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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?
The BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico was not the only thing leaking this week.
Fed by frenetic coverage, high stakes and apparent rivalries, the law enforcement agencies investigating the attempted terror attack in Times Square apparently leaked to the media in such numbers that it affected the investigation.
NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, whose coverage has been informative and thorough, reported this morning how it was that the media seemed to know what investigators were doing, even as they were doing it. The resulting flow of information could have dramatically impacted the investigation and eventual arrest of suspect Faisal Shahzad, Temple-Raston said.
An unidentified law enforcement official told Temple-Raston that “ ‘Our operational plans were being driven by the media, instead of the other way around. And that’s not good.’ “
Generally, sources leak for two reasons:
* They want to show that they are in the know;
* They have an agenda, including a point of view, they want in public view.
In this case, Temple-Raston describes a rivalry between the FBI and the New York Police Department as the driving force behind the leaks.
At one point, “a day-and-a-half after the attack, a news organization reported that law enforcement officials were looking for an American citizen of Pakistani descent from Shelton, Conn.” (Temple-Raston said she too had this information but chose not to report it for fear it would affect the investigation.)
In fact, Shahzad told those who arrested him that he saw the report and knew authorities were watching him.
“That’s an important detail, because surveillance is only effective if people don’t know they are being watched,” Temple-Raston said.
Her report is rather chilling when you think about the growing number of media outlets, citizen reporters, eyewitness reporters and more, all comprising the new media.
Yes, sources leak to show they are in the know. But some people report the news for the same reason. So where does that leave us? We have greater amounts of information being filed from a greater variety of sources. Sounds good from a public debate perspective. But as Temple-Raston points out, there are inherent dangers as well.
The Time magazine cover was compelling. People were standing on a white cover in the form of letters spelling “JOBS” The headline continued, “Where They Are And How to Find Them.”
The Fortune redesign caught my eye. Managing Editor Andy Serwer explained the magazine would continue to produce in-depth articles, but it was adding more news their readers could use. “How to manage their careers – including ways to think more entrepreneurially – in and outside of large companies.” Much of this news will now appear in two new sections in Fortune called Careers and Venture.
As the nation tentatively feels its way out of recession, the media increasingly are trying to cover the story, from the macro-perspective of national trends to the micro-consumer news. Information on how companies can “think more entrepreneurially” is becoming increasingly valuable, along with the articles on how small businesses can compete globally without adding staff, and how those who lost their jobs can transition into a new career.
There is a great deal of media attention being paid to these topics. Along with Time and Fortune, monitor the Wall Street Journal’s small business coverage. Reporter Sarah Needleman recently moved to the team, after a stint covering career issues.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s small business channel is filled with news entrepreneurs can use, as is Inc magazine. CNNMoney.com has a small business channel, including a section page called “Innovation Nation.”
Forbes magazine prides itself on its coverage of entrepreneurs and small business. It’s Boost Your Business contest is highly regarded.
The careers and small business coverage used to be relegated to the back of the media bus, but no more. An increasing portion of the nation is involved in career change and entrepreneurial activity, including big businesses adopting the best practices of entrepreneurial innovation. The media are noticing, a facilitating the trend with additional information.
Unless you are familiar with the media spotlight, it is difficult to appreciate the power of the media.
If you are a victim and need help, there are few tools more effective than the media’s megaphone. Witness the aid that poured into Haiti, largely thanks to the blanket coverage of the world’s media and news cable channels, particularly CNN.
Media remain proud of their ability to impact, for good or for ill, the people they cover. A familiar refrain in journalism circles goes: “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Carl Lavin, a managing editor at Forbes and Forbes.com, recently mentioned that the 20 small businesses featured in the publication’s “America’s Most Promising Companies” have enjoyed a signficant boost in funding, directly attributed to the coverage. At a time when small businesses are struggling for financing of any kind, be it loans or venture capital investment, the 20 companies—including QED, a promising biotech company in my region of Northeast Ohio—have raised $19 million in investments in a matter of months. The list was published in October.
In this case, journalists comforted some of the most innovative risk taskers among the entrepreneurial ranks. A good use of the media’s power.
When I suggested in a recent post that you play business editor and suggest what story you wanted to cover off the GM bankruptcy, the concept of culture came through loud and clear. I got messages from Facebook and Twitter followers, suggesting the most interesting angle not being pursued was how could GM or its new owner change what had become a questionable culture?
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, offered an interesting take on GM culture and the troubles involved in trying to force change.
As GM’s bankruptcy unwinds, other coverage will undoubtedly emerge.
Now about that Chrysler-Fiat thing….....
The media are producing blanket coverage of the General Motors bankruptcy.
Turn on the radio, go to your favorite news web site or your local newspaper. GM’s short-term demise and the billions of federal money, not to mention the thousands of jobs, involved make the story compelling to a global audience.
Now that the media have chronicled the initial history of “the second-largest industrial bankruptcy in history” (Wall Street Journal), where will they take the story? To the national investment? (GM: What’s in it for taxpayers? Business Week) To the future? (The best possible outcome for GM. Forbes ) To the historic perspective? (Obama’s test: Restoring GM with a limited U.S. Role. New York Times)
When the media have a story this large, the potential angles for coverage are nearly endless. What are GM’s decisions? What does all this mean for our nation? For GM employees, suppliers, communities?
You get the picture. So where do you think this story of business stories will go, and perhaps just as importantly, where will the media take it? In other words, play editor for a day. What story would you want to see posted online or in the next edition?
In my previous life as a business editor, I often reminded reporters there is no bad angle. Just ask yourself, what do YOUR readers want to know?