Tag Archives: hard-hugging journalism

Good News, If Pointless News

I’m not a fan of celebrity media.  In fact, I kind of loathe celebrity/pop culture magazines.  It’s “reading” in the same way that Twinkies are “food.”  However, I was pleased to read a NYTimes article about a website I had never heard of, JustJared.com, which is apparently the nice guy among celebrity news blogs.  Its founder, 28-year old Jared Eng, passionately and obsessively blogs about celebrity news, but does so without the negative, bring-down-the-famous bent of most paparazzi-fed outlets.  In return, he’s been embraced by celebrities, who are happy to talk to him and give him tidbits which in turn feed his site’s popularity and impressive ad revenue.

Here’s the Times article, published January 19th, about the site and Mr. Eng.

Celebrity news is empty reading calories, but I’m glad to see there is a popular site out there that doesn’t traffic in negativity and scandal.  Always nice to see friendliness and positivity gain traction in an atmosphere dominated by hostility.

One approach to reporting good news

A friend of mine who works for the Food Trust passed along this article from today’s (Monday, 9/27/10) Philly Inquirer.  It is a “good news” story: a West Philadelphia family that recognized their son’s obesity risk and did something about it.  The article ties the Footes family’s story into larger Philadelphia efforts to inject healthy eating habits into the city’s African American neighborhoods.

Part of my problem with typical “good news” is that it focuses on individual feel-good stories and stops there.  These stories seem afraid to go big picture because, you are left to reason, the big picture is bad.  This trend (coupled with the marketing decision to not offend anybody) leads to asinine publications like Reader’s Digest, whose idea of news is profiles of couples married for 70 years and dogs who rescue their owners from floods.  Newspapers like the Inquirer are capable of printing feel-good “human interest” stories, but they run in the same section as big-picture articles about how obesity is going to cost American eight gazillion dollars in health care expenditures.  It’s hard to get jazzed about one family’s success when it’s followed up with an article about national crises.

So this article suggests a template for making in-roads into the national media’s bad-news habit.  Find a human-interest story and use it as an entry point to discuss national trends.  Then find within those trends reasons for optimism.  Wording is important: efforts are under way to improve the situation.  Plans and initiatives, frequently ambitious and progressive (danger in that word, but fuck it), bolstered by new research and backed by success stories which all lead to projections and attainable goals that, if met, would save X dollars and Y lives over Z years.  That’s the stuff.

There are massive lists of words sitting in political consultancy offices, lists of words to use in describing opponents and words to use in describing yourself.  Perhaps news desks should get a copy of those lists, and as their own public health initiative, start using the positive lists whenever possible in an innovative approach to lowering blood pressure nation-wide.

Sensationalist Journalism Legitimizes Debates That Never Should Be Legitimized

This video was posted on CNN yesterday with the headline, “Is Obama an Islamic Sympathizer?”  The sub-description of the video is, “CNN’s Anderson Cooper talks with a panel about whether President Obama’s views are ‘un-American.'”

The several-minute video is Anderson Cooper hosting 4 panelists: Paul Begala, Ari Fleischer, David Gergen, and Fareed Zakaria.  Cooper’s lead-in to the piece, and presumably the genesis of the entire video, is this poll:

A poll worthy of discussion, apparently

Cooper asks each panelist in turn what they make of this.  The first two, Begala and Fleischer, both agree that it shouldn’t be taken seriously and is nothing more than an indicator of the bitterness of America’s current political landscape.  The following two, Gergen and Zakaria, turn the conversation into a brief discussion of America’s tolerance or intolerance for Muslims and Obama’s role in that.  As you might expect, nobody really agrees with anyone, different viewpoints are offered, and the impression you get at the end is that America is a big country and some people really don’t like Obama but most Americans are reasonable.  Astounding!

What drives me up the wall about this video is the branding.  I clicked on the video because of the title, “Is Obama an Islamic Sympathizer?”  CNN’s webmasters gave it that title precisely so that it would draw page views, which generate revenue.  Of course, no one in the video agrees with that question, and they pretty soon stop talking about entirely.*  But the title legitimizes a debate which, in my view, should not be legitimized.

*(Not before Cooper offers this leading question to the first panelist: “Or do you really think that the numbers say that people think the President of the United States supports Sharia law?”  Which is, of course, very different than being an ‘Islamic sympathizer.’  I’m a doormouse sympathizer but I don’t let them eat my cereal.)  

Does the video discuss the various ways one can be “sympathetic” to Islam?  Does it discuss what it means to have “un-American views?”  No.*  Does anyone in the video even bring up the concept of a President with un-American views?  No.  The video would more accurately be titled, “Is American Politics Religiously Divided?”  But in going for the controversy and ad revenue, CNN legitimizes the “debate” over Obama’s patriotism and whether being “sympathetic” to Islam is an acceptable stance in this country.  It doesn’t matter that the content of the video mostly ignores the question and certainly doesn’t endorse it.  It is merely the presence of the question, prominently displayed on CNN.com, which legitimizes it as a question worthy of national discussion.

