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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News releases are not news

News releases are not news. They might be newsworthy, and they might share information that can become news. But, in and of themselves, news releases are not news. They are a one-sided, unbalanced pitch originally intended for journalists who would, hopefully, create some news stories with them. In our modern communications era, they are used to spread information with a certain perspective to the public, as well, through websites and social media outlets.

It is abhorrent behavior then, for news outlets to take these news releases and print them verbatim on a news website. And yet, that’s exactly what happened recently with two outlets in Lansing — WILX TV 10 and the Lansing State Journal. They took a news release sent out by Sparrow Hospital and Hayes-Green Beach Memorial Hospital that explained a growing partnership between the two medical centers. The State Journal didn’t even bother to remove the sentence in the middle that announced a joint call for the media that day, including the passcode for the telephone press conference! The hospital actually had to change the passcode since the LSJ decided to announce it publicly through its latest veiled attempt at being a professional newspaper.

I do not fault Sparrow, Hayes-Green Beach or anyone involved in the public relations industry for what happened. It is their job to get the news distributed with as much of their information and perspective as possible. I’ve been in the journalism or PR business combined for more than 20 years. I’ve been on the receiving end and the sending end of news releases. I know how they are used and why they are used and have no complaints with that. I don’t even mind that we in the PR industry can now bypass the media and go straight to the public. I believe the public is smart enough to understand that what an organization is putting on its website is expected to be one sided. But are they savvy enough to figure that out when looking at a supposedly unbiased and objective news website? The problem is that as soon as that news release is posted to a legitimate news organization’s website, it’s no longer just a news release — it’s deceptive reporting.

WILX and the Lansing State Journal clearly shirked their duty to perform reliable, responsible journalism. The journalism industry is already suffering from a credibility gap, and acting as a shill for a public relations machine — either deliberately or through sheer laziness — is only expanding that gap.

Here are some screen shots of the news release, as well as the WILX and LSJ websites where it was posted:

MLive may just breathe life back into journalism

When people have complained about print newspapers dwindling and everything moving online, I’ve written  about how news gathering matters much more than the form in which it’s delivered. I’ve also had my share of critical reviews of MLive, its recent merger with Booth Newspapers, and the entire concept of focusing too much on delivery of the news and not the gathering of it. I had a first-hand, behind the scenes look at the new MLive Media Group recently, though, and I have to admit that maybe I have been too quick to judge.

I still get frustrated with MLive’s website being too cluttered — some days it seems a testament to society’s insatiable appetite for information vs. knowledge, not to mention the wisdom needed to fully appreciate both. But if you spend some time with Dan Gaydou, publisher of the Grand Rapids Press and now president of  MLive Media Group, you can start to see the positive side of what that organization is trying to do for the journalism industry and its consumers.

During my tour of the new Grand Rapids MLive hub, which is being prepared for opening in February, I have to admit I found myself nodding in agreement with what Gaydou was preaching, and finding myself more excited about the future potential of journalism than I have been in years. Gaydou is a traditional newspaper guy but he has found a way to embrace the next generation of journalism. He still understands that what matters is community — how every story can be a local story because news readers can and should care about what’s happening across town, across the state and across the country because of its potential impact on their town. But he also sees the increasing use of technology in journalism as a method by which to gather and deliver that news faster and better, and not a collection of flashy toys that look impressive but don’t deliver on their full potential.

It’s not appropriate for me to share too much inside information with folks. After all, that is MLive’s news and I’ll let them be the first to share it. But I can tell you this: MLive is outfitting its reporters with some of the latest technology and providing workspaces that are tapping into technological resources many of us will be envious of regardless of our current industry or position.

MLive’s “hub” is under construction in Grand Rapids.

As a news consumer, I’m excited to see the technology and flexibility of bloggers married to the standards and ethics of professional journalists. As newspapers have struggled to survive, they have left a void filled by amateurs who, even when well-intentioned, often fall short in their ability to deliver quality news. Bloggers aren’t journalists, and not just because of a judge’s list on page nine of this 13-page ruling.

