MSM: Do Your Job!
So we’ve discussed the market forces which have co-opted the role of Journalism; the proud history of those called to fill that role; and we’ve named some of the dwindling number of those still answering the call. With the understanding of what’s driven the general decline in the efficacy of our media, we can begin to think about where we go from here and how to get there; the “What You Can Do About It” part of this series’s title, “Why The Mainstream Media Suck – And What You Can Do About It.”
The skeptics out there are already thinking, “Nothing. That’s what I can do. Zip.”
Not so fast.
Despite the seismic shift in the press’s effectiveness and accountability, there is plenty each of us can do to help make things better. These range from steps we can take as individuals to broader efforts which will – and in many cases already are – returning the press’s attention to its real job: Exposing fraud, crime, abuse and violations of human rights wherever they occur.
This installment focuses on those individual efforts, providing activists with ideas and information to help hold existing media accountable.
I’ve been a working journalist for much of my life, beginning before I was eligible to vote. Though I have left that world in favor of the freedom to express my decidedly Lefty beliefs in decidedly unjournalistic (read: nonobjective) ways, that world – and my understanding of its importance – has never left me.
More than any other of our Constitutional guarantees, The First Amendment goes straight to the heart of what America is about:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
If Congress can’t limit the freedom of the press, I’ll be damned if I’ll sit helpless while some media conglomerate limits it. Whether these meg-corporations did it consciously or not, that is exactly the effect of the massive cuts to newsroom staff at corporate-owned newspapers, magazines, television and radio outlets – and more recently, the from-the-git-go understaffing of Internet news sites.
I respond to poor journalism by calling it out, and can assure you that if each of us did the same, there’d be a lot less of it. Doing so is fast, simple and most important – it is your right.
Over the years, I have assembled a wealth of contact information for everything from my local newspaper to national networks. Being somewhat old school, I have kept the info in my Rolodex. Not some “Rolodex” software on my computer, but an honest-to-God, little-cards-separated-by-alphabetic-tabs Rolodex that sits on my desktop. Not my computer desktop… well, you get the point.
Inside the Rolodex are names and numbers – the numbers being the key things, because the names change all the time – for places like NPR in Washington DC (202-513-2000); the NBC News Desk in New York (212-664-4971); my local paper’s newsroom; The Washington Post‘s National Desk (202-334-7410); and American Journalism Review (301-405-8803), to name but a few.
When I hear, read, or see something that smacks of half-assed, trumped-up or dumbed-down reporting, I let people know about it. The trick is reaching the right people, and despite all the negative changes journalism has absorbed in the past 30 years, one thing hasn’t changed: Generally speaking, editorial staff are responsive to charges of shoddy work, provided you get those charges to people who can do something about it.
Here’s an example:
Several years ago on a Saturday evening, the FOX affiliate in Philadelphia was running a promo for that night’s ten-o’clock news. It showed a man walking on the afterdeck of a roughly 30-foot boat toward the vessel’s cabin door. Suddenly - ka-BAM! - an explosion filled the screen. The quickly clearing smoke showed no sign of the man, as the voice-over urged viewers to tune in for details on a ”frightening” mishap.
The teaser ran in the 7 o’clock hour, amidst reruns of the Simpsons. I imagined parents all over the Delaware Valley facing the same question from concerned kids: “Mommy, what happened to the man?” It was sensationalism pure and simple, and I called them on it. The promo did not air again, and that night’s newscast revealed the rest of the story: No one was hurt, and the only thing “frightening” about the mishap was the station’s willingness to play it up in an attempt to boost viewership.
In dealing with local TV affiliates, the person you want is the news producer on duty. Call the station and ask for the TV news desk (thanks to consolidated ownership, you want to make sure your call is not inadvertently routed to the radio side). Even in major markets, the producer on duty will usually answer. After confirming they are the producer, state in no uncertain terms what’s wrong with what you just saw or are watching. In the example cited, for instance, I said, “That promo you just aired is over the line. There are kids watching your station right now who think they just saw a man die. It should be pulled immediately and NOT aired again, and if I see it, I’ll be calling your boss first thing Monday morning.”
