The media’s coverage of low voter turnout is a self-fulfilling prophecy

dickerson columnThe Detroit Free Press’ Brian Dickerson has it mostly wrong in his recent column about why such a small percentage of voters voted in last week’s election.

People who do not vote should not be held up as “the new normal” or the people who are making the best decision because they don’t like the choices they are given. Democracy isn’t meant to be easy and freedom isn’t free. If you fail to show up and vote, you have no right to complain about who got elected. If you fail to fight and try to make a difference in the things you want to see changed, you have no right to complain that things aren’t the way you want them.

Voters today are part of a society driven by Hollywood’s and TV’s interpretation of the world, biased cable TV news networks, bloggers with no professional standards held up as real journalists, and real journalists hog-tied by shrinking budgets and corporate management intent on web clicks and social media likes instead of credibility.

Admittedly, I haven’t done any exhaustive research on this. But when you review the political coverage of the recent elections, I suspect you will find a vastly larger number of articles based on polling results that are questionable at best, a focus on who is funding candidates, reviews of what the latest blistering negative TV ads are spewing, and the supposedly campaign-ending scandals that aren’t nearly as evil as the media and election ads portray them. And, let’s not forget the large number of articles focused on how difficult it supposedly is to vote in the Unites States.

What’s missing is in-depth reporting on candidates, their credentials, the issues they care about, what they would actually do if elected and why people need to vote to have their voices heard. And the rest of the year, when electioneering isn’t driving the news coverage, it would be nice if the media reported on the day-to-day activities of elected officials. The Capitol Press Corps in Michigan has shrunk dramatically over the years, and many reporters have shied away from “process stories,” because editors (in those newsrooms where they still exist) don’t think the public will click on them. But the process is where all the interesting news happens. The final votes taken on the floor of the House and Senate are a very small part of all the work that has gone into a law being crafted. Floor speeches, while great for soundbites for a media driven by sensationalism, rarely have any real impact on how a person’s colleagues will vote. That’s because all the true debate, the hashing out of ideas, and the bipartisan compromise happened weeks and months prior in a committee process deemed “too boring” for the public to be told about.

Is it any wonder then that the public is feeling disenfranchised and wondering why they should bother to vote? Instead of being given a manual on democracy to study they are being fed the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. In an ever-growing and concerning trend, we may not even receive that version anymore but instead the equivalent of a movie trailer.

My 18-year-old daughter voted in her first general election this year. She texted me one day while reviewing her absentee ballot (provided to her because she is away at college).

“This is difficult. How do you choose? There are so many people and none of their websites make sense. The troubles of a teenage voter.”

I was so proud of her for actually doing research on the candidates and not just listening to her dad’s opinion! I responded with the best advice I could think of that wouldn’t drive her to just do what I suggested.

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy and I applaud you for trying to research the candidates!”

If only more voters cared as much as my daughter, post-Election Day news coverage wouldn’t be all about the hand wringing over low voter turn out. And if only more media outlets understood their post-Election Day news coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then we might actually get some true news coverage of government instead of sensationalistic, half-baked reports designed to increase computer clicks instead of voter intellect.

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“Breaking News” is broken

Earlier this week when Tiger Woods announced he was going to have a news conference, the media began tripping over itself to share the announcement. In breathless breaking news alerts they proclaimed “Tiger Woods to speak for first time since accident.”

OK, I highly doubt Tiger had not uttered a word since his Escalade kissed a tree. What the media should have been writing was, “Tiger Woods to speak publicly for first time since accident.”

Of course, I would have preferred they didn’t report anything about Tiger and his made-for-TV-movie life. I certainly didn’t need days of breaking news alerts about the anticipated confession. I didn’t need an analysis about what people thought he was going to say. And I really didn’t need follow-up reviews of what he said, which one news outlet proclaimed would be examined “word for word” to find out what Tiger really meant. There were even news reports popping up later concerning one of Tiger’s mistresses demanding an apology from him as well.

