Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Recent observations on television news

This could very well be the longest gap between posts in my blog's history! It's mostly due to a lot of writing. I've been catching up on my RPG write-ups for HyperBear. I completed three, with two more to go. Before that, I was working on my Cause of the American Civil War essay, with one more section to complete.

This isn't to say that I haven't had plenty of things to talk about on the blog, just that I haven't had time to post them! The one thing that's been gnawing at me recently is the way the television news media has been behaving. (Unfortunately, the sad local paper — and its sadder circulation department — have made it difficult to follow news in print form.)

I first thought of posting about the television news media during the Israel-Lebanon conflict last month. In fact, I had intended to write a long post about how I felt about the conflict, but I didn't get around to it. Basically, I started off thinking that Israel had way over-reacted to the loss of two soldiers. The high casualty count amongst Lebanese civilians seems not to have worried the Israeli high command very much. Then I got into a discussion with Tom Barclay, a fellow gamer in Ottawa and long time net-friend, about Israel. He pointed out some things I hadn't really thought of, like the fact that Hezbollah has been dropping rockets on Israel for ages with the Lebanese government doing little to stop them. He, and some others in the discussion, pointed out that the Israeli infrastructure attacks were mostly to hammer home to the Lebanese government that they had better do something about Hezbollah. So, I moderated my opinion of Israel somewhat, though I still think they could have done more to solicit world opinion on their side instead of just attacking. I appreciate what they were trying to do, but the civilian deaths disturbed me.

Anyway, I digress...

The point was about the television news media. In particular, the way the media a) portrayed the war as "World War III" (or, in one guy's view, World War IV), and b) the way the media almost stopped covering Iraq and Afghanistan to cover the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

The first part was the part that really bothers me. There is no reason why the news needs to dramatize what's going on. Instead of giving a detailed analysis or a proper context to the conflict, they hit you with scary graphics. They hyped this confict as potentially leading to all out war in the region... and then looked really stupid when a ceasefire was brokered in less than a month. The best response to this was on The Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert parodied the whole "World War III" thing, complete with his own scary graphics. Television media is known for being self-referential, so of course CNN (an offender, but not the worst offender, in the "World War III" camp; that, of course, goes to Fox News) did a report on the "World War III" coverage of the conflict, even going so far as to show clips from The Colbert Report.

The second part bothered me a little less if only because it is a standard failing of television news. They always cover what's hot, ad nauseum, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. The news from Iraq is relentless and similar day in and day out, but if you don't cover it constantly — and consistently — you lose context. The coverage of the war in Afghanistan continues to be poor here in the U.S., mostly because most U.S. troops have pulled out. (Ironically, on Saturday I mailed a package to my Mom, and ahead of me was a family sending several boxes and a small refrigerator to their son stationed in Afghanistan.) I received a message on my blog from an anonymous poster whose father fought in Korea with the Canadian army and whose son now fights in Afghanistan in the U.S. army. The poster was saddened by the lack of coverage of what was happening in Afghanistan. It only gets a message when a certain body count is hit, or a certain level of violence erupts.

So, with people asking for more coverage of Afghanistan and the news focusing on Lebanon, you'd figure that the main problem is not enough correspondents or too little time to cover the important stuff. Then along came John Mark Karr. This was the guy who had written letters to a university professor suggesting he was with JonBenet Ramsey — the six year old beauty pageant contestant brutally murdered in her home ten years ago — when she died.

When Karr was first pulled out from under his maggoty rock and brought before the light of the world, the news asked some good questions, such as, "Why was this guy never on anyone's list of suspects?" There were doubts early on as to whether or not this guy was guilty. In spite of that, the news never could figure out how best to cover him... so they used a blanket. All John Mark Karr, All The Time!

The nadir of television journalism quite possibly came in the middle of August when CNN covered his arrival in Boulder, Colorado. I was in a McDonald's, the new one near us with two widescreen plasma TVs. CNN Headline News was on. It was showing pictures of the sky. I figured that maybe a tornado had been sighted somewhere, as the sky was overcast. No. They were waiting for John Mark Karr's plane to arrive. Ten minutes later, they showed a shot of a small twin engine plane on final approach to a Boulder airport, shot with a long focal length lens.

Why? What in god's name was the point in showing that picture? Yes, you have to show pictures on television. But why was seeing this guy's plane arrive newsworthy? Why did they have to cover every inch of his progress to Boulder? Why couldn't they just put something on the scroll at the bottom of the screen? They spent all that time showing the plane when there was serious news elsewhere that was not being covered. This followed days of coverage where everything the guy did and ate on the aircraft from Thailand to the U.S. was given close inspection. It was as though they hoped to determine his guilt or innocence based on what entree he chose.

In the end, the charges were dropped against Karr. Is he vile? Yep. Is he disturbed? Probably. Is he particularly newsworthy? Not anymore, and never to the degree that he was given. Meanwhile, we have no real idea of how the war is going in Iraq or Afghanistan, how much progress Iran is making in developing the Bomb, what that little troll in North Korea is up to, or even what's going on in global warming, ozone depletion, or even what's happening in the housing market.

