If you’re a life-long student of mass communications like I am, two tragic incidents recently — the death of Kevin Ward Jr. when he was hit by a car driven by Tony Stewart, and the death of Robin Williams — provide opportunity to observe The Media in action and, more interestingly, public reaction to the media in action.
Twitter and Facebook have a lot of downsides, but one of the big upsides is they allow people to voice opinions, and allow the world access to those opinions like never before.
Usually these media critiques come down to a few main themes:
- Too much information
- “Sensationalized” information
- Inaccurate information
- Willful attempts to use the power of The Media to damage someone
- A relatively new one: lack of standing to comment
- An oldie-but-goody variant: intentional laziness or favoritism because the media are complicit with one side or another.
In general (please see discussion below for all the caveats and nuances) 1) people don't get that the media is a business and that it's VERY market-driven and 2) I tend to error on the side of more information over less, within reason.
Let’s break it down (I wish I was getting graded on this term paper …)
Shortly after Robin Williams was found dead of “an apparent suicide,” the coroner released details about how he was found, including the fact he had a belt around his neck, how it was attached to a door, that Williams was fully clothed, etc.
Outrageous or not? The feelings of the family always lurk in the back of your mind when you think about this stuff. It's ALWAYS a great idea to put yourself in the place of the next of kin on these things. Most of the objections very reasonably say that releasing the details unnecessarily inflicts pain on the families. No question about that. But I keep coming back to human nature.
Human nature abhors an information vacuum. So I believe if you didn’t tell the world about how Williams actually killed himself, the world would just fill in the vacuum with inaccurate crap that could end up being MORE damaging to the family’s feelings. Yes, this sucks. But I compare it to gravity. Gravity sucks if you jump off a building, but it is what it is.
Birthing of a Rumor 101: somebody says “I wonder if Williams was naked?” That quickly becomes “I heard somewhere that Williams might have been naked” which morphs into “they say Williams was naked” and then late-stage “Well, if he wasn’t naked, how come nobody official has said anything?”
Everybody does it on some level. Not you? Ha. Information vacuum at work and you just waited or the official word? No speculations? No “I bet it’s because …” Everybody does it on some level.
Facts are the only antidote to rumors in the marketplace of ideas. Now that those of us who are interested have a basic concept, we can debunk all the crazy crap that we hear. “No, the coroner's report said he was fully clothed.” I like being able to say that to people who come up with crazy stuff. Sunshine (having things out in the open) kills the evil “what I heard” shadows and the wackjob theory cockroaches alike.
The Ward/Stewart case is even more interesting. I haven’t heard one lamentation about the public release of a video shot by a fan that captured the event. I certainly don’t lament its release because it instantly rules out all kinds of crazy talk. Nobody can say “he was standing on the track (stationary) and Stewart went out of his way to ran him over.” Without the video, that allegation has a ton more legs. (“That’s what someone at the track said!”) With the video, that assertion is clearly rubbish. Ward wasn’t standing; he was walking toward the car. So it instantly disproves a lot of stuff we’d wonder about without the video.
First thing I said when I read initial stories was “I wonder if he was just standing by his car or what?” Video gives me the picture. The video is being analyzed by expert and amateur detectives in a Zappruder-like, frame-by-frame fashion, but that’s far far better than having no video for us all to see.
Sensationalized information: Believe it or not, during the nine years as a reporter for the fifth-largest daily paper in Iowa I was accused of this one off and on. Believe it or not, EVERY reporter, no matter how moral or pure or ethical, gets accused of sensationalizing AND being "liberal" off and on. Usually I allegedly sensationalized things to “sell newspapers.” Well, I can guarantee you I never intentionally “sensationalized” anything in my life for any reason, according to my definition of “sensationalized.” Therein lies the rub. There are a lot of definitions of that word, and your definition tends to be colored by the subject at hand.
Is a headline “Robin Williams Believed to Have Hung Himself” sensationalizing or just stating the facts? Headline: “Ward Hit, Killed by Stewart” sensationalized or not? The headlines are largely factual (although “Stewart’s car” is more accurate). Usually the “sensationalize!” tag is given based on what facts journalists choose to emphasize. So “Robin Williams Believed to Have Hung Himself” and “Williams Dead of Apparent Suicide” are both accurate, yet some would say using the “hung himself” is sensationalizing it.
These debates can go on forever because we all have our own definition of “sensationalize.” Some stuff hits almost everyone’s definition. Tabloids make a living on sensationalizing headlines. And, like negative political ads that everyone claims to hate, sensationalized headlines work in that they get attention.
