, look at what did well. The wonderful March of the Penguins clobbered the banal Stealth and turned a much better return on investment than Dukes of Hazard.
A second, more likely, argument is that movies are now moving much faster from the theaters to DVD. And then there's always file sharing, though if you really care about a movie, you don't want to watch one of those downloaded abominations.
When Hollywood remembers why people go to the movies, they seem to do a lot better. (This is not saying that they go to see great movies. Cheapie, exploitative horror flix are some of the most successful movies, at least in terms of profit.) This Christmas brought about a number of successful movies - Harry Potter, the Johnny Cash biopic, and Narnia. Jury's still out on the Big Monkey.
- Deep Throat
In June, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein confirmed Tuesday that W. Mark Felt, the former #2 person at the FBI, was "Deep Throat." Deep Throat was the secret source who provided guidance and background to the two reporters as they worked the Watergate story in the early 1970s. Two days worth of extensive coverage of the conclusion of the story that sent many of my generation to journalism school.
- Dead or Missing White Women
Why is it that when something happens to a white woman, especially a white, middle-to-upper class woman, its all over the news for weeks at a time, and when a woman of color disappears, it barely rates a mention?
- Growth of Podcasting
Podcasting made it into the Oxford English Dictionary this year and made it onto a Washington Post list of topics that are already "out." But podcasting is much more than a quickie fad It's part of a whole new industry trend known as long-tail media. (And if I were doing more than 10 items on this list, the long tail would have easily made the top 15.)
Also, here's the MSM version of my podcast commentary.