*(Again, the damage is done in the asking.  The question is raised by the headline, and you have to watch the video to find out that no, ultimately, Obama’s views are not un-American.  Or you would find that out, if they even addressed the question.  Perhaps we should post this discussion: “Is CNN Run by the Mob?”  Inclined readers can wade through 4 pages of comment board posts to find out that no, it isn’t.)

There are people in this country who fervently believe Obama wants to impose Sharia Law.  They point to CNN and say, “See?  The debate continues.”  I believe in freedom of speech, but the attention being given to that viewpoint and similar views is out of proportion to the number of people who legitimately believe it.  I believe others do not actually believe such things, but stoke this fire because it furthers their own political agenda.  The debate over Obama’s secret Islamic objectives is even less of a debate than the “debate” over global warming.  Yet a mainstream news outlet like CNN legitimizes the “other side” of the debate for…what?  Ad revenue.  And the national political debate suffers for it.

The problem is that the wackos don’t give the rest of us the same deal.  If you went to a website trumpeting the Obama-as-Muslim cause, you would not see a video called, “Three Reasons Why Obama May Be Christian.”  Even FoxNews does not have videos titled, “Is Obama’s Economic Policy Paying Dividends?”  No, at Fox you get links like, “How Much Will the Transition to Digital Medical Records Cost You?” and “Stimulus Plan in Hindsight: Did Obama’s Agenda Hobble Economic Recovery?”

The New York Times or CNN would not be muckraking to report on the Obama-as-Muslim conspiracy theories, or the elected officials who doubt global warming, or any other sign of these nutty times.  But there is a way to cover such trends and people that does not legitimize their viewpoints.  When the paper covers a house fire, it doesn’t use the headline, “Was House Meant To Burn Down?”

I believe the Obama-as-Muslim theorists are not only wrong, but the promotion of that debate materially hurts America’s pursuit of our diplomatic objectives and increases anti-American sentiment abroad.  There are stakes here.  But the media’s pursuit of bad news and provocative opinion creates a positive feedback loop which gives these fringe perspectives more clout than they deserve.  They can then point to the phantom debate created by the media coverage as a retroactive legitimization of what we dun been sayin’ since way back when Grandpop told us that de Foundin Fathers knew that dark-skinned folk ain’t mean to live in democracy.  Now we just glad we’s gettin some attentun fer it.

We need and deserve more sophisticated consideration from those organizations and individuals who, in these divisive times, sit in the control room of our national attention.

‘Good News’ Websites Aren’t Hard-Hugging Enough

From the “They Already have That” files:

As my friends can attest, I read the New York Times and regularly get bummed out.  I don’t think the Times means to do this, as they do not seem to subscribe to the FoxNews trademarked Scare Readers Shitless School Of Journalism.  But there surely does seem to be a lot going wrong with the world these days.

I wonder how much of this bad news is spin, and how much is legitimately going wrong.  So I recently struck on the idea (one I’m in no position to act upon) to start a Good News news site.  One that would take as its starting point the theoretical “neutral news” of the world, and then err on the side of optimism and progress.  The anti-Fox News, I guess.

Turns out, there are many of these sites.  I googled ‘Good News’ and looked at the top results.  All of them have similar goals: to remind us that there is good news out there; to provide some daily optimism; to balance out the mainstream media’s constant fear-danger-depression angle.  However, after a short examination, their “hard hugging” journalism leaves something to be desired.

Google Search Result #1: Good News Network

goodnewsnetwork.org

This is the first search result.  It aims to be a professional news outlet devoted to positive news, but you need to pay to read the content.  Plus, the leading headlines from this random Monday morning site visit seem to tilt towards small-town good news, not an overarching view of the nation at large.

Google Search Result #2: Happy News

This site is less newspaper-news-oriented, with prominent space devoted to videos and for-sale products aimed at positive living.  The site also posts only one “Top Story” at a time and you have to dig to find other stories, which are as likely to be small-towny as the one I found this morning.

Google Search Result #3:  Good News Daily

goodnewsdaily.com

This site has more of the international news I want to see, as it seems to post articles from other news sources.  The layout is amateur, however, and it also encourages reader-submitted articles, which does not generate the air of professional journalism I’m looking for.

Google Search Results #4 and 5: Christian “Good News” sites.

Google Search Result #6: Good News Now (GNN)

The site tabs make it clear this site isn’t going for hard-hitting investigative journalism, but rather the news equivalent of Daily Puppy.

Conclusion:

The website I want doesn’t seem to be out there (at least not easily found).  Outlets like Fox have become very skilled in manipulating the world’s complexity to present a preordained perspective.  Objective journalism is rather impossible, since what a newspaper prints or does not print is, in itself, a subjective decision.  So I’d like to see a website that shamelessly spins national and international news towards an optimistic viewpoint.  This site would avoid fluff like, “Dog Saves Cat From Flood,” or “Cheerleading Squad Saves Teachers’ Pensions,” which seems to be popular with the good news sites I visited.  Tell me about Afghanistan, global warming and Capitol Hill.  If leading news outlets can depict Obama as a secret Muslim, surely a professionally-staffed news site could tell me something positive about Iraq.  And no, I don’t mean “Sufi Dog Saves Shia Cat From Flood.”