Also, your emotional closeness to the story dramatically broadens your definition of “sensational.” If I really like a race car driver John Doe, I’ll be WAY more sensitive to how it's handled, and way more likely to decry something as sensational.
Inaccurate Information: Here my sympathies are unreservedly with the journalists. The VAST majority of journalists -- regardless of how big the media organization they work for is -- care about getting it right. Often these inaccuracies show up in early stories when there are only fragments of information, yet enough to go with a story. Again, journalism is a business, so if you hold and your competitors go, you lose business. Balancing that is the idea that going with something that is wrong is not only ethically bad, it screws your credibility down the road, and loses you business. Journalism is not an easy business, especially in these high-drama stories.
So, for the initial stories on something, I tend to give out a lot of slack. It’s hard to get it 100% right on the first story. You can technically get it 100% right — you accurately quote someone on the record who didn’t have it right themselves and says something wrong. So you quoted them accurately but what they said was wrong. So your story is both right and wrong, if that makes sense. In hard news, if the sheriff says there were four people shot and two injured, you don’t have to count the bodies before you go with the story. If the sheriff did the math wrong later, that’s not an “inaccuracy” on your part.
It's easy to point out small and not-so-small errors in early stories even 24 hours after the fact. And if the story just stopped right there with no subsequent stories where more facts were more precisely given, it would be bad. But in these cases, there were many many stories after the fact that helped to clarify the situation. I didn’t see anything in any media that is worth looking at that was glaringly crazy given the time constraints and pressures under which it was produced. That doesn’t mean they weren’t out there; it only means the stories I looked at were reasonably accurate.
Willful attempts by the media to get it wrong, damage someone. I think that 95% or more of professional journalists (I'm talking about news writers, not opinion writers) do NOT decide they want to “get someone.” Never have I ever heard of a real news outlet — ABC, NBC, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today etc. etc. — calling a meeting and sayingL: “How are we going to screw Person A todayand sell papers/generate clicks? What’s our Screw Person A plan?” I don’t think Media Vendettas actually happen. Now, fringe crazy media may have agendas, which is precisely why I stay away from fringe crazy media in cases like Williams and Stewart/Ward.
I don’t think “mainstream” media of any kind is “out to bury Tony Stewart.” They are competing for viewers, to be sure, but distorting reporting in a willful attempt to screw someone? Don’t buy it. Not going to buy it without some concrete evidence beyond "why else would they choose such a headline?" The various interpretations of “sensationalized” and nuanced wrongness of articles are not enough evidence for me to impugn the integrity of the journalists involved. Also, virtually every journalist (OK, there was the one) I have ever met is not the kind of glory and power hungry person it would take to abuse their power to “get someone.”
Lack of standing to comment. “Standing” is a legal term (and I’ll be indicted of being a media elitist by using it!) that deals with the right to do something. In the legal world, if a law doesn’t impact me, I have no “standing” to challenge it in court. So if a law that focuses on 17-year-old girls, a single man age 50 with no daughters has no standing to challenge that law, because that law does not impact him.
Whenever there’s something big enough in racing to get the attention of national, non-racing news media — often a death on the track — the lack of standing argument comes up, as in “Big Media A shouldn’t be covering this because they have no knowledge of racing.” I get the argument, but at the same time don’t agree. Practically speaking, Big Media A is going to cover it, no matter what you think of it, so lamenting that they do is kind of a waste of energy.
But, putting that aside, yes, the lack of knowledge of racing leads to some inaccuracies. A fundamental knowledge of the racing genre can help improve the journalism. But here’s something odd I have observed: the sentiment that if you knew about racing, you would know something else. As in, “if you knew what it was like to drive a sprint car, you would know it was an accident” or even more odd “if you knew Tony Stewart, you would know he would never do anything like that on purpose.”
That fascinates me, because it clearly contradicts the almost-univrsal call for lack of bias AND lack of conclusion drawing by the media. We want objectivity, remember? How can you objectively declare someone NOT GUILTY until the facts are fully vetted? I don’t want the media to tell me it was an accident when the facts are still in dispute. I’d prefer to know the facts of what happened and draw my own conclusions. That the Ward/ Stewart incident was an “accident,” although probable from what I have seen, has not been declared or opined on by anyone with possession of all the facts (including Stewart’s statements) as of yet, so there is no way a journalist should make that jump.