But journalists have suffered recently as their employers have scaled back, struggled to survive and refused to give them the resources they need to do their jobs well. I think that could change with the MLive news hubs. Journalists will be given the equipment and resources needed to be out in their communities gathering news, writing good stories and delivering them at an amazing pace. Hopefully, MLive Media Group will see that there is still a place in this world for well-researched, longer stories that deliver more than knowledge, they also help readers find wisdom. I heard a great line about the difference lately. “Knowledge is knowing tomatoes are a fruit, while wisdom is knowing not to put them in a fruit salad.”

The MLive Media Group is growing rapidly in several markets and has its eyes set on more. They are challenging the old way of thinking in journalism. Gaydou preaches that they are trying to find a way to deliver the best journalism they can in a way that allows them to connect with old and new audiences alike. If they truly practice what they preach at MLive Media Group, then we’re about to see something special happen.

“News” is more important than “paper”

There is a lot of discussion going on at the moment about the bombshell Booth Newspapers dropped today regarding its move to “invest in its digital future,” which is a pleasant way to say they are scaling back on print editions and employees. If you follow the link I put in above, you’ll be able to read the letter with the company’s spin on this announcement. If you want to know the basic facts of what’s actually happening and what it really means to you as a reader or subscriber, then you should jump straight to the company’s FAQ.

My Twitter and Facebook feed exploded with this news and potential fallout from it, with comments discussing the entire universe of what this announcement means. Some folks are worried about their friends and colleagues who work at Booth-owned newspapers. Others are declaring that they saw this coming and it was only a matter of time until the news chain went primarily to online distribution. And still others are pointing to this announcement as the continuing death of newspapers.

They are all somewhat right, and yet they all may be wrong just a bit, too.

As a former newspaper reporter, I can attest to the fact that for generations it has always been the newsroom and the reporting staff that gets cut first when the budget axe is wielded. So, people are right to be concerned about folks losing their jobs — Booth even admitted that layoffs are possible if people can’t find a proper fit within the new organization. Those who remain will be referred to as “content producers,” which is to say they are the ones who learned to adapt to a rapidly changing world in ways that allowed them to marry their experience with technological abilities.

Those who are suggesting that we all should have seen this coming may be right — after all, the newspaper industry has from the beginning bungled its use of the Internet at the expense of its print products. There is little indication that anyone has learned how to correct the initial blunder of offering news content for free online but only via payment for hard copies. I don’t see that changing, so I suppose my kids will be using something else to line birdcages with some day.

Despite my nostalgic fondness for the smell of newsprint and the ink smeared on my fingers, I’d have to say that it is those suggesting the death of newspapers who are most inaccurate in their assumption. It is not the death of newspapers that should concern us, it’s the death of news gathering. Paper is, after all, just a form of delivery. There is some truth to the notion that you tend to stumble upon news more when reading a print edition than an online edition, but our habits will adjust over time. If the news is gathered properly, completely, and accurately, does it really matter what form it’s delivered to us in?

The biggest issue surrounding this announcement is what this new MLive Media Group will mean for the “content producers.” Will they be given enough resources — meaning equipment and fellow employees — to actually do some real reporting? Or will they be hamstrung by resources, forced to regurgitate press releases and become aggregators of what other people are doing and saying, often without the burden of journalistic standards and integrity?

This story is just breaking and it’s far from over since we won’t know what the real impact will be for some months to come. In the meantime, I hope it all turns out well for the company, its employees and its customers. In the world of journalism, “news” is more important than “paper.” If we’d all stop losing sight of that fact, we might just become the consumers that these organizations need to know exist — people who want accurate, complete news and not a bunch of regurgitated hearsay made pretty with blue links and shaky video.

The votes are in and readers want engagement

I recently wrote a blog post and hosted a poll about the Lansing State Journal being on Twitter and how it should handle that account. The issue is that the State Journal uses an auto feeder to populate its Twitter stream with headlines from its web site. Unfortunately, this leads to the potential of outdated news ending up on its Twitter account, a place where breaking news generally becomes old within minutes if not seconds.

The folks running the State Journal’s Twitter account have gotten better over time as they’ve become more comfortable with the service. They are engaging with readers who point out errors or have suggestions. And this past week they even posted a Follow Friday shout-out to my wife and me, who are frequently tagged as the LSJ online watchdogs. The problem is that the staffing for the Twitter account is apparently not considered a priority in the State Journal newsroom. Although, like most newspapers today, I’m not sure if news in general is considered a priority these days.