A little-known truth of the mass media is that – despite its big-corporate ownership – individuals at all levels of the food chain retain tremendous editorial power, including yes/no responsibility for what airs or gets into print. The reduction in staffs has only increased that power, and the people making decisions are often just-out-of-J-school twentysomethings who are trying to make a name for themselves. “News Producer” is a fancy name these kids are proud to bear, usually in lieu of making a decent salary. The difference between doing journalism and flipping burgers these days is slim and none (although the burger joint may offer a better health insurance plan).
We, the Editors
It is up to us – what the media conglomerates call “news consumers” (we used to be called readers, viewers, and listeners) – to hold media accountable. To the extent we do, media will generally respond. The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to think otherwise, and those in the media – largely because of understaffing – have conditioned themselves into doing as little as possible. Anybody who has done the work of three people knows just what I’m talking about.
Here, linked and followed by brief descriptions and/or tactics for using each, are just a few of the many resources helpful in fostering media accountability:
FAIR Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, a left-leaning non-profit devoted to uncovering and pointing up inaccuracies in mainstream media reporting.
FactCheck Non-partisan advocacy website. “We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding. [From FactCheck's mission statement.]”
PolitiFact Not unlike FactCheck, but different nonetheless. From the About page: “PolitiFact is a project of the St. Petersburg Times to help you find the truth in politics. Every day, reporters and researchers from the Times examine statements by members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington.”
Snopes I am a bastard when it comes to unsolicited e-mails telling me something obviously untrue. I love my family and (most of) my coworkers, but even they are not spared when they copy me some utter bullshit so thinly veiled a blind man could see through it. Snopes.com is the quintessential ally in uncovering this kind of crap. Hint: To really piss off the sender, “reply all” when pointing out the inaccuracy of their e-mail.
News Ombudsmen “Ombuddies” as the linked organization sometimes calls its members, are hired-by-the-media-outlet-yet-completely-independent liaisons between that outlet’s editorial staff and its consumers (readers, viewers, listeners). Ombuddies hold reporters, editors and producers accountable for the accuracy of – and lack of bias in – their work. Their dwindling numbers in this country are another indication of the money big media won’t spend to ensure the quality of its work.
Letters to the Editor represent your chance to be your local newspaper’s ombuddy. While you can certainly call in to your newspaper as you would your local TV or radio station to point up errors of fact, letters to the editor offer a way of publicizing poor reporting and shaming reporters and editors into doing their jobs.
Society of Professional Journalists A professional organization which established ethical standards for the practice of journalism, tracks abuses of reporters around the world, and provides resources to journalists, enabling them to work more efficiently. Like most of the organizations listed here, SPJ solicits associate memberships at very low rates, for those who may not be journalism professionals but want to support the organization’s efforts.
American Journalism Review; Columbia Journalism Review The two most widely read of their kind, AJR and CJR report on reporting for reporters, and in so doing help instill best practices into their work. For a listing of other journalism reviews around the country and the world, google “journalism review.”
Taken together, the resources listed are great for making you more media savvy – and making media itself savvy to the fact that it has a constitutional obligation to its audience.
The Code of Ethics at SPJ is great for pointing out less-than-ethical work. The journalism reviews love to hear about and explore issues of journalistic malpractice, government control of the media, and just plain stupid journalism tricks. You may even become unnerved enough by the lack of facts in some reportage to take matters into your own hands, file a FOIA request, and report your findings.
However you choose to do it, consistent use of these resources and the many others you’ll find online will make a difference. All you need is the determination to consistently be a thorn in the side of reporters, editors and producers who opt to take the easy way out.
The series wraps up in May with Part Four, Press Freedom: The Future is Now. We’ll look at new and reconstituted journalistic models ushering in a new era of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” – and what you can do to help such efforts grow and bear fruit.