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More than 20 years ago, an amateur Argentine videographer shot the film that helped accelerate the nation’s conversation concerning one its most explosive issues – race.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King ran foul of the L.A. Police Department and suffered a terrible beating. George Holliday caught the incident on his Sony Handycam and eventually leaked the video to a local TV station. As TV and media critic Eric Deggans wrote on CNN.com, Holliday unwittingly became a citizen journalist.
"Holliday became the leading edge in a revolution of technology and social attitude that has made amateur reporters of us all.
"In the process, journalism has increasingly transformed from a craft to an act; something a random club-goer initiates when 'Seinfeld' star Michael Richards tosses the n-word around onstage, or a traveling entrepreneur from Florida can practice when a passenger plane lands in the Hudson River, sending a picture via Twitter that travels across the globe in an instant."
Holliday’s decision to act stemmed from his desire to use the technology he just acquired to record a terrible wrong. Holliday then turned to the media to do something about it. Holliday may not have known it, but he was both citizen journalist and engaged citizen. Without an empowered, engaged society, citizen journalism dies on the vine.
In 1992, when the jury verdicts in the King case triggered widespread rioting, journalists across the country independently concluded it was time to examine race relations in their communities. At the Akron Beacon Journal, we examined the issue and engaged our community in an honest dialogue, based on facts and neighborhood trends. Where other newspapers dedicated scores of skilled journalists to the task, the Beacon Journal applied both reporting muscle and the gripping power of person-to-person interaction, stemming from focus groups and community meetings. Eventually, thousands in the Akron community took part. Eyes were opened, relationships were built, and we achieved the incremental change that eventually can lead to signficant societal progress.
The community was engaged.
The Beacon Journal won the Pulitzer Prize’s Gold Medal for Community Service for its reporting and its connection with the public. We were proud of both our work and our community.
Today, the media – and the global community overall -- benefit from the growing prevalence of engaged citizens and citizen journalists. Think of the images and information we would miss without them. As Deggans points out, without citizen journalists, would anyone have captured the heroism of Sully Sullenberger? Would the world have witnessed the initial hours of the valiant Haitian effort to survive a devastating earthquake? The riots in Iran? The recent revolutionary struggles in Libya? Would Egyptians have taken their first steps to become a free nation?
Gary Lee of PR analytics firm mBlast recently shared an interesting statistic at a PR measurement conference in Washington, D.C. He said there are 2 billion voices on the Internet today. Each of those voices has the potential to capture news, upload a video and captivate the world.
Sure, most of that information from those 2 billion will be poorly presented, some of it will be inaccurate and perhaps some will be purposely misconstrued. Some journalists argue that such dangers outweigh the benefits of citizen journalism.
But there is no denying the growing power of the George Hollidays of our world. The smartest media organizations know this. Citizen journalists feed the "Town Square" concept these media are fostering. It’s like gently blowing on sparks beside dry kindling.
Do you have any doubt that eventually, some of those sparks will take hold, to burn all the brighter, to engage us and accelerate our conversations?
Labor Day Weekend is the traditional end of summer and the beginning of election season, when political advertisements bombard the public and any chances of a high-level debate of the issues evaporates. As cable news coverage of the recent Gulf oil disaster indicates, this year promises to be increasingly partisan and bitter.
Few journalists in cable media even maintain a pretense of objectivity. The recent Pew Research Center report referenced in my last post describes the deterioration.
Cable news coverage of the disaster, the report said, increasingly sought to place blame for the spill rather than cover the event itself. Just where the blame belonged seemed to depend on the cable network performing the analysis. Liberal leaning MSNBC concentrated on BP’s failings, while the more conservative Fox News concentrated far more on the failings of the Obama administration, Pew reported. CNN was somewhere in the middle.
“More than half of (CNN’s) coverage was devoted to the containment, cleanup and impact storyline, while less time was devoted to the corporate and government angles, “ according to the Pew report.
MSNBC, “devoted 22% of its coverage to the government storyline and spent more time than either of its rivals on the BP/corporate storyline (31%), Pew said.
Fox News “devoted the least time to the breaking news aspect of the story and the corporate angle. Instead it easily spent the most time on the government storyline, and a good deal of that was critical.”
In yet another indication of media partisanship, it was reported in early August that News Corp., parent of Fox News, donated $1 million to the GOP.
Political donations from media corporations are not new, but rarely are they so large.
In the UK, partisan media are commonplace, even among newspapers, which trumpet their conservative or liberal bias and then go on with the job of reporting the news.
But a majority of the U.S. media have always believed themselves to be different, holding themselves to an objectivity and fairness standard worthy of the First Amendment. The growing trend of partisan coverage, most evident on the cable news channels, threatens that standard and puts further into question the ability of major media to cover a significant event, such as the Deepwater Horizon, without the taint of political slant.
In the coming weeks, as the attack ads flow and the quality of public discourse declines, watch the media, especially the cable networks. Perhaps you will note the subtle, and not-so-subtle slant. Perhaps you will wonder, what kind of treatment would I receive, or would my organization receive, during an interview? And perhaps you will ask yourself, is this a good thing?
The story was overwhelming. For days on end, from spring and into summer, oil burst from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and polluted sea and shore. Throughout, the media covered the Deepwater Horizon crisis with conviction and focus.
This week, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report detailing just how the media portrayed the worst environmental event in the nation’s history. The excellent analysis titled “100 Days of Gushing Oil, Eight Things to Know About How the Media Covered the Gulf Disaster”offers insight on a variety of fronts, but perhaps most curious is the pure amount of coverage produced.
