In the News

17 Mar

      Like most other people, I have spent the last 10 days gorging myself on media coverage of the missing Malaysian airplane. While everyone has their theories on what really happened (my own being rather mundane: that the plane went down due to accident right where they first thought in the South China Sea; the original search done by Vietnamese and Malaysian authorities was simply sloppy and missed it; everything since then has been about shoehorning conflicting facts to fit unlikely scenarios) my interest here is on how the story has been reported, particularly by cable news channels.
      Though, as a journalist, I have never been a big fan of cable “news” I will admit there are some things they do well, recent coverage of the situation in Crimea being a case in point. These two stories, the Russian takeover of Crimea and the missing Malaysian plane, are two excellent, contrasting examples of what cable news channels – and to a lesser extent the modern media as a whole – excel at and what they do poorly.
      In the former case, they have a story happening in an exact location with certain specific facts, which may not be readily apparent but which can be gathered by putting reporters on the ground with cameras to film and ask questions. When there is a situation like this, turning your TV to CNN is a useful means for finding out what’s going on in real time. If you ignore the opinions of the on air “experts” and simply watch what’s being reported from the field, you can get a pretty good sense of what’s happening and, in some cases, even be as well informed as people in the government, who often are also watching CNN themselves to find out what’s going on. As they say, it’s not officially a crisis till Anderson Cooper shows up.
      However, when there is a less clearly defined event, and cameras on the ground can not easily depict what the story is, here cable news flounders like a (to use an unfortunate metaphor) sinking airplane. Cable news does not generally do nuance and patient reporting well. There is nothing sexy in a press conference given by a harried and ill-informed Malaysian transportation official. And when there are a lack of facts, let alone people to interview who actually know what the facts are, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are forced to turn to a variety of on air experts, even if those experts have no actual expertise in the topic under discussion. Naturally, each expert likes to advance their own pet opinions, leading to endless on the air speculation over every possible theory, no matter how inane. This can go on for days, to the exclusion of virtually every other story happening in the world, until the next big crisis comes along, at which point the previous story is pretty much forgotten.
      While that may make for good ratings (it does, after all, have me watching) it is not what solid, responsible journalism is about.
      Good journalism is, first and foremost, about getting the major facts of a story correct, and then getting them out to the public in a timely manner. But “timely” in the world of cable news, not to mention the internet age, now means “immediately.” And that means the whole notion of getting major facts correct sometimes takes a back seat. The situation is compounded in the case of the missing airplane because the facts have been so sketchy and conflicting, something that’s caused even an esteemed print journalism organ like the Wall Street Journal to retract some of its own coverage for being inaccurate.
      A prime tenet of responsible journalism, which I don’t think is being followed here, is to try to get multiple sources to confirm significant facts on a story. This is even more important when the sources you do have are unnamed, as many of the Malaysian officials who’ve been providing information are. Of course, this requires much more time and work, not to mention independent research on the part of reporters to understand a lot of intricate technical issues. And that is far tougher, and often far less exciting, than engaging in idle speculation.

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