After seeing that “news,” I posted to Twitter and Facebook with: “Tiger cheated; he’s sorry. His tramps want more attention. In other breaking news, the Earth is round.”

The worst offense in all of this media hara kiri I have to reserve for the TV networks that decided to carry the scripted nonsense live. Daytime programming was interrupted so people could watch something that belonged on the late night talk shows — as a joke.

Not everyone in the news business was happy about the decision. My hat is off to WLNS TV 6 in Lansing, Mich., which posted this on its Facebook page:

CBS will interrupt “The Price Is Right” at 11am to bring you a special report on the Tiger Woods talk. Since this talk is happening during CBS programming, WLNS is obligated to run it. Our apologies to TPIR fans.

Good for them. It’s nice to see there is some sense of normalcy in Lansing newsrooms. I had a media acquaintance of mine put it much less delicately than TV 6 did. He told me, “It used to be Special Reports were for when a President died, not when a golfer f**ked around.”

Unfortunately, “breaking news” is broken. It’s time for news consumers to break out the duct tape and try to fix it. We need to speak up and tell the news outlets that we want news that is relevant to our lives, not press conferences that remind us of the Jerry Springer Show.

So, here’s a little help to get you started. Reach out to the major networks that force-fed us this trash. Tell them Tiger is an endangered species, and if they don’t clean up their act, they will be, too.

ABC

NBC

CBS

FOX

CNN

(Image courtesy of CBS News, which is pretty sad when you think about it.)

Top news vs. top chatter

The Pew Research Center’s New Media Index for the last week of January shows the blogosphere was more interested in a film shot by chimpanzees than President Obama’s State of the Union Address. On the flip side, it shows the State of the Union Address as the top story covered by the mainstream media. The report also shows that the iPad announcement was the number one news topic discussed on Twitter.

Unfortunately, mainstream media sources are likely to use this kind of report without any kind of analysis or context, and folks who blog and tweet are going to get painted as some kind of out-of-touch geeks again.

While I respect the Pew Center’s Excellence in Journalism project and I often find their research valuable, I can’t always agree with the evaluations of their data.

To run an apples-to-apples comparison of top subjects between mainstream media, blogs and Twitter doesn’t make sense. Those of us involved heavily in social media and blogs often think the world is running alongside us, keeping up with the latest in this new form of communication. The reality is very different though. Sure, Facebook’s numbers are through the roof and Twitter is still growing exponentially — but in the grand scheme of things, those involved in social media are still the minority in this world. Meanwhile, the mainstream press is just that: mainstream. That means folks who have never used social media or who are clueless to its power and attraction are still getting the bulk of their information from newspapers and TV. And, the news industry still adheres to keeping the masses informed with the most basic of information with the widest appeal. The State of the Union address certainly fits that bill more than Apple’s latest gadget or the next blockbuster from a band of chimps.

The blogosphere and Twittersphere are sharing news but they aren’t the primary sources of news. That’s because the users often are commenting on things both serious and sublime, important and insignificant. That means that comparing leading topics is difficult. There’s a difference between top news and top chatter.

Get the opinionated commentators on their own network

reportersnotebookI’ve always dreaded the day I would turn into the guy that said, “Back in my day…” But, alas, it’s finally happened. I can’t take it anymore. The sullying of the news industry is moving at a breakneck pace and something has to change.

So, as I was saying, back in my day when I was a newspaper reporter, it was vitally important that no one knew my personal opinion on anything. I never discussed religion or politics with anyone unless it was to get their comment for a story. I didn’t profess an opinion on much of anything and while most people probably didn’t realize I was consciously doing this, I bet that if you had asked them where I stood on an issue, they would have been hard-pressed to figure it out.

That was all a part of my attempt to remain as objective as possible when reporting on a story. But, more importantly, it was a way for me to eliminate any perceived conflicts with sources. I didn’t ever want someone thinking they wouldn’t get fair treatment in one of my stories because I was biased in some way against them or their issue.

