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A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but words themselves are at the basis of all communication. Whether we are communicating for business or personal reasons, our spoken and written words matter. These posts will address issues and answer questions related primarily to business communications, as they affect writing, credibility, marketing, and networking.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Power of the Press

TROPICAL STORM OPHELIA STRENGTHENS

ASTRODOME MAY CLOSE NEXT WEEK

BUSH REQUESTS $51.8 BILLION FOR HURRICANE RELIEF

TOXIC FLOODWATERS A CONCERN IN NEW ORLEANS

REHNQUIST MEMORIALIZED AS GREAT JUSTICE, GRACIOUS MAN

PLIGHT OF STRANDED ANIMALS WORSENING DAILY

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN MARRIAGE DISPUTE?


A quick scan of a few online news sites this morning revealed these as the top headlines of the day. What they mean to each of us differs, depending on where we live and the impact of the story's issues on our particular lives and circumstances. What separates news from gossip, in my opinion, is the weight of an issue's importance to the community at large.

Definition of Freedom of the Press

The first amendment of the US Constitution states:

"Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The press — now media — is a strange institution. I worked for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson while I was in college, and for a few years once I finished school. It gives you a different impression of the media to actually be a part of it. It's always been my hypothesis that the infamous OJ car chase and ensuing trial/media frenzy (which happened after I left my job at the Star) changed journalism forever.

The fact is, news is a business, and just like almost every other business, the profit margins drive the decision-making. And an unfortunate amount of American corporate profits depend on how well companies play along with Uncle Sam's rules. It seems to me that most Americans are deluded into believing that we really have a free press. However, I'm not so cynical as to believe there is no good that comes from the keyboard (or microphone) of a dedicated reporter.

We're more fortunate than most...we just each need to be vigilant and dig deeper than the surface if we really want to uncover anything that actually resembles truth. But then again, you could go one further and ask: "What is truth, really?" I'm willing to bet that your truth and my truth may overlap, but they are radically different. And the same can be said for every person on the planet.

One of my minors at the University of Arizona was journalism. This is the course description for one of my classes, Journalism 205:

Gathering, evaluating, and writing news. Completion of this course with a grade of C or better also satisfies the Mid-Career Writing Assessment (MCWA) requirement. This is a Writing Emphasis Course.

Incidents in journalism from my life

Don Bolles

On June 1976, when I was 9 years old, an Arizona Republic investigative reporter by the name of Don Bolles was murdered, a bomb placed beneath his car because he was getting too close to the truth in one of several stories he was researching.

"We don’t just primp"

When I was in college, I was invited to a journalism conference in downtown Phoenix, close to the same hotel where Don Bolles' car exploded, as a matter of fact. I remember being in the bathroom before the luncheon began, noticing a very well-dressed woman standing in front of the vanity mirror. She pulled a tiny can of hairspray from her purse and sprayed her hair. Then she checked her lipstick and straightened her skirt. I had no idea who she was, only that she seemed quite concerned with her appearance. I was a bit surprised when she turned out to be one of the keynote speakers for the luncheon. One of the strongest points she made was about the divide between print and broadcast journalists. She complained that the writers all seemed to think that those in broadcast weren't really journalists and that all they ever did was primp. Golly, if the shoe fits...

"Get me the most unattractive photo you can find of Carolyn Warner"

It was in 1987, during my tenure at the Star that I got to see, firsthand, how biased the "news" really can be. My first job at the Star was in the library, doing research for the reporters, copy desk, and city editors. It was exciting, interesting, and challenging work and I loved it for the first 5 years. One night, a long-time chief copy editor came in and demanded of the photo librarian that she find him the most unattractive photo she had of Carolyn Warner, then Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. I was aghast. Apparently he had a grudge or was for some reason displeased with her and decided to get even. Guess I'm getting less naive, these days.

