former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘CNN’

Tweets can be verbal shrapnel in war zones

In Blog, Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

I know, I know. Journalism is the first draft of history. But even first drafts will profit from a little scrutiny. Which is one of the conclusions I drew after listening to Folkenflik’s thoughtful piece on covering the conflict in Gaza.

His story made the point that anyone who ventures into reporting on Mideast politics is likely to get criticized, with every nuance and word choice scrutinized for bias.

That’s unfair, if unavoidable. But reporters are adults, and provided they have responsible editors to support them when the charges of bias are not justified, the attacks are part of the job.

But there’s a new wrinkle, and this one is more troubling. Journalists are tweeting from war zones and protests in real time. That’s a recipe for disaster. Not because what they tweet will not be the truth, but because the recounting of what you see and hear is far different from tweeting what happened to you as it happens, and your gut feelings about it.

So CNN likely was right to reassign a reporter who tweeted that Israelis who harassed her while she was observing their cheers when missiles were lobbed at Gaza were “scum.” That’s not reporting, that’s what you tell your mother and spouse in private emails. And although she later apologized and said her term only applied to the people harassing her, the damage had been done. Tweets can be verbal shrapnel, and they can easily leave holes in reporter’s reputation for objectivity.

If anyone wants to know how you cover conflicts in which you are immersed and possibly injured, I refer you to former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor. Taylor, who is profiled in my book, reported from South Africa in times of great violence and riots, before the country’s transition from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He managed to be shot in a black township, to be beaten up by an angry white mob, and to be kidnapped by Angolan rebels.

And yet not once, in all that coverage, did Taylor lose his professional demeanor, or his interest in seeing the world from the point of view of others. For example, in a story for the Post, He described the Angolan soldier, Mateus, as “an obliging eager-to-please true believer.” That’s quite remarkable since Mateus was one of the gunmen who had riddled his car with bullets and then took him captive.

If I were an editor or head of network news, I’d issue an order to all reporters in conflict zones: Don’t tweet. Great reporting happened before twitter was invented, and the first draft of history doesn’t have to appear the minute after it happens.

Reporting It Right, The First Time

In Blog on May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Boston Marathon bombings reminded us of the perils of real-time reporting.  Live tweeting, streaming news coverage and instant punditry all seemed to conspire together to confound and confuse.

In this age of nearly instant communication, there were instant and inaccurate reports, about the number of dead, the progress of the investigation, and the suspects.  The New York Post did everything but declare two teens in the crowd to be the perpetrators, circling their faces in red, on a cover photo titled “Bag Men.”   Other media outlets breathlessly told us that a Saudi man might be sought in the case, also wrong. We were even told that a suspect was arrested when no arrest had been made.

Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi isn’t bothered by fast-breaking news containing mistakes.  He wrote that in a media environment where events happen, and are reported, in real time, errors are inevitable, and don’t matter as much as they used to.   Farhi cites Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who observed that technology greatly speeds up the correction of initial misinformation, and thus errors matter less.

That seems like a rather weak defense.  If news outlets want to be taken seriously, the major value they bring to the table is that they report verified facts, not unverified assertions or speculation.  If CNN isn’t better than the Twitterverse, why does it exist?  If the chances of my receiving credible fact-based information aren’t improved if I pick up a newspaper rather than search for reports in the blogosphere, why should I bother with any mainstream news outlet?  Indeed, Farhi ends his column with another observation from Jurkowitz, who notes that mistakes damage the credibility of the news media as a whole, even when the public fails to distinguish media outlets that report the facts from those that are more lax.

The New York Times’ David Carr got it right when he noted that accuracy is something that the American public ought to expect, and get, from its news media.  If journalists merely regurgitate what they hear, anyone can do their job.

And despite our obsession with knowing everything in real time, we also look to mainstream media outlets for validation of what we learned, and – to some extent – the kind of power and beauty that words can impart to terrible events.  The day after the bombings, I picked up The New York Times, and came close to tears when I read the first sentence of its main story.  Listen to its cadence, the somber measured tone of the words, the restraint.

Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring more than 100, as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams and carnage.

Journalism is not just about reporting what happened.  A journalist bears witness to terrible events, and in the bearing witness, brings some order into chaos.

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CNN and The New York Times: How Committed To Good Journalism?

In Blog on January 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I don’t know which is sadder – the fact that CNN decided to outsource much of its investigative reporting last May, or that the event largely escaped notice until The Daily Show publicized it last week. CNN is such a shadow of itself, I’m not sure how big an audience there is for its investigative reports, or what real impact they have on the world. Nevertheless, anytime investigative reporters lose full-time jobs, that’s not good news.

 

Being outdone by a fictional news show isn’t great either.

And while The New York Times isn’t laying off any environmental reporters, the fact that the paper announced this month that it would disband its environment desk also raised concerns about the paper’s continuing commitment to covering the environment. As I wrote in my blog for the Union of Concerned Scientists, I can’t say I find The Times’ explanation for axing the specialized desk of reporters and editors very convincing.