When I had a discussion on Twitter with the State Journal staff about the problem with their feed, they raised the dilemma of using the Twitter stream to post news only when staff is available, noting that tweets may be few and far between if they go that route. When I asked people to weigh in on the concept, allowing them to vote for full automation, tweeting only when staff is available or a combination, they, not surprisingly, voted for the combo. Certainly it wasn’t a scientific poll and the number of respondents wasn’t huge, but nearly 83 percent of those who voted opted for “Usually automate but engage during breaking news.”

What was more interesting than the poll numbers, however, were  the comments from my readers. Some commented on live vs. automated posts:

I don’t mind the automated tweets for promoting their published articles. For example, the business news feeds are great. The breaking news tweets should be in the moment. ~ Lisa

As a whole, news organizations have a huge responsibility. As a society we expect them to cover everything that interests us, do it accurately and without bias, and then make sure we know they have covered it. At the same time newspaper circulation has continued to plummet making it necessary for them to cut staff. I don’t think it’s realistic under these circumstances to have a live person tweeting at all times. I do agree, however, that every attempt should be made to disseminate accurate information at all times. ~ Anne Craft

Others suggested another approach entirely, using Twitter as a back channel to the newsroom:

Twitter is about two-way communication, sharing and networking. While I appreciate headline/breaking news being tweeted, I’d much prefer more interaction with followers, insights or background stories that don’t make the articles, etc. I know that is hard with limited budgets, but making some effort will show they care. Maybe the folks in charge of the budget will see how beneficial it is to the community and toss a few more bucks in that direction to keep it going!  ~ Kate

While still others admitted that they turn to their social networks for news, not the local newspaper:

I don’t follow the LSJNews feed (nearly 17000 tweets in just over 800 days! way too much information!), and rarely visit the LSJ website (due to the quantity and quality of their advertisements). I instead follow locals…and get Nixle alerts from government agencies for major news in the area. The power of the medium makes this possible; if the message is interesting enough, someone in my social graph will relay it.  ~ cchoffme

I will give credit to the Lansing State Journal for wanting to hear more about this issue. The newspaper’s Twitter feed even retweeted my original blog post and poll. There’s no question the State Journal and other news outlets are experiencing growing pains as they fumble around in the social media space. Perhaps they can finally find a niche that allows them to connect with readers again so people will turn there first for news and information that is timely, important, accurate, complete, unbiased and reported fairly. Come to think of it, maybe social media can wait and newspapers should focus on making that happen on their own websites and printed pages first! If you don’t have credibility and the trust of your readers, it doesn’t really matter what medium you use to publish the information, because no one will be paying attention to you.

The Lansing State Journal on Twitter: engage or feed?

As a former full-time journalist and now a university instructor on the subject who still writes freelance articles, I have little patience for the continuing self-mutilation of the news industry. That’s partly why I’m not only critical of what I see and read in the Lansing State Journal but openly share my opinions with them via reader comments and Twitter.

To the paper’s credit, the person handling the @LSJNews Twitter account is starting to engage with people who point out errors or have suggestions for improvement. This led to an interesting exchange the other day after I complained about the paper’s Twitter feed posting outdated information.

The tweet referred to a severe thunderstorm warning being in effect for my area. When I clicked on the link, however, I discovered that the tweet at 12:41 p.m. was referring to a warning that expired 11 minutes earlier. When I told the LSJ that this was a rather useless piece of news, the account operator apologized, noting that the warning had gotten caught in the RSS feed of the newspaper’s headlines. That led to a question from the LSJ:

And, a warning to be careful what you wish for:

I acknowledged the dilemma and suggested a reader poll. I’m not sure if the LSJ will actually do a reader poll on this or if they thought asking the question with one tweet was the way to go. So, I’m going to conduct a poll here. I understand the struggle of not having enough people to cover all the news that’s happening, but taking a social media tool and using it as an automated broadcast mechanism doesn’t seem to be the answer either.

So, what do you think? Should the LSJ use an RSS feed of its headlines to populate its Twitter account, leading to potentially inaccurate information being distributed? Should they shut it down and only update the feed as they have staff available (which would be rarely)? Or could they operate as a hybrid, with automated tweets from their RSS feed supplemented by someone assigned to directly engage via the account during breaking news occurrences?