OJ

As I mentioned earlier, this was arguably the most infamous real-life car chase of all time. A country united, watching OJ’s SUV as it was trailed for hours by southern California police, changed everything about the way we handled major news events. In fact, it changed WHAT we considered to BE major news events. Until that time, the only ongoing TV coverage that had official names and designer graphics were the kidnapping of the Iran hostages in 1980-81 (the continuing story of which birthed ABC’s Nightline show) and the hijacking of the Achille Laurel in 1985. Now, the smallest, least significant "news" gets tricked out and prettied up to become a saga onto which we can hang a catchy title and logo.

Even the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in January 1986 and the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 did not generate the kind of coverage we routinely interrupt regular programming for today when someone marginally famous does something a little odd. Since OJ, we’ve become accustomed to gluing ourselves to the TV and reading every shred of "news" about a blue stained dress, the death of a tiny model, celebrity trials of all ilk, NASA disasters — and until this past two weeks — the mother of all coverage, the image of the Twin Towers falling . . . again and again and again and again, till we saw it so many times we can now, four years later, still see it in heads.

As frustrated as I am by what I see as the devolution of the media over the last 20 years, the fact of the matter is that media is a two-way street. The National Enquirer would not have chosen, more than 30 years ago, to shift from a traditional New York City tabloid paper like the New York Daily News or the New York Post if no one read it. And the salacious style of reporting by MOST media outlets would not have come about if it didn’t work. There’s lots and lots of money in gossip . . . and the news providers are ready, able, and oh-so-willing to give the people what they want.

This is not to say that there are not reporters out there who give everything to their jobs.

Only you know how much you trust statistics, but it's been reported that as many as 40 percent of everyone in the journlism industry suffer marital difficulties related directly to their jobs.

In an excerpt from Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News is Made, David Broder reveals:

"The job is tougher on our families than on us. Divorce rates are high, and those who stay married still must contend with missed dinners, missed weekends, missed vacations. The strains arise because as journalists we put the pursuit and publication of news first. We feel the tug of family ties; of friendships; of ethnic, religious, racial, and national loyalties; and of our partisan, political, and social views. But we define ourselves by our calling, and we resolve most of our conflicts by making the goal uppermost."

As of yesterday, at least 41 journalists have been killed covering the Iraq war since it began; dozens every year around the world, the most infamous and gruesome of whose deaths was Daniel Pearl's.

The Internet has changed things. Bloggers get prime time coverage now. Love them or hate them, independent filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the guy who made the film Supersize Me, are beginning to erode the role that big business and the two primary political parties in our country have had in handcuffing one of our most precious First Amendment Rights — Freedom of the Press.

But each and every one of us, as a news consumer, has the obligation to demand that the news we see be as objective and complete as possible. I quit my subscription to Time magazine because all you ever had to do was read the last line of any article to know which way the reporter’s bias leaned. Human nature is incapable of completely unbiased reporting — but we are smarter than we give ourselves credit for. We know when we’re being lied to. We know when we’re not hearing the full story. And we know when it’s time to say . . . enough’s enough.

I’ve been reading a lot in the Katrina aftermath — I watched one TV program, but I can’t get my news that way — it doesn’t work for me. Generally, I get my news via the Op-Ed pages. That way I get both sides and I can ferret out my own version of the truth. The best piece I’ve seen out of all the myriad articles and writings I’ve read came from a woman named Meryl Runion — who writes a weekly e-zine called SpeakStrong.

"[CNN Reporter] Anderson Cooper asked Senator Mary Landrieu about responsibility for relief efforts. When Landrieu went into a litany of congratulations and praise for politicians, Anderson Cooper interrupted to say:

"'I've been seeing dead bodies and to hear politicians thanking and complimenting each other cuts the wrong way.'

"This is the kind of intolerance of spin our media and citizenry needs. Landrieu sounded wooden throughout the interview, and although Cooper's words did not immediately humanize her response, in subsequent clips Senator Mary Landrieu appeared very genuine and clear in her focus."


The press in our nation is powerful. Let’s hold up our end of the bargain and keep on keeping them accountable.

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This was my "Research Your Topic" speech for my Toastmasters club. Airpark Toastmasters meets every Thursday from 12:05 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. at the Raintree & 101 campus of University of Phoenix. Check the monitor in the lobby for the room number. Guests are always welcome at no cost!

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