Going Live: Quality or Stupidity?

WARNING: OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE IN CLIP

If Bill O’Reilly had read chapter 16 of Aim for the Heart by Al Tompkins, the American people would have never been gifted with the YouTube phenomenon that is Bill O’Reilly’s Inside Edition freakout.

In his chapter on how journalists can report ethically to minimize harm, Tompkins addresses questions every journalist should ask before going live. I’ll highlight a few of the most important questions in this post.

  1. The most important is “What are your motivations for going live?”

Tompkins uses September 11th as a perfect example of necessary live reporting. People both wanted and needed to know what was going on. The events according to Tompkins were of “vital public importance.” The live reporting on 9/11 also allowed the millions of people watching around the world to “quickly understand the scope and nature of the threat, even as the story was still unfolding,” according to Tompkins.

2. “Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story?”

Fox News clearly was not prepared when they went live with a car chase during Shepard Smith’s show on September 28, 2012. The show had been cutting to the Phoenix, Arizona car chase periodically throughout Shep Smith’s hour long show, which airs at 3 p.m. EST. When a man emerged from the car being chased, Smith started narrating the man’s actions while viewers watched the live footage. The man shortly pulled out a gun and shot himself on live TV in front of millions of viewers. Smith yelled “Get off it!” and the show cut to commercial.

The show did have the footage on a five second delay, which Tompkins refers to as an “electronic safety net.” Smith and Michael Clemente, Fox News Vice President of News, both apologized for the disturbing scene. Clemente blamed the footage airing on “severe human error.”

3. “What factor does the time of day play in your decision to cover a breaking event?” 

Twenty-four hour news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN often rely on breaking live news to fill their endless amounts of time. These channels also usually reach a specific audience, such as the elderly, and other adults who are home during the day. Hopefully, not too many kids were watching Fox News when the disturbing image above was played. Local news and national news have to be more careful with live footage, as families often watch these programs together.

Going live is a risky practice for any journalist. Asking these questions can help avoid terrible situations like the one faced by Fox News in September. As Tompkins shows in this chapter of Aim for the Heart, reporting live without being adequately prepared can have dire consequences. It can also be a very stressful situation for everyone involved, including the journalist (lookin’ at you O’Reilly).

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Is Sandy going to be Katrina Part II?

Sandy is the most hated name in the country right now. The violent “superstorm” left millions of Americans across 24 states without power. Much of the mainstream media coverage of the event has been focused on New York City and New Jersey. Images of the famous Jersey shore in ruins are some of the most circulated across the internet, as well as the damage in New York City itself. The image of a New York City subway station underwater is one of the most disturbing images associated with the disaster.

Controversy regarding the amount of coverage paid to New York City over other areas affected by the storm has been a national discussion over the last few days.

This video, which I saw on the NBC Nightly News, was particularly disturbing to me.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8004316/ns/video/#49650027

Brian Williams, who I trust more than almost anyone for objective news reporting, compared the situation in Staten Island to those that we saw in the lower ninth ward after Hurricane Katrina.

Williams also ends the piece by questioning the city’s decision to hold the New York City Marathon. He echoes Rep. Michael Grimm (featured at 2:23 in the video) saying “The city of New York right  now is preparing for a marathon…we’re pulling bodies out of water. Do you see the disconnect here?”

The New York City Mayor’s Office announced on Friday, November 2, that the NYC Marathon would be canceled. The statement from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office reads:

“While holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division. The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination. We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it.”

The Mayor’s office directly referring to the controversy surrounding the marathon in their statement was a smart move. As is Rep. Grimm and Brian Williams calling out the city. The aftermath of Katrina deeply divided the country, and those wounds are still healing.

The lower ninth ward, which is still not fully recovered from the storm after 7 years, is one of the poorest areas in New Orleans. Many documentaries and other media in the months and years following the disaster asked why FEMA and the government never seemed to even try to help the people affected by the storm in that area.

The people living in that area are unlike the residents of Staten Island who we saw pleading for help. No camera crews visited the area until long after the storm. They never had the opportunity to be the face of the forgotten, lost in the devastation, like these Staten Island residents are.

The fact that New York City government officials are acknowledging the Staten Island situation, even discussing the controversy in their decision to cancel the marathon, leaves me feeling hopeful that the aftermath of Sandy will not be on the same level as Katrina.

