Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Good News From Colombia And Why Good Ratings Don't Necessarily Always Equal Quality News

Well, I had this all typed up after the show and then lightening struck my Internets. The provider of my Internets, anyway. Don't you just love hanging on the phone with tech support? Sigh.

Hi everybody! Tonight was all BREAKING NEWS, but it was shockingly about something good. So, as always, let's take a moment to savor. You done? Okay, so for the past five years three Americans (and others actually) have been held hostage by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and today, after Colombia's military intelligence finagled some awesome punking of their captors, they're coming home. Woo hoo! You might remember that 360 covered the hostage story back in May 2007 and then again that June (at which time I apparently learned to correctly spell "Colombia").

In terms of coverage criticism, this is a toughy. So I'm going to start with the pats on the back. Stories like these are when CNN's wide-ranging reach really gets its chance to shine. Doing a story on Colombia? Dude, we've got somebody living there. Get him on the phone. And kudos to Anderson Cooper and the rest of the 360 team for smoothly handling a changing story, all the while supplying us with mostly informative guests.

Now onto the criticism. Regular viewers know 360 has a big tendency to shark-jump with stories, be it over one day or several. We've all seen it. You start watching a story and you think, "this is a good/important story." Then they cover it more and you think to yourself, "still a good/important story." Then they cover it more and start adding in speculation, causing you to think, "okay, when are they moving on?" At this point all the newsiness is gone from the story, but they're still covering it and you're angry, thinking, "Jeebus, is nothing else going on in the world?" And the next thing you know you're watching a reporter stake out a prostitute. For example.

Did they shark-jump tonight? Honestly, I'm not really sure. I mentally checked out due to distractions about 40 minutes in. Everything I paid attention to was pretty solid, but I do know it was the only story they covered. Playing devil's advocate against myself, the show would argue that they're keeping on the story for viewers just checking in to catch the breaking news and besides, isn't that kind of the point of a 24-hour news network?

So they'd have a good case. One does wonder, however, why they went to tape during most of the second hour if the story was important enough to drown out all other coverage in the first hour. And about that, I've said this before, but 360 seriously needs to throw up a "previously taped" bug for their second hour, especially when they have breaking news. Because the average clicking-around viewer doesn't realize that what they're watching isn't live and when Anderson or a guest talks about something to come "next hour," it's not cool because there is no "next hour." Next hour is Larry King. And nobody wants unexpected Larry King. It's jarring.

I'm going to transition now to Anderson Cooper's kind of unusual post on the blog today. Unusual for him anyway--he's not much of a ratings talker. So, 360 is beating Greta. Woo! Pizza party! I'd take issue with the ratings skewing, but I'm about to rain on their parade anyway. Before that though, let's take a look at this part of the post:
Some people seem to spend as much time trashing their rivals as they do reporting the news. I understand why they do it, I get it, but I don’t want to take part in it, and I respect the fact that my competition on FOX, Greta Van Susteren has chosen not to do that as well.
Uh, come again? Has somebody forgotten about being crowned "The Paris Hilton of News"? Okay, you could argue that Greta had nothing to do with it. But what about when she dissed how many people 360 has on their staff? Or when she recently did some kind of mocking about the "Beat 360" t-shirts (granted Anderson has also done mocking of those) I'm not completely sure what all she said because I came across the post on the Google, not long after it was made, but it had already been taken down or something. You can see a little bit of it here. Perhaps this was just Anderson's way of saying, "hey there Greta, how about we play nice and not make nasty ads about each other, k? Thanks." A preemptive strike with kindness, if you will.

Now, on to the meatier criticism. Says Anderson:
We’ve focused a lot on politics these past six months, and our viewers have responded. It’s great to win, but it’s even better to win reporting on things that are important. So, thank you, and I promise we will continue to work hard to bring you in depth coverage of the day’s most important stories.
Look, I can't argue about the viewers responding. Clearly they're tuning in. And tripping over each other on the blog to heap praise, though that's another story. But all that doesn't automatically mean they're bringing us "in depth coverage of the day's most important stories." You know the phrase, "you don't know what you're missing"? Well, I think a lot of viewers think they're getting great coverage simply because they don't know what they're missing.