I also don’t want media coverage impacted by personal knowledge of the people involved. Back in the stone age (1982-1986) when I studied journalism in college, there was a school of thought that news reporters should NEVER write opinion columns, and that we shouldn’t even belong to clubs or organizations aside from a church or other religious organization. The theory was that abstaining from such organizations removed even the appearance of bias. In other words, if I had opined about something I cover, then my objectivity as a journalist could be questioned. “Well, we read your column, so we know where your biases are.”
Nowadays (and I’m not saying this is better or worse) every news reporter is also a columnist. Everyone who covers racing seemingly writes opinions about racing, goes on radio or TV to opine about it and more. Granted, sports journalism is a different animal than straight news journalism, but still, this lack of separation between News and Opinion bugs me. There is no possible way I (or you) would want me to cover a hard news story that involves a driver like Ed Carpenter, Danica Patrick, Pippa Mann, Sarah Fisher and others, because I am avowed fans of those people. I'm always prattling on about how great they are. The reason I am an avowed fan -- and would never presume to cover BREAKING NEWS these days -- is because I am a blogger, not a journalist. My days of attempting to “cover” hard news objectively are long over. Now I strictly offer opinions, which is a far far far different thing.
So in some sense, being too familiar or tight with the genre or the people involved is not ideal.
When it comes to opinion writing, well anyone can do that. I'm doing it right now. I take it all with a huge grain of salt. Someone writes a screed indicting Stewart or Ward or both of heinous crimes and idiocy. UMBRAGE. At the end of the day 1) it's going to happen no matter how worked up you get about it and 2) those kinds of hatchet jobs are pretty rare, and don't have near the impact on popular opinion as you suppose.
ALSO, they spur others in to offer competing opinions ("Writer A is full of shit and here's why!") in the Marketplace of Ideas. And often something very good comes out of the process. For example, in reaction to opinions on the Ward/Stewart story, many pieces have been done that talk about or show what you can and cannot see from the driver's seat of a sprint car. The short answer is "very little." It's like looking out a window. You can see ahead, but to the sides? Limited. Visibility out the right side of a winged sprint car is extremely poor because the big wing side plate is hanging down. I didn't know that before. Recall: sprint cars have no mirrors and no spotter radios. The driver is litterally on his or her own out there.
Intentional laziness or favoritism because the media are complicit with one side or another. Again, I don’t this much exists, or is ultra-rare at best. People love to hurl it out there anyway and accept the applause of otheres who are SURE this is true. Ever since the media began there have been accusations that reporters protect their friends for whatever reason, often because we are getting paid, or want to ride on their G6 jets or whatever. Often this accusation comes up when someone who thinks something is going on (CIA is kidnapping poor children!) doesn’t get the story they want. “Nobody will listen! They are all in on it!” Sorry, but most often there’s simply no proof that an allegation is true. No proof, no story, which is known as fairness/objectivity, but very hard to accept for some people.
Sometimes there is something going on and the media miss it. But I just don’t think that the kind of widespread, media-in-the-pocket of so-and-so exists.
Bottom line for me …
The Media is not monolithic. The resulting crazy debate will tell you all you need to know about how diverse The Media is today. Is Fox News the same as New York Times? Not in my book, but maybe in your book. Again, see: Marketplace of Ideas.
Most reporters to the best they can. Humans make mistakes. Most are trying to get it right under some difficult circumstances. The VAST majority have the best intentions.
News media organizations “out to get” someone is rare and probably just never happens. Aside from the fact that it would take an organization FULL of assholes and morally corrupt people for this to be true , it makes no sense. “Just trying to sell papers/get clicks/make a name for themselves.” Doubtful. I’m going to sell out and be an asshole to “make a name for myself?” What does that get me? Millions of dollars? Great tables at restaurants? I don’t see reward that would justify this kind of cabal behavior. Again, I'm referring to news stories here, as opposed to opinion writers. Some of those re clearly grinding axes, but that's the nature of the Opinion Beast.
There’s nothing new here. These very same accusations have been lodged against The Media forever. If you think there’s yellow journalism going on now, I’d invite you to take a gander at the history of the media. Back in the day when newspapers were the undisputed titans of media (19th and first half of teh 20th Century) there was LESS restraint than today in my view. If the Stewart/Ward incident happened in 1935 (or even 1955), you’d probably cringe to death over those headlines.
Today the checks and balances on big media are greater than ever, thanks to the proliferation of little media, including blogs.
Here’s the danger that I see: without professional journalists, whose livelihood depends on their employment, and employment depends on getting it right and first, (which differentiates them from us bloggers) we’re in trouble. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. The day we’re relying on volunteer media (like bloggers) and advocacy groups for our “facts” will be a very sad day indeed.