Sandy victims still need aid though, especially as temperatures are continuing to drop on the East Coast.

Worth a Thousand Words?: Graphics in Journalism

Al Tompkins’ discussion of graphics in chapter ten of Aim for the Heart proves that looks really do matter.

According to Tompkins, viewers only understand 1/3 of what they see on television (pg. 132). Graphics in news broadcasts need to be simple and to the point, but still pleasing to the eye.  Shapes are important in news graphics, as most people can understand certain images and signs with little to no explanation. Tompkins illustrates this point using a hippo crossing sign he saw in South Africa (pg. 130). The shape of the sign, along with the colors used, and the overall design enabled Tompkins to understand the sign completely without the use of a single word. An overabundance of graphics without explanation though, could create confusion.

Accuracy in graphics is just as important than the aesthetic aspects. Graphics, just as the story itself, should answer the who, what, when, where, why and how in the most concise way possible.  Relating a statistic, such as an extremely large number, to a visual thing an average viewer would understand creates a successful graphic.

Tompkins cites the MegaPenny Project as a great example of this. This website compares various amounts of pennies to other object. This website seems relatively pointless to me though. Who cares that ten million pennies would make a perfect 6 foot cube? It’s completely unrealistic for most people to imagine ten million pennies in a cube!

A much better example is the one Tompkins cites from Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 report where she relates finding a cancerous cell in a PAP smear to finding a certain type of car in a distant, massive parking lot. Everyone can understand this analogy, we’ve all seen huge parking lots. ABC News succeeded in this aspect again with this report on SAT scores. By using a soccer team as an analogy to describe how colleges determine admissions by SAT scores, ABC News took a very confusing topic and made it easy to understand to everyone, without requiring them to imagine how something would be stacked or weighed to be relatable to something else.

At my job at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, we had to take a self-inventory test to determine what kind of learner we are. I was an overwhelmingly visual learner, rather than auditory or kinesthetic learner. The rest of the staff also all identified as visual learners. We took this test to determine how we could best reach our audience. We act as educators at the museum who inform and entertain our audience, very similar to journalists. This test made me realize how important it is to use graphics and images not just in my museum tour, but in any situation where I need to explain something. Chapter ten of Aim for the Heart reinforced this idea by using powerful graphics itself!

You should watch this.

This slideshow featured on the New York Times website is an interesting mix of informative and entertainment journalism. The pictures and audio together create much stronger emotions in a reader/viewer than they would experience by reading a brief summary of the events depicted in the slideshow. The way that the voices of the soldiers’ featured echo the images we see is especially moving. We feel what they felt through hearing their voices and seeing their experiences. Added effects like the gun fire especially make us feel like we’re there with the men. These added effects are not “unethical” because they are not causing any harm or taking anything away from the story, they are only enhancing the reader/viewer’s experience.

Effects like those mentioned above really add to the narrative structure of the piece. The story of these soldiers is presented as more of a story rather than a news item. It starts out with an introduction to Pvt. Dewater via image, with the other soldiers describing their mission to us through the audio. They face tragedy in Pvt. Dewater’s death, which is also the climax of the story, including gunfire and frenzied yelling. The story ends on somewhat of a positive note though, with the remaining soldiers investigating Pvt. Dewater’s death and saying that “at the end of the day this is our job, and we love what we do.”

One image that was especially striking to me was shown after Pvt. Dewater had died. The soldier in the picture was covering his face, but clearly wearing a Milwaukee Brewers hat. He was also dressed in a plain white t-shirt and normal pants, making him look like a majority of the guys who walk around campus. To think of one of my friends, classmates, even a fellow Wisconsinite in this awful and terrifying situation really made the story hit home. To think of the difference in effect that image has on me in comparison to a write-up of a soldier’s death or of military action is especially interesting. I think especially in journalism today that a picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

I enjoyed the way this news item was presented. Though some might find it more of a human interest piece when presented this way, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. A slideshow like this is a more entertaining way of presenting this story than a simple write-up, and is just as informative. In today’s world, slideshows like this are also easy to view on various tablets and mobile devices, which is where most people now get their news first. As journalism continues to change with technology, “entertainment” in news shouldn’t always be considered a negative.