But, hey, we got to see a twin engine plane arrive at an airport!

The U.S. isn't the only nation where television news is more readily discarding "hard news" for "soft news" (a trend that was first recognized with disdain by Edward R. Murrow). An article in today's The Scotsman covers a British war correspondent who has criticized the BBC for the way the way they've handled their six o'clock news show. They've spent time doing some fluff piece about communities around the country, shifting from deaths in Afghanistan to the fluff piece with hardly a breather. It all sounds so remarkably similar to what we see here, including the discussion of whether or not the news anchor should be sitting or standing. The story can be found at:

Finally, Media Matters has an interesting comment on how television news anchors refuse to analyze the news. Instead, they just report it and leave the analysis to the public. In particular, they complain that while a television news person at CBS called Bill Clinton a liar during the Lewinsky scandal, the media is loathe to call Bush a liar over Iraq, the war on terrorism, or even his self-professed interest in the writings of Albert Camus and William Shakespeare.

Now, I agree with Media Matters in part, but personally I don't think it's the job of a news anchor to analyze the news. Once you get into analysis, you run the risk of serious bias. You can't just spit out your analysis, you have to explain how you got to that analysis. So, I can see the point when PBS' Jim Lehrer explains how he tells the public the complete story and lets the public decide for themselves. Media Matters seems to be upset that more news people aren't calling Bush a liar when they weren't hesitant about Clinton. I think they make a good point, though it is tempered by a pout over Bush being treated differently from Clinton, but I'm not totally in agreement.

The Media Matters item is here:

I do believe that there is too much "even handedness" in regular news stories. They give equal time to even the most crackpot of theories. There was a story earlier this year on CNN about Indigo children. They treated the entire subject as though it were completely on the level, with only a cursory 30 seconds dedicated to criticism of the concept.

(TV is not immune to this. Read the link about Indigo children. The Dallas Observer took a child's words about his ability to control the four elements at face value, only to have readers point out the similarity between the kid's story and Nickelodeon's TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender.)

Of course television news is a business, and as such it has to be sensitive to its customers. If they do a story on Intelligent Design, for instance, they have to tread a fine line between observable science and people's beliefs. So, they treat things like psychic ability and Intelligent Design as though they have the same weight — often with more weight — than gravity and evolution. This bugs the crap out of me, but it's something I have to accept, living in a superstitous age.

What's worse is that when TV news does analysis it is anything but even-handed. Television media does analysis in the form of "op ed" pieces. Fox News has far more conservative analysis than liberal. CNN tries to be neutral, though CNN Headline News has that right-wing idiot Glenn Beck on it, without a left-leaning idiot to balance him. (During the lead up to the Katrina anniversary, Beck sarcastically accused Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans of sitting at home eating Pop-Tarts prior to the hurricane hitting.) The CBS Evening News — now fortified with extra vitamins and minerals and your daily allowance of Katie Couric! — is doing a "Free Speech" segment each night where people are allowed to say whatever they want without someone commenting behind them. So, when Rush Limbaugh is on there tonight he will be able to say whatever he wants without anyone holding him responsible for lies or distortions. The same rules apply to any liberals who appear. You are left to your own devices to figure out the truth. People are left to maintain their own prejudices and tune out those they disagree with, regardless of the facts.

I'd be less worried about television news if it wasn't for the fact that I have such poor access to print news. Most of the news I get from the Internet. Most Americans, I fear, still get the majority of their news from television. That makes the fact that most Americans seem to know more about stem cell research than the president all the more alarming.


Michael Skeet said...

I really feel for you, guy. With CBC Newsworld available on basic cable, we in the GWN have no need whatever to subject ourselves to CNN or Headline News (unless we feel the need to laugh). Fox News, if it's available here at all, is something you have to (be stupid enough to) pay for.

What's more, in Toronto we live in one of the few cities in North America that still has a vibrant newspaper culture. This city supports six dailies, and while three of them are tabloids (two of them giveaways) there's still plenty of choice available.

In terms of TV news, though, I think it's safe to say that it has essentially become irrelevant if you want it to be. I don't watch network news, not even CBC, anymore. I try to make a point of catching the international broadcast from BBC World once a day, but I'm not devoted to it. There's plenty of journalism out there on the tubes of the internet, and that's what I do -- or, rather, what I'd do if I wasn't already subscribing to The Economist, which while it definitely has a bias, is upfront about it and still prepared to tell the truth even if it makes that bias look a little less good.

The easiest way to avoid blowing a gasket about TV news is just to stop watching it. This doesn't deal with the problems caused by the majority who get most of their "information" from TV news, but we do what we can.

Michael Skeet said...

Incidentally, further to the Afghanistan coverage thing that's been discussed here before, I count 32 Afghanistan-themed stories published on the Toronto Star website in the past month. The Globe and Mail claims to have published more than 200 articles on Afghanistan in the past month, but I think their search algorithm is on a lunch-break right now, and that the true answer is closer to 40.