It’s too bad the current cable television news channels don’t practice this division between fact and opinion. Ask people why they watch CNN, Fox or MSNBC, and it will probably be because they think the networks they don’t watch are too biased to the left or right.

It’s also no wonder that this happens though, when you consider that the line between news and commentary is blurred regularly on all of the networks. Too often, the morning “news” shows are full of opinionated comments from the hosts about the news they are covering. Throughout the evening, the “news” networks are filled with shows based on personalities known more for their vitriolic tirades than their commitment to sharing fact-based news with their viewers.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a place for opinion-based commentary on TV. After all, newspaper columnists and radio talk show hosts have been informing and entertaining people for many years. But newspaper publishers, radio station owners and even local TV news outlets have traditionally done a better job with drawing a distinctive line between what is news and what is opinion. On the cable TV networks, however, this line is blurred.

That’s why it’s time to get the opinionated commentators on their own network. Call it CNN-Commentary or Fox Opinion — but get it off the news stations. If we don’t get the opinion out of the news broadcasts on TV, we are going to continue to see the erosion of the journalism industry as a whole.

Get the opinions out of the news and you’ll soon see credibility working its way back in. It’s not too late — is it?

(Image courtesy of Knight Science Journalism Tracker)

If no one gets your joke, is it still funny?

On April 15, conservatives, libertarians and lots of other folks who claim they are sick of high taxes and government out of control decided to hold a modern-era “tea party.”

In Lansing, Michigan, there were an estimated 5,000 people packed shoulder to shoulder on the Capitol lawn, as shown in this photo taken from one of the Capitol balconies: capitol-tea-party

I’ve often said that CNN and FOX were doing themselves a disservice by mixing commentary with news and deciding it’s OK to be classified as the “liberal” or “conservative” news outlets.

This piece from CNN covering the Chicago tea party shows some of the more blatant lack of journalistic standards of that network, and listening to just a few minutes of FOX “news” on any given morning will give you a taste of that network’s rightward lean.

But now much of the coverage of the tea party events across the country has been taking a beating because of the incessant use of the term “teabagging” to describe the activities of the day and the protesters’ plans for additional actions against President Barack Obama’s economic plans.

For those of you who don’t know, “teabagging” is a term used to describe the sexual act of a man placing his testicles into someone’s mouth.

Is it really a left-wing conspiracy to make a joke of the protesters’ activities by using that term? And, even if it is, what do the right-wing faithful intent on calling out CNN and other news outlets for their handling of the coverage think they are going to accomplish?

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that CNN’s leaders and others decided they’d make a joke about the tea parties. How many folks really knew what teabagging was before people started complaining about the use of the term? If no one gets your joke, is it still funny?

By protesting the media coverage of their protests, the protesters are only hurting themselves. They have decided that the coverage of the events is more important, thereby making the coverage of their protests of the coverage more likely to get news coverage. In the meantime, the coverage of the original tea party protests is falling by the wayside. In addition, they are now letting millions of people in on the joke allegedly being perpetrated against them.

Are people talking about tea party protests, the need to get taxes in this country under control or the groundswell of citizens wanting to become the government again? No — instead, people are spending their time on Google researching sexual references. The organizers of the tea parties have lost their message, they’ve lost their way and they’ve lost their effectiveness on this issue. Hey, when I put it that way, it sounds like they have indeed become the government!

(Photo courtesy of Jessi Wortley)

More journalism cuts in Michigan

The bloodbath in Michigan newsrooms continues.

According to this post at Michigan Liberal, cuts are now planned at or likely to happen soon at the Mt. Pleasant Morning Sun, the Oakland Press, the Macomb Daily, and the Royal Oak Tribune.

Dave Poulson, a former newspaper reporter who is now at Michigan State University, put together a good piece for Poynter Online asking where the rest of the media is because no one seems to be covering this story.

Why does the mainstream media refuse to cover news when it’s about mainstream media?

Stay tuned…