Reality, News Perception, and Accuracy

                                                                         

By WALTER BRASCH

 

She quietly walked into the classroom from the front and stood there, just inside the door, against a wall.

I continued my lecture, unaware of her presence until my students’ eyes began focusing upon her rather than me.

“Yes?” I asked. Just “yes.” Nothing more.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said peacefully. I was confused. So she said it again, this time a little sharper.

“Ma’am,” I began, but she cut me off. I tried to defuse the situation, but couldn’t reason with her. She pulled a gun from her purse and shot me, then quickly left. I recovered immediately.

It took less than a minute.

The scene was an exercise in a newswriting class, unannounced but highly planned. My assignment was for the students to quickly write down everything they could about the incident. What happened. What was said. What she looked like. What she was wearing. Just the facts. Nothing more.

Everyone got some of the information right, but no one got all the facts, even the ones they were absolutely positively sure they saw or heard correctly. And, most interestingly, the “gun” the visitor used and which the students either couldn’t identify or misidentified was in reality a . . . banana; a painted black banana, but a banana nevertheless. The actual gun shot was on tape broadcast by a hidden recorder I activated.

It was a lesson in observation and truth. Witnesses often get the facts wrong, unable to distinguish events happening on top of each other. Sometimes they even want to “help” the reporter and say what they think the reporter wants to hear.

Reporters are society’s witnesses who record history by interviewing other witnesses, and they all make mistakes not because they want to but because everyone’s experiences and perceptions fog reality.

Of the infinite number of facts and observations that occur during a meeting, reporters must select a few, and then place them in whatever order they think is most important. Which few they select, which thousands they don’t select--and, more important--which facts they don’t even know exist--all make up a news story, usually written under deadline pressure. Thus, it isn’t unusual for readers to wonder how reporters could have been in the same meeting as they were since the published stories didn’t seem to reflect the reality of the meeting.

But there are some facts that are verifiable. We know that a South American country is spelled “Colombia,” not “Columbia.” We know that Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive Republican. And we know that the current World Series champions are the St. Louis Cardinals not, regrettably, the San Diego Padres.

But, for far too many in my profession, facts and the truth are subverted by a process that has become he said/she said journalism. We take notes at meetings, recording who said what. If there are conflicting statements, we try to quote all the opinions, even the dumb ones, believing we are being “fair and balanced.” If  a news source says the world is flat, we write that, and then see if we can find someone who will say that it is round—or maybe square.

When we write features and personality profiles, we tend to take what we are told, craft it into snappy paragraphs, and hope the readers don’t fall asleep. If someone shyly tells us he earned a Silver Star for heroism during the Vietnam War, we don’t demand to see the certificate—or question how a 50 year old, who was wasn’t even in his teens when the war ended, could actually have served during the Vietnam war.

At the local level, although we’re trained to be cynical, we aren’t. If a mayor or police chief tells us something, we attribute the quote, figuring we did our duty. Maybe we ask a couple of questions, but we tend not to pursue them—we have far too many stories to write and far too little time. Besides, if the facts are wrong, we believe we’re “protected,” since it’s not we who said it but someone else. Legally, of course, we’re still responsible for factual error even if someone else said it and we accurately quote that person, but we don’t worry about the technicalities.

Adequate reporters get their facts from people in authority; the great reporters know truth is probably known by the secretaries, custodians, and other workers. We just have to find the right sources, dig out the facts, and verify them.

And now comes another presidential election, and we continue to perpetuate lies by not challenging those who spout them. Rick Santorum says California’s public colleges don’t teach American history—and we write down his lie. Mitt Romney claims he never said the Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the entire country, that Barack Obama never mentioned the deficit during his state of the union or that the President is constantly apologizing for America, and we write that without challenge. Newt Gingrich, like most Republican candidates for president and Congress, wants us to believe he’s an “outsider” and a fiscal conservative, and we go along with the fiction. Barack Obama said he’d be a leader for defending Constitutional rights, yet willingly signed an extension of the PATRIOT Act, which curtails civil liberties. Pick a candidate—any candidate, any party—and we think we’re “fair” because we record what he or she said, even of it’s a lie, a half-truth, an exaggeration, a distortion, or a misconception. Perhaps American politicians have internalized the wisdom of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Quoting people isn’t journalism—it’s clerking. We’re merely taking words, transcribing them, and publishing them. Journalism demands we challenge our sources and find the truth. As one grizzled city editor said in the late 19th century, if your mother claims to be your mother, demand a birth certificate. It was good advice then; it is even better advice now.

[In a 40-year career as a journalist and professor, Dr. Brasch has won more than 200 awards for excellence in journalism in investigative reporting, feature writing, and for his weekly column. His current book is the critically-acclaimed novel Before the First Snow, which helps explain the rise of the Occupy and anti-fracking movements. The book is available in both ebook and hardcover formats.]

 

 

Fewer Words; Less Filling

 

                                    by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

 

 

 

Fewer Words; Less Filling

 

                                    by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

 

 

 

Miss America: Auditioning for Center Stage

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH     

      

Tucked between the New Hampshire primary and Ground Hog Day, and directly competing against an NFL playoff game, is Saturday night’s annual Miss America pageant.

