America's Media Woes, Navigated by a Scalded Frog, Part 2
The ongoing immigration debate surrounding "family separation" highlights the hazards of using social media trends to dictate news content, what's at stake as the lines blur between journalism and activism, and a tragic example of what true journalism looks like, that's up next on Gist Say'n.
I'm Alison Kartevold, the little frog who was scalded, but not boiled in the waters of national TV news, here now to help you navigate the hazards that hover just beneath the country's current murky media waters. Thanks for being with me for Part 2 of the first official episode of Gist Say'n.
During the research phase of this podcast, I found way too many current examples for just one episode, so I divided it into two parts. If you missed Part 1 be sure to check it out. In light of the June court ruling that allowed the AT&T merger to proceed, it examined vertical integration, plus the impact oligarchy ownership, and groomed bias has on the news.
From the time it took to record Part 1 and upload it and the related article to the website yesterday, a story broke that altered what I would be talking about in Part 2. Out of a horrible tragedy emerged an example of what true journalism really looks like.
This is Real Journalism
Hours after an attack on its own offices that left colleagues and friends, injured and dead, The Capital Gazette put out its Friday edition. If this surprises you then you don't understand what drives real journalists. They don't work at a community paper for the pay or fame, it's a calling.
The fact that traumatized staff put out a paper is not surprising, heck I once helped put on a newscast while our newsroom was literally on fire.
What is so very commendable is how they did it. The front page simply reads, "5 shot dead at The Capital." No emotion, just the facts.
It didn't stop there, an accompanying article documented the events in a clean, straightforward manner with the headline of, Five dead in 'targeted attack' at Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, police say; Laurel man charged with murder.
Granted, the reporters that wrote this story, work for the paper's parent publication, The Baltimore Sun, but this still struck close to home, and ultimately the paper's editors chose the tone of how the event be handled.
If this happened to someone you cared about, how would you describe it? Could you put aside your own bias and emotions? Do you the people who worked with those killed feel any less than you? No, but they chose to honor their friends and their profession, by locking down their personal feelings and doing the job.
The story is tragic, but this article didn't have a bunch of loaded words and speculation, it just gave the facts as they knew them, gathered from all available sources, including social media. If you want to see an example of real journalism, I suggest you read it.
The suspected gunman is in custody and has been charged with five counts of murder. His motives reportedly stem from a long- running feud with the paper that began in 2011 and include a court case and threatening emails and tweets.
A retired editor of the Capital has been quoted as being worried that someday this man would care out an actual attack at the paper.
Though he had no previous criminal record, a member of the suspect's family has said that he was a loner who had trouble communicating, and who had grown even further isolated from his family after the death of his grandmother.
The Capital did articles highlighting each of the people who were killed. Correctly, I believe, sending more time on the lives they lived than on the man who killed them.
It is Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith, who should be remembered, not the shooter. I'm not even going to say his name. Don't get me wrong, if I were covering the shooting, yes, of course, I would identify him, but his name doesn't advance the story I'm talking about today, and attention is one of the things these people seek.
As impressive as I find the conduct and professionalism of the journalists at the Capital Gazette, they were not the reason for this podcast. It is time to talk about the opposite of what was displayed on the Capital's pages.
From Journalism to Activism
So how did we get here? To a place where the student editor of a high school paper declares,"Journalism is a form of activism," and is praised, rather than counseled by the paid working journalists around her.
Rebecca Schneid and her classmates were thrust into the public eye because they lived through the horrible school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, then embarked on a crusade to protect other kids from school shootings, culminating in the March for Our Lives.
When Reliable Sources tweeted out the opinion Schneid had expressed on the show, it started an online debate, something the show's host, Brian Stelter, said he didn't expect. Opinions ran the gamut, but one tweet from National Journal political editor, Josh Kraushaar, was the most shared, be it not always favorably.
"Journalism isn't activism; it's presenting the facts, honestly and objectively. It's this mentality that's killing trust in our profession," Kraushaar wrote. He expressed a desire not to single out Schneid, but said,"this mentality, at least from my experience, is more common among younger journalists."
Less than half of Americans surveyed for a Knight Foundation study released in January said they could think of a single news source that reports the news objectively.
I talked about the loss of objectivity in part one, but the onset of social media is another major reason why we face this journalist versus activist dilemma, the consequences of which are far-reaching.
Back in July of 2013, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, spoke to the U.N. Security Council about journalist security, “Protecting journalists these days is hard, perhaps harder than ever, because one has to tackle the question of who is a journalist and who is an activist in a way that never existed before.”
Engel explained how the advent of social media all but eliminated the special status that international correspondents use to have. He said social media has made it hard to distinguish between professional journalists, activists, “rebels with cameras” and “state broadcasters.” All of whom he said are “fundamentally different from journalists” and do not deserve the same protections as those risking their lives to provide an objective record of events.
According to Engel, “If one cannot or will not write an article that goes against one’s cause, then one is not a journalist and does not deserve to be treated like one.”