I have two examples of this from my own life. First off, I have this family member who is very smart and very educated. One day I started talking to her about the news and somehow the latest missing white girl came up. She was upset about the story and asked me what I thought. I explained that I of course hoped everything would turn out alright, but quite frankly didn't think it was something the national news should be focusing on. And you know what? She completely agreed; she just really hadn't thought about it like that before. Another time I was discussing the Military Commissions Act of 2006 with this same family member and how it ripped away habeas corpus rights. She was upset and said something I still remember to this day: "but I didn't hear anything about that."

The other example took place in college and might just be what I would call my media awakening. I actually minored in Media Communications, but funnily enough the biggest media lesson I learned in college was in an intense psychology class on the Holocaust. The professor came into the room and split the blackboard in two with her chalk. At the top of the first section she wrote, "Lewinsky scandal," and at the top of the second section she wrote, "Kosovo." She then opened the floor for us to call out everything we knew about each subject, which she subsequently wrote down. By the time all the responses had peetered out, the "scandal" section of the board was completely covered, while the second section was only about a fifth covered. And almost all of that information had been provided by one woman who explained she was an avid NPR listener. Obviously the Lewinsky thing lead to very important news, but all the irrelevant details of the scandal itself were covered ad nauseam. We all know about the stained dress and Linda Tripp, don't we?

I think a lot of us left that room feeling a sense of shame. The thing was, I did try to keep up with the mainstream news. I was a busy college student, so I didn't have time to sit down and do a lot of newspaper reading, but I thought I had things covered. Sure, I was aware that the news could be sensational. I just never really thought about the fact that while they were being sensational, they weren't telling me really important things. There was my lesson staring me in the face in the form of a blackboard. It was a good lesson to learn. That afternoon I programmed NPR into my car radio and that night I found an international news broadcast to watch on PBS.

So what's my point here? People are busy. They have lives and work and kids. And 99.9% of them aren't freaks like me who count news as a hobby. They don't know half the important things they're missing. I'm not trying to claim that something like habeas corpus was never covered at all. What I'm saying is it never got the kind of coverage that let it get to the tipping point where it becomes a topic of national conversation. Imagine if that, or troops getting electrocuted in Iraq, or any number of very important things got Imus-type coverage. News would be different. Better. More informative. Americans need a little help right now. Some of us are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. People don't have time to be editors. I would never expect (or want) the media to tell us what to think. But whether they like it or not, they do tell us what to think about and it would be nice if we could see more of those "most important stories," that Anderson seems to think 360 is covering every night.


Anonymous Duffy said...

*stands up and applauds*

Very good post, Eliza. I agree with you completely. Anderson & Co. have their heads in the sand if they really don't think that 360's taken the road down to Foxification. I loved your story about the blackboard, and though I find it sad and depressing, it's probably sadly representative of the rest of America, too.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous rosephile said...

Dude, eloquent! Posts like this are the reason *I* don't have a blog, haha.

I'm not quite sure Anderson's still in denial--his comments in that post seemed moving toward an almost [i]knowing[/i]/having a warning or defiant undertone to 'em. But I *am* speculating here... ;)

2:27 AM  
Blogger eliza said...

@duffy--Thanks! Yeah, my blackboard story will probably stay with me for the rest of my life because it was such an eye opener. It's shocking to be shown that you're not as informed as you thought you were.

@anonymous-Thank you.

@rosephile--Thanks. And welcome to my comments section. ;P Aw, you could have a blog.

Well, being defiant is a kind of denial, I think. I would think if he wasn't at least partially in denial he wouldn't be all that happy. I know he's made references to "being able to sleep at night" before. I'm holding onto the belief that this is all due to a combination of ratings pressure and being in the media bubble.

3:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All over the world the world the newspapers are carrying dumbeddown reports. Murder, rape and various scandals are getting front page slots. Anjalina Jolies--Brad Pit couples are getting more reams of newsprint.
sky rocketing food prices across the world, flood and famine are dumped into inside pages.
Media has the responsibility to inform and educate people.

Why the crude price is sky rocketing and what's the long term solution. Educate people to opt for more fuel efficient vehicles. Use more public transport etc. etc

1:18 PM  

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