Although the headquarters is still near Atlantic City, where it originated in 1921, the pageant—don’t call it a beauty contest—has been a part of the Las Vegas entertainment scene for eight years. Apparently, the Las Vegas motto of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” wrapped itself around the pageant as well, with TV viewership dropping lower almost every year.

ABC-TV divorced Miss America in 2004, claiming irreconcilable differences. Viewership had fallen from a peak of 26.7 million in 1991 to an all-time low of 9.8 million, barely enough to keep a prime-time show on the air. The pageant’s CEO, trying to preserve what dignity was left, stated “We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values.”

Apparently better understanding Miss America’s values was Country Music Television (CMT). However, that marriage didn’t last, and Miss America then hooked up with the The Learning Channel (TLC). By 2007, only 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch who would be the next beauty queen to want world peace, save the whales, and “do her country proud.”

Treating its demotion to the minor leagues as a chance for rehabilitation, the pageant made a few cosmetic changes, began playing with new ways of scoring, including viewer participation, and slowly brought its ratings back to about 4.5 million in 2010.

That’s when ABC-TV and Miss America, after a six-year divorce, fell in love again. Apparently, CMT and TLC “values” (and money) weren’t as good as a major network’s. Promising eternal faithfulness—as long as the ratings increased—the two lovebirds were seen by about 7.8 million.

Now, it may seem that only TV executives and advertisers should care about ratings, viewer demographics, and selling fluff. But the contestants are well-trained actors in the made-for-TV show, complete with celebrity judges, most of whom are there solely because they are—well—celebrities.

About one-third of all contestants say they want to go into communications. As in almost every pageant for the past four decades, several want to go into television. Miss Delaware and Miss Nevada both want to be talk show hosts. Miss Louisiana wants to anchor the “Today” show; to get to that lofty goal, she plans to first get a master’s in health communication. None of the contestants wanting to go into journalism have expressed any interest in first covering city council meetings, the courts, police, or Little League games. They plan to take their beauty and pageant poise, make up their hair and face, and stand in front of a camera to emphasize the reality that broadcast journalism has diminished to the point of style over substance.

Miss New York wants to be the editor of a fashion magazine. Miss Idaho wants to write for a health and fitness magazine. Miss Hawaii wants to be a film director; to do that, she plans to first get an MBA. There is no evidence she plans first to be an actor, set designer, writer, cinematographer, or in any of several dozen crafts.

Miss Utah says she wants to be an interpersonal communications presenter (whatever that is) and also a college dance team coach. Miss New Hampshire, who probably dressed Barbie dolls in corporate suits, says she wants to “own a large and prestigious advertising firm.” It’s doubtful she’ll want to modify the gibberish of the organization that, with all seriousness, says it “provides young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”

A few contestants say they want to be “event planners,” as if there already aren’t enough people wasting their own lives by planning the lives of others.

Not planning to go into communications is Miss California who is earning a degree in something called “social enterprise.” That could be anything from learning how to use Facebook to mixing the drinks at upscale parties. Miss West Virginia says she wants to go into the military, and then become secretary of state. Perhaps one day she might work for the 2011 Miss America, whose goal is to become president.

Several contestants plan to get MBAs, but almost everyone wants to use that degree to go into—prepare yourself!—a non-profit social service agency.  It sounds good, and maybe they all mean it. But, dangle a six-figure salary, stock options, extensive perks, and a “golden parachute,” and most of them will run over the Red Cross so fast it’ll need blood transfusions.

Mixed into the career goals are some contestants who plan to be physicians, pharmacists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and others in the caring professions.  

Miss America doesn’t have to worry about a job or college for a year. Along with a paid chaperone, she will tour the country to sign autographs and give inspirational speeches about whatever her platform is—and, of course, to promote the Miss America Organization.

From the “toddlers and tiaras” stage to the stage at the Planet Hollywood Casino, beauty contestants are told how to look, act, and talk, even what to say or not say. The Miss America Organization—which makes the Mafia look like a second rate fraternity—doesn’t tell contestants they must attend college. But, every one of the state winners plans to be a college graduate.

There is a definite bias against those who don’t think attending college is important at this stage of their lives. And so, we don’t see talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who are bypassing college to attend specialized non-degree-granting schools and enter their professions. We don’t see contestants who, although beautiful and talented, are planning to be plumbers, electricians, or firefighter/paramedics. We don’t see contestants who want to be gardeners, floral arrangers, or chefs. And, we most assuredly don’t see women who are bypassing college to be part of major social movements.

[Walter Brasch, who attended several beauty pageants, although as a reporter and not as a contestant, is a social issues columnist and book author. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, available at www.amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com]

 

 

Blood on the Lens

 

                                  by WALTER BRASCH

 “If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.

But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.

“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”

“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”

“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”

“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”

“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”

“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”

“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”

“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”

“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”

“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”

“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”

“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”

“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”

“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”

“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.

“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”

“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”

“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”

“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”

 “Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”

“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”

“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”    

“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”

“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”

“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.

“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

 

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

 

 

 

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