The shift from journalism to activism didn't happen overnight, and it's not just because more journalists are liberal than conservative. The over-representation of liberal journalists is nothing new.
In 2006, a survey of journalists by the Pew Research Center compared findings to its 2002 data and determined that journalists were still more than twice as likely to lean leftward than the overall population.
Since the majority of journalists have always been liberal, what's changed to turn them into not liberal journalists but liberal activists? Well, multiple things really, and as in the past, say during the era of Joseph Pulitzer's and William Randolph Hearst’s "yellow journalism" frenzy of the late 18 and early 1900's, it started from the top and worked its way down.
First companies bought up TV stations for the entertainment programming, and determined that the news organizations needed to start pulling their weight in the revenue department, then they decided to take advantage of the news department’s other real value. Instead of being vehicles of Public Service as first mandated by the FCC, a news program could instead be used to sway opinion in favor of its parent company’s interests and endeavors. (For examples see Part 1)
In my experience, people drawn to careers in news media are largely do-gooder types, or narcissists, or a bit of both. Let's just say there are a lot of big egos. None of whom likes to think they're doing something because a company tells them to. I think this, at least in part, is why some turn to activism. They have to convince themselves that what they're doing is right and just, and not being forced upon them by an invisible corporate hand.
That and because there are no consequences when they do, on the contrary, there are often rewards. Their natural bias and self-preservation are groomed to dovetail in with their employer's own interests.
I'd like to think I’d stand up to corporate interests the same way today as I did in the past, but I haven't been my family's primary beard winner for two decades. It is easy to stand up for your principles and ethics when you are young and have no one depending on you, but you. As the years progress and you get married, get a mortgage, have kids, it can be harder and harder to swim against the tide. And when bias is expected, it becomes easier and easier to just go along. Easier still is when you've never been taught anything different.
When I first started, if another station beat you to air with a story, the only way you could even mention that story was after you had done the legwork to verify its validity yourself. Now organizations routinely just quote the other outlet's story, and casually mention that they haven't verified it themselves. Unverified tweets are even fair game.
Social Media Sources
According to another Pew Research Study, as of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of adult Americans get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often. Even companies and officials now use Twitter and Facebook instead of press releases to get information out as fast as possible. So it should be no surprise that major media outlets have had to embrace the platform as well.
Social media can offer an endless stream of quotes and images to supplement stories with significant time and cost saving benefits. However, the proliferation of social media is no excuse to become a conduit of misinformation. Just as in more traditional interview settings, just because someone says it, doesn’t make it true. Retweeting or sharing without first trying to verify that what that post conveys is true, are the actions of a troll, not a journalist.
I am of the old school opinion that real journalists, have a responsibility to clear the water rather than muddy it, to try and pass on facts, not fiction. This is not an easy task, and it is only a matter of time before you get something wrong. Worse than getting it wrong, is not correcting it when you make a mistake.
As a rule, I'm going to try and avoid covering politics on this podcast, but when talking about the media, that is currently obsessed with politics, it is hard to avoid. The most recent rallying cry of the battle over immigration comes in the form of “family separation.”
In the simplest of terms, from mid-April through mid-June, the government’s “zero tolerance” policy meant when people illegally crossed the border with children they were being arrested and separated from those children.
Several times in June, the hazards of taking images from social media, and using them at face value, without first doing some due diligence, has been displayed. Multiple images of young children behind fences and/or crying we're depicted as being current, and as a result of the "zero tolerance" policy in place.
More than 2,300 children were separated from the adults that tried to cross the border with them as a result of this policy, between April and the end of May, but in several cases, the most prominent images being circulated have turned out to be false.
For its coverage about "family separation,"that includes headlines like… "A Reckoning After Trump's Border Separation Policy: What Kind of Country Are We?" Time magazine incorporated an image that had been widely circulated on social media.
The original image showed a crying toddler from Honduras looking up at border patrol officers as they searched her mother.
Time isolated the child from that image and placed her on a very stylized cover for the magazine’s upcoming July 2, issue. Along with the little girl, Time editors added an isolated image of President Donald Trump looking down as if at the child. Placing the looming Trump and vulnerable toddler against a bright red background completed the new graphic.
The result is a very powerful image depicting a president who seems aloof and unmoved by the plight of an emotionally distraught child.
There is a problem though, the child depicted was never separated from her mother. Time editors say that when they built the cover, they assumed the child had been taken from her mother. Once it became known that the little girl was never separated from the parent she traveled with, Time printed this correction:
Correction (Posted June 19): The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she was taken from the scene. The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.
Other than that, Time editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, has said that his organization stands by the cover. In a prepared statement he said, "Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.” The statement also said,“The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents,"
During an interview on CNN Felsenthal continued to defend the magazine's decision to keep the cover as it was. "We chose the photo because this little girl became the face of this story on front pages and home pages and TV screens and Facebook feeds." He also said,"None of us in the media who used the photo knew what had happened to the girl after this precise moment. And I actually think part of the power of the image is that unknown."