Cast your vote, offer a comment or two and let me know what you think. I’ll share the results with the Lansing State Journal. After all, that paper knows all too well that I won’t keep anything from them!

This is CNN…unfortunately

Those of us who remember when the fledgling Cable News Network began its run also probably can still hear the deep voice of James Earl Jones saying, “This is CNN…” on their promos.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I always thought a 24-hour news station would provide endless possibilities for news coverage — investigative, in-depth and insightful. Too bad we don’t have a 24 hour news cycle that meets those criteria. Instead, in the United States at least, we have just a few hours of news repeated multiple times and opinionated hatefests scattered across the networks to fill time and sell advertising.

CNN certainly isn’t the only network blowing a wasted opportunity to actually serve the public good and take the journalism industry’s credibility and importance to new heights. Back in the 1980s, as cable TV opened our eyes to the potential of 24 hours of news coverage, we still had no clue what today’s mobile, instant-access technology would be capable of delivering. But CNN, FOX, MSNBC and, sadly, even some local TV news outlets, have squandered it all in the name of expediency over accuracy and titillation over veracity.

This age of Internet-based news outlets isn’t helping, as people have come to rely on blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates for their “news.” Well, here’s a newsflash: the ability to type or speak into a TV microphone does not make  you a journalist. It’s unfortunate that people aren’t holding journalists to a higher standard of professionalism. Even CNN’s foray into social media is failing us. They used the all-powerful Twitter feed yesterday to put out “breaking news” that Sandra Bullock was getting a divorce. If society is ever to trust the Fourth Estate again, they need to believe that they are being given information that is as unbiased and fair as possible. That means the politically driven agendas need to stop. That means “professional journalist” needs to reference someone trained and experienced in digging through the propaganda of news releases to find the real story, and having the resources and the chutzpah to write the stories that need to be written.

I stumbled upon a site the other day via Twitter called WTFCNN.com. It’s exactly what you’d think — a site dedicated to pointing out how ridiculous CNN’s online front page has become when compared with other news sites in the U.S. and around the world. The welcome screen explains it best:

Dear CNN,

We know you think this is what we want, but it’s not. We don’t care what random Tweeters think about a news story, how many holograms you have in your Situation Room, or even the latest celebrity gossip. We care about our world. Instead of using your resources to do the journalism that gives us a better understanding of this world — we get the front page of CNN.com. Why do we have to look enviously at the front page of Al-Jazeera English for a better sampling of important news stories at any given time?

The site has a split screen, with CNN on the top and a site of your choice at the bottom, ranging from NPR in the United States, to the BBC in the United Kingdom and Al-Jazeera (in English) from Qatar. You can also check out a similar comparison of FOX News with these sites.

I’ve found myself tuning into the BBC via Sirius Radio lately when I want real news. I still have a preset for CNN and FOX on my radio, but I almost always scan past it because of content that is insulting, annoying or simply pointless. Recently, I was flipping between the three stations to do a quick comparison of stories at that moment. I found FOX going in-depth into Larry King’s eighth divorce and CNN analyzing the reaction of Tiger Woods’ wife to the Nike commercial starring his dead father. Then I switched to the BBC and found myself drawn into a report about China’s economy and growing concerns over the growth of its Gross Domestic Product and the potential for a Chinese recession.

Certainly, not every news outlet will always get it right. And the folks at CNN and FOX will probably argue that they are giving the people what they want. Well, I’m one of those people, and I don’t think they are. I also don’t believe I’m alone. Not everyone will care about China’s economic issues, even though they probably should because of the impact it could have on their lives. But wouldn’t it be nice to hit a story like that, decide it’s not something you’re interested in, and be able to flip to another important news story at another news outlet? Wouldn’t it be great if there were more outlets delivering news that matters and not the pop culture drivel and political propaganda being spewed by “experts” and “consultants” who are nothing more than hired guns?

What do you think? Will the major U.S. news networks start to deliver news again? Or am I just old-fashioned, longing for the days when important, accurate stories were being told to us by professional journalists we could trust?

(CNN logo photo courtesy of Alan Stoddard’s Flickr stream.)