Normally, the media’s attention span for a crisis extends about a week, depending on such circumstances as the number of people involved and other, competing news.
Remember the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007? That terrible story gripped the country….for a week. Then the media moved on.
“The massacre that left 33 people dead on the Virginia Tech campus was the biggest story in any given week that year, filling 51% of the newshole studied from April 15-20. But by the following week, coverage had plunged to 7%, and the week after that, it virtually vanished,” Pew reported.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, bloggers and those populating other social media platforms did move on to other topics. But the mainstream media, particularly broadcast media (read CNN’s Anderson Cooper) kept on top of the story.
Think back to the coverage and what sticks in your mind? Pictures of oil soaked birds. Or of ugly brown oil plumes spread across the water. Perhaps the most gripping video was the oil bursting forth from the ocean floor. Yes, this was a visual story, fueled by the never ending gushing taking place.
“The oil spill was by far the dominant story in the mainstream news media in the 100-day period after the explosion, accounting for 22% of the newshole—almost double the next biggest story. In the 14 full weeks included in this study, the disaster finished among the top three weekly stories 14 times. And it registered as the No. 1 story in nine of those weeks,” Pew reported.
“The spill story generated considerably less attention in social media on blogs, Twitter and You Tube. Among blogs, for example, it made the roster of top stories five times in 14 weeks. But during those weeks one theme resonated—skepticism toward almost all the principals in the story.”
In many crises, the public gets fatigued with the subject even before the media moves on, creating the perception the media “milk” the event. But in this case, the public’s fascination appears to have matched the coverage.
“Often between 50% and 60% of Americans said they were following the story ‘very closely’ during these 100 days. That surpassed the level of public interest during the most critical moments of the health care reform debate,” according to Pew.
Let’s see. Which was more visual? Health care debate? Oil disaster?
I signed on the CNN.com this morning and saw a curious thing. Under “Popular on Facebook” was the name of Jim Kavanagh, a former colleague of mine who now works for the CNN.com out of Atlanta. He was recommending a story.
The previous day, I had noticed Jim recommend another story.
I don’t recall the coverage he called out, but that’s OK. He’ll likely point out something else later today or in the ensuing days.
Welcome to the continually blurring lines between social media and mainstream media. Thanks to changes in Facebook designed to expand the service’s horizons, mainstream media are moving fast to become more interactive, more relevant, and more immediate. In other words, more fun.
Who’s jumping on this bus? Try ABC, ESPN, along with CNN and others. The New York Times is preparing its own version of Facebook interaction, according to this article by the Poynter Institute’s Mallary Jean Tenore.
ABCNews.com now features an “ABC News on Facebook” module that “that lets users who are signed into the site via Facebook Connect see the number of people who have “liked” a story,” Trenore said.
Jonathan Dube, vice president in charge of ABCNews.com, told Trenore that he “hopes the new features will motivate people to stay on the site longer and ultimately decrease its bounce rate. So far, the results have been promising.
“We’ve seen an over 250 percent increase in referrals from Facebook to ABC News since the launch of the Social toolkit on ABCNews.com,” Dube told her.
The Washington Post has launched a “Network News” feature, which integrates Facebook’s new plugins in a module that appears on the Post’s home page, article pages, blog posts and videos.
Washington Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti told Trenore that the goal is to help increase engagement on washingtonpost.com and give people a way to see what their Facebook friends are reading without ever having to leave the Post’s site.
“We find that, increasingly, it’s important for us to go where audiences are,” he told her. “A lot of our content is circulated on Facebook, so we ought to make it easier for our readers who are on Facebook to share content and also see what their friends like and are reading without having to leave our site.”
The blurring of Facebook and mainstream media boundaries is bound to upset some who want their news sites separate from their social sites. But revenue starved media increasingly are going where their audiences are, as Narisetti said. So if you “like” Facebook, will you “like” ABC News?
Pre-Haiti, as most news events this week should be cataloged, Tim Arango and David Carr of the New York Times published an insightful profile of Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. Out of the many points they made about the man who helped build Fox, this one really stuck out:
“At a time when the broadcast networks are struggling with diminishing audiences and profits in news, he has built Fox News into the profit engine of the News Corporation. Fox News is believed to make more money than CNN, MSNBC and the evening newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS combined. The division is on track to achieve $700 million in operating profit this year, according to analyst estimates that Mr. Ailes does not dispute.”
Pre-Haiti, this statement raised a few questions, such as:
Why does this news organization seem to thrive when many others are struggling?
How could it dominate its competition so convincingly?
Does its widely-perceived conservative political approach to news coverage appeal to so many, or does the perceived liberal political approach of other mainstream media frustrate so many?
Post-Haiti, these questions tend to take a back seat. Covering breaking news is an expensive undertaking. More often than not, media spend money hand-over-fist sending journalists to the scene, expanding news space in print and eliminating commercials on broadcast. Overtime skyrockets as journalists jazzed at updating a fixated world on the most gripping story of the year work round the clock to communicate, to connect and to bring hope to those isolated by disaster.
Consider some of the media chronicling the misery of the Haitian people.
The Miami Herald
The Washington Post
The New York Times coverage includes a Twitter list, which allows you to expand your sources of information.
Pre-Haiti, Charles Pelton, a former journalist, wrote a controversial article that appears on paidContent.org titled: “How to turn journalists into profit centers.” Pelton recently came under fire for proposing that Post reporters attend a series of sponsored salon dinners, where the paper essentially sold access to its reporters.
The journalists straining to cover the Haitian aftermath are revenue drains. And that is how it should be.