Sunday, December 05, 2004

Chest-thumping and Watch-dogging

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that on the day after the shooting incident up north, a couple guys from a local radio station and a news anchor from a local television station had an on-air argument about who took the best approach to reporting on the incident. Now Doug Mell, the managing editor of one of the local newspapers jumps into the fray. (Registration required, but you know about BugMeNot, right?)
The performance of an Eau Claire radio outlet has been called into question over how its reporters handled the Nov. 21 murders of six hunters in Sawyer County.

Shortly after Chai Soua Vang shot up the woods near the Barron/Sawyer County border, news tips started to flood into media outlets, including the offices of WAXX-FM and WAYY-AM, owned by Maverick Media in Eau Claire.

Radio station employees contend they did a wonderful job updating the public. WAYY’s program director, Bruce Butler, hit the airwaves early Nov. 22 to thump his chest over his company’s performance.

“We had the story first, and we were able to provide reliably sourced information about event, and what we said was true,” Butler told the Leader-Telegram last week.

Well, not exactly.

WAXX reported that up to 12 people had been killed (five died on Nov. 21 and one on Nov. 22). The station, which has a signal that covers a large part of northern Wisconsin, also said the subject was at large in a green pickup truck (Vang was on foot when he was captured by a game warden).

Butler said the station issued disclaimers that some of its reporting came from the field and wasn’t independently verified.

That’s the problem: In the news business, it is imperative a radio or television station, or a newspaper, report only what its reporters and editors know for sure, not what it has gotten second hand from the public.

It’s a disservice to report rumors because the public will be stirred up needlessly. It is the job of journalists, even in times of crisis, to report facts and not rumors.

Mell is exactly right. I heard the chest-thumping on WAYY that morning. These guys felt it was important that they report something--anything--just to let people know that there was something going on, and they criticized WEAU-TV for not breaking into regular programming to alert their viewers.

Well for one thing, if you lived in the "danger zone" that day, you didn't need the radio or the television station to know that something was going on. If all the helicopters and ambulances didn't tip you off, the police officers driving around with loudspeakers telling hunters to get out of the woods and alerting locals to lock their doors probably did.

So, as I said at the time, I think WAYY exaggerated its role in the incident.

Not to be outdone in the chest-thumping department, however, Doug Mell adds this:
Despite the competition, [the Leader-Telegram] published some information first. We were able to report the names of the first five deceased hunters Monday well before authorities officially released them. Later in the week we published an interview with the first hunter who came across Vang in the woods after the shooting spree.

I don't know. Is that something to brag about; that you released the names before the authorities did?

Mell closes his piece with a reference to the new media revolution.
Outside forces constantly are pushing on how journalists practice their craft. The Internet, for example, means people can have even more immediate access to news than what radio and television stations often provide.

But in the rush to be first it is important to remember the credibility of the media — the public tends to lump broadcast and newspapers together in one big heap — is on the line with each and every story. Reporting wild rumors in a time of crisis does permanent harm to that credibility.

He's right. We do tend to lump broadcast--both radio and television--and newspapers together under the umbrella of "Mainstream News Media." That's because they feed off each other so much, particularly in a small market like this one. And all three in this market rely heavily on wire reports for state, national and international news. So I don't think it's unfair to lump them together.

He's also right in that the internet does provide pressure on the news media. But often it's the best kind of pressure: the pressure to get it right.

The figureheads of the mainstream news media don't like this "free-lance accountability." Consider the advice of outgoing NBC anchor Tom Brokaw to his replacement, Brian Williams.
"Put your head down and do the work, and don't read the many media critics who will be out there with commentary and criticism in the beginning. Your compact is not with them but with the audience."

And what does Brian Williams think about internet critics?
When a fellow panelist mentioned that bloggers had had a big impact on the reporting on Election Day, Williams waved that point away by quipping that the self-styled journalists are "on an equal footing with someone in a bathroom with a modem."

So really, it doesn't appear that we're going to see much of an improvement over at NBC.

On the other hand, Tony Snow thinks that the changing of the old guard presents a great opportunity.
As a result of his leaving and Brokaw’s opportunistic escape, the news business has entered a Wild West phase – a time of riotous experimentation and no-holds-barred competition. This is a good thing, because journalists have lived too long in a bubble of their own connivance and design. . . .

Brokaw, Rather, Jennings and other old lions know a new age is coming, and so they’re muttering a bit as they leave the stage. Who can blame them? The world in which they acquired wealth and celebrity has crumbled with startling speed. A new order has arisen. Journalism, no longer a redoubt of the illuminati, has become a vessel of grubby democracy. Anybody – literally, anybody – can play these days. They can insert their views in a weblog. They can call talk radio. Eccentric plutocrats, such as George Soros, get to spend bundles on advertisements in any and all media.

But Bill, Dan, Dave and Tom haven’t fallen prey to a predatory press. They have become the latest generation to realize that history did not commence with them and will not pause to prevent their passing. Don’t weep for them: They have enjoyed a splendid ride. They have been to the journalistic mountaintop, and then some; virtually any one of us would love to have been fortunate enough even to tag along for part of their journeys.

Yet, now the fun comes to people like you and me – for it is our opportunity and obligation to make the press smarter, humbler, and fairer than ever before.

I’m game for the challenge. How about you?

(Yes, Tony Snow has a blog.)

The mainstream news media hasn't shown itself to be all that open to criticism by the pajama-clad. Dan Rather may have left CBS Nightly News, but he's going to 60 Minutes. That's no improvement.
But I'm game for the challenge as well.


Post a Comment

<< Home