Still, there's no shortage of coverage here if you want to read it, and said coverage ranges from the straight-ahead coverage of battles fought (some pretty big ones just now) to the crowd-pleasing blather about casualties (not my idea of news) to the fairly detailed coverage of the debate going on right now about this country's presence in Afghanistan. This is not something that TV is really equipped to handle.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say TV shouldn't even pretend to try to cover news. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a former newspaper and radio journalist...

Allan Goodall said...

The easiest way to avoid blowing a gasket about TV news is just to stop watching it.

Oh, sure, and then where would I get my blog entries???

I usually watch The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. It gives a daily recap, and then it delves into the main subjects of the day in some detail. It's also very good for getting people on both sides of the issue who often times respect each other, or at least don't shout over each other. They know that they will be given ample time to air their views, so there's very little of the rancor you see on other networks.

Otherwise, I get my news online. Unfortunately, that cuts into my time for reading, and — increasingly more rarely —

I'd read The Economist if it wasn't so expensive!

If there's one place that's worse for news here in the U.S. it is radio. Most "radio news" consists of pre-canned bits from services, and heavily biased "talk radio". This is one reason I laugh at "liberal media bias", as most radio personalities are right wing. The only news that's worth listening to is NPR.

Glad to see that Afghanistan coverage is better than expected. Unfortunately, most people get their news from television...

Michael Skeet said...

I should have qualified my radio comment. The only radio I listen to up here is CBC or the listener-supported jazz station, which carries BBC radio news at some points during the day.

Alana said...

I do feel there's something to be said for news on television, at least at times. Granted, hearing ad nauseum about Tom going to Brooke's house to apologize does *not* contstitute news to me....especially when CNN runs the 'story' every five minutes. If, however, Brooke had said nasty things about Tom's hairy little baby, they'd gotten into a fight and ended up in jail...that might have been news.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the news.

For immediacy, for the ability to *see*, then and there, what's taking place...there's nothing quite like television. In times of national or world crisis, the newspaper can give you more a few hours; radio can give you the facts now...without visuals; but TV delivers right then. One day, I think the Internet will take its place, when all generations are more familiar with its usuage, and there are established "news outlets". Still, I think it will be a more solitary experience. One thing that will forever be a part of my memories of the morning of September 11, 2001, is watching the horror of the day begin to unfold, surrounded by other people. To see their faces...the realization dawning that this was not some freak accident...this was planned...feeling the same shock they were feeling...knowing that if his face had tears running down it, it was likely mine did too...I think I felt less alone in watching the world tilt before my eyes. That all sounds a bit dramatic now, five years later, but it doesn't begin to touch the thoughts that were going through my mind on that morning. And I'm glad I saw it, because I don't think I could have read it for the tears in my eyes. I don't think I could have quite believed hearing, but not seeing. And I know that in that moment, I'd rather have been in the company of strangers, gathered around a television in a hospital lobby, than I would sitting in front of a monitor.

Allan Goodall said...

For immediacy, for the ability to *see*, then and there, what's taking place...there's nothing quite like television.

That's very true. It's often described as the main weakness of TV news, but it is also its strength.

I think I felt less alone in watching the world tilt before my eyes.

It was also the only way for me to have an idea of what you were going through, too. There was a huge outpouring of sympathy (which was almost entirely wasted by the current president) largely due to the television coverage of 9/11.

It will be interesting to see how the Internet develops with regard to news. It has the advantage of live television with the ability to pick and choose what you want to watch and when. I tried to follow what happened 5 years ago on the Internet, but most news sites were teetering under the load, and very few were set up for streaming video. In fact, I think 9/11 largely shaped the way Internet news is disseminated.

Michael said...

Alana makes a very sound point, but I suspect it actually has a relatively limited applicability. In far too many cases we don't know what we're watching and reacting to. Television is notorious for its ability to present powerful images without any context whatever. For me, 9/11 is a case in point as well. Lorna and I were in Paris that day, and we were out walking the entire time the events of that morning (in North America) were unfolding. When we arrived back at our hotel we found the lobby full of people staring at the TV screen, which was showing CNN.

At first I thought I was seeing something that was happening in real-time. Then I thought that what had happened was that a single small plane had hit the WTC. It was only after I had taken in the reactions of my fellow tourists that I understood exactly what had happened, and that it had happened some time before we returned to the hotel.

TV news may have provided some images who which these strangers reacted. But it was their reactions that I really remember, and not what I saw on the TV screen that day.

In the case of an ongoing, and somewhat predictable, event in the Katrina vein, TV news is probably at its most effective. I think a problem exists, though, in that many TV producers are aware of this effectiveness, and try to jam non-similar events into a Katrina-like template. Everything looks like a nail, in other words.

Bottom line is, I fundamentally do not trust TV to provide anything but entertainment. Elsewhere, Allan has commented on anachronisms in films; I see potential anachronisms in just about every image presented as "news" coverage.