Monday, April 27, 2009

Message from Michael - Personal Perspective - April 27, 2009

Message From Michael                                 

                                                                                                                        April 27, 2009                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     






A University of Georgia business professor shot and killed his wife and two others at a fundraising event for a community theater group in Athens.  My daughter is a member of the group, was at the event and saw her friends being killed.  What followed was a day in which I wondered about my role as a person, a father, and my role as a journalist.  So, this is going to be a different kind of weekly message.  An attempt to be objective, as always, but a little more personal.  If you want to hit the email delete key, I understand.  At least you’ve been warned.

Interestingly and coincidentally, my little epiphany comes after two recently released surveys about media and journalism raise questions about the public’s perception.  The annual confidence index by The Harris Poll, measuring American’s confidence in institutions, show “the press” is at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to people’s confidence.  Only 12% of the public express “a great deal of confidence” in ‘the press’ – just barely ahead of ‘major companies’ and ‘law firms’ (11%), Congress (9%) and Wall Street (4%).  As an institution, ‘television news’ scored much better than ‘the press’ with one out of five (22%) saying they have a great deal of confidence in it.  That put television news about the middle of the pack.  However, before my television brethren become overly excited about those numbers, more people (28%) said they had “hardly any confidence at all” in television news as an institution.  That’s still much better than the press which had 41% voting no confidence in them.  Both ‘institutions’ scored about the same with the public in terms of those expressing ‘only some confidence’ with roughly half (48% for television news and 46% for the press) voting that way.

I should note a caveat here.  A reminder that in the 2009 State of the News Media report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, people almost invariably have a higher opinion of the media they use, than of the media in general.  And in case you were wondering, the military scored the highest in terms of confidence level with more than half (58%) expressing a great deal of confidence in it as an institution, followed by small business (48%), major educational institutions (40%) and The White House (36%).  That last number for The White House was double the previous year’s level.  In fact that increase in confidence in the White House appears to have affected all institutions.  Television news was up six points from the previous year and the press was up a meager two points.  Only major companies and Wall Street registered declines year to year.

The other study was a survey of journalists by the Online News Association in conjunction with the Pew Research Center which found that more than half of the journalists surveyed (54%) say journalism is headed on the “wrong track” leaving less than half (45%) saying it is on the “right track.”  The journalists surveyed – most of whom were associated with websites linked to legacy media – believe the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism, and mostly for the worse.  The survey which had 300 responses out of the 1,800 members found, on the negative side, that the Internet impact was a ‘loosening of standards’ (45%) but on the positive side, the Internet was allowing for ‘more outside voices’ (31%). Although even that so-called positive had some negatives associated with it – people providing unfiltered, unverified information.  In the end the negatives of the Internet impact outweighed the positives by two to one.  The report notes that despite the fact that more than half of the online journalists believe journalism is headed on the wrong track, that is actually better than a previous survey of ‘legacy national journalists’ which found that nearly two thirds (62%) expressed pessimism about journalism’s future.

Back to my personal perspective.  Because of the fact that I had a daughter involved, as well as being a news person on the scene, I ended up being interviewed by numerous news organizations – half television and half print.  The question I am wrestling with is – am I a father whose daughter is involved in a tragic situation, and who also happens to be a journalist; or am I a journalist who happens to have a daughter involved in a tragic incident; and can you balance both. It is not an esoteric argument.  It goes to the core of what we are about.  In all the surveys, for example, the one that disturbs me most is the public perception that the news media doesn’t care about people.  This was cited as recently as the previous 2008 State of the News Media report.  I tried to balance the two.  I’m not sure I succeeded; I’m not sure I failed.  I am sure though that every journalist should be put through a real life exercise of being the subject of a news report.  On one side you have your media colleagues trying to get information out of you, as well as you yourself trying to provide your news organization with information; on the other side you have someone close to you, trying to be helpful without being hurt themselves or hurting others.  And just for good measure you have officials with your employer yelling at you for supposedly disclosing things.  This last one, while upsetting and a factor in the equation, is less of a factor except as it challenges your belief and understanding of The First Amendment.

Let me offer some pragmatic lessons.  When my daughter texted me about the incident, I contacted the people at my station, WNEG-TV, to get a crew to the scene.  Because of relationships we have with Atlanta stations, I also contacted them.  To the station that has the message on its main line to hang up if you have a news tip and dial another number – that’s dumb.  To the stations that have a lengthy form you have to submit if you want to offer a news tip – that’s dumb.  I walked away with the clear understanding that all the talk about interacting with the viewer/ reader is just that – talk.  I would suggest we all need to figure this out and figure it out fast.  To all of the producers who try to vet the subject interview (in this case, me), lower the questioning level.  Try and rely on your anchors to be semi-intelligent.  The number of stupid questions (even after the vetting process) was amazing.  To the anchors, don’t try to do an interview on air.  Try to have a conversation with another human being.  To the print reporters, get your thoughts at least semi-organized before you call someone.  The number of ums and ahs of some of them was amazing.  Candidly I can’t understand why anybody would agree to an interview.  In print because they were confused; on television because you’re grilled and passed from one person to another and then put on hold for several minutes.  As a semi-humorous side note, when I texted back to my daughter that I was sending a news crew, she responded – not surprised.

Let me also offer some general observations.  There is an old, not-so-funny line that in the television news business, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.  I have to say that I seemed to run across a number of people who were faking sincerity, both on the television and print side.  For most, I would like to believe it was an attempt to be sincere, but there were some who were obviously using well rehearsed lines.  I appreciated more the candor of the one booker who was frank and honest and didn’t put on false expressions of sympathy.  He had a job to do, and he tried to do it simply and sensitively.  I’m afraid sensitivity is not a skill we either teach or learn though in the news business.

Two final notes.  To all those friends who sent expressions of sympathy – thank you.  My daughter is coping remarkably well.  She is, after all, for better and for worse, a newsman’s daughter.  To those of you who cover such stories in the future, I want you to think of the two small children, ten and eight, of the professor and his wife.  I want you to think of the eight year old daughter of one of the other victims, who saw her father killed before her very eyes.  And I want you to think of the remarkable courage of the wife of the other victim who told the stunned group who just saw her husband killed, that they should know he died with friends at his side on a beautiful day in Athens.  In short, I want you to think of the victims who are survivors, the survivors who are victims.  And be human.       


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