The original picture, along with 19 others taken by Pulitzer prize-winning Getty Images photographer, John Moore, were published with a story that has the correction placed at the very end.
Yet even after the correction, the headline, "A Reckoning After Trump's Border Separation Policy" remains attached to the cover online, and the description with the original photo still reads that after being searched, mother and child were “sent to a processing center for possible separation.”
Not knowing the fate of that mother, Sandra Sanchez, and her child, is not the same as pretending not to know their fate.
Still, Bruce Shapiro, a professor of journalism ethics at Columbia University, agreed with CNN in its description that the image is iconic. He likened the cover to an editorial cartoon, and said it was "well within the parameters of editorial license."
Alright, well here comes my two cents. When Felsentha, Time's editor told CNN that the cover "symbolized this moment in America," he's right, but not in a good way.
On purely journalistic terms, it is very disappointing that Time chose to defend a narrative rather than a fact. Its choice only reinforces the public's growing distrust of news media. It perpetuates the notion of selective reporting and reinforces concerns that unseen hands with self-serving agendas are guiding the editorial choices of mainstream media.
Which brings us full circle, back to the consolidation or vertical integration concerns that were laid out in Part 1 of this podcast. Those, as well as the murky impact oligarchy media ownership in the United States can have on what stories or aspect of stories are covered, mire the industry with yellow journalism or, if you will, fake news tactics.
For decades Time has offered its own weekly window into current events that it proudly controlled, from the forest it grew to make the paper it was printed on, to the covers that could entice those passing by on the street to stop at a newsstand. But now, like all magazines in this electronic age, its star is dimming. It fights for every reader it can, just like when Hearst used "yellow journalism" to beat Pulitzer in the late 1800's. And like then, it seems editors will employ all means at their disposal. Let people call them "Fake News," what do they care, when was the last time you heard this many people talking about Time.
The magazine was sold off from the old Time Warner parent company several years ago and is up for sale again. Those who have current ownership include the Koch brothers.
Charles and David Koch are billionaires known for their use of super PACs and lobbying ventures to influence and sway politicians toward policies that favor their vast holdings. In at least the last decade, their money has flowed primarily to Republicans. However, the Koch brothers are not huge fans of President Trump and some of his policies, especially those policies involving foreign trade and immigration.
Right after the President announced tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, it was announced that Koch advocacy groups will spend millions of dollars throughout the next year to inform people on the hazards of tariffs.
Would editors of Time have chosen immigration as the subject of its July 2nd issue regardless of the interests of its partial owners? I think it's fair to say, yes. Would they continue to stand by that cover even after the image was proven not to depict “family separation?” Well, that is not as straightforward. With all the muck at the bottom, it's hard to say what got stirred up to cloud those particular waters. All that can be said for sure is that, in the current company climate, they are not likely to be reprimanded for it.
The Koch brothers are the equivalent of George Soros, known champion of liberal causes and money making ventures. In both instances, the agendas of these billionaires are their own and the politicians and media outlets they chose to support are merely pawns by which to achieve their goals. The inner workings of this could fill a long podcast all on its own so I won't go deeper, I'll simply say, in this day and age news consumers need to be aware of all the possible hands that guide the stories they see.
So Here's the Gist
While we live in a time of more news outlets than ever before, be aware that there are scant few independent sources.
Big corporations, often led by majority holding billionaires, have been and will continue to buy up more and more of the country’s news media outlets, vertically integrating them to share resources and information across multiple platforms.
Gone are the days when newsgathering operations were managed as a public service, but are now too often just another avenue to generate revenue, and peddle influence. All of which translates into fewer reporters, covering fewer unique stories, filling more airtime and electronic screens than ever before.
The voices and viewpoints you are exposed to on air and online are often being directed by the same behind the entities. That in itself is not good, what makes it worse is the fact that these entities have chosen a side, or an agenda and they are using their outlets to push that agenda forward. It doesn’t matter which side they chose, this is ultimately bad for democracy.
All of this means, to stay informed, you have to work a bit harder and not be so sensitive. Don't get all your news from one source. If you agree with everything on one outlet, beware that they are not just pandering to your viewpoint. Go out of your comfort zone and watch, listen, and read information from sites and sources you know you don't agree with. Somewhere in the middle is usually where you find the truth.
Disagreement is fine, but be honest, and civil, without civility democracy breaks down. Civility, perhaps that to can be a future episode of which I hope there are many more to come. Until then, please download the podbean app and player from itunes or google play, so you can easily find us at home or on the go. Unfortunately, they don't pay me to say this, I pay them to host the podcast, if you prefer iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify, be patient we are getting there, it can take a while to become visible on those sites. In the meantime, sign up on our website and social media accounts to stay up to date with what's coming next.
This is Alison Kartevold, and I'm Gist Say'n.
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