The Sham Wow conventions

I teach two classes — mass communication and news writing — at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are filled with inquisitive, bright and focused students. Some want to be journalists, some want to go into a communications-related field, some are in other disciplines and some are undecided.

I asked both classes if they were paying much attention to the Republican National Convention. A few said they were. I asked if any were watching it on television, either cable or the one-hour network programming. Zero response. It’s not that they are especially disengaged, although school has just started and many are involved in sorority rush. They simply get so little of their information from TV news. That’s close to what’s happening outside the walls of academia, too, according to Reuters.

“But the biggest problem for the Republicans was less the hurricane and more dwindling interest in convention-watching by the general public, experts said.

“Isaac is sucking out a lot of the oxygen but that’s because there wasn’t much oxygen in the first place,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. “Voters and certainly the media are aware these conventions have become hour-long infomercials. There is very little suspense.”

Makes you wonder why the networks even bother. Supposedly, 15,000 journalists are in Tampa and the same are expected in Charlotte for the DNC. Imagine the stories those journalists could be doing if they weren’t covering “informercials.”

I do like the fact-checking that news orgs are doing on the convention speeches. But now that the networks know they are broadcasting so many lies and deceptions presented as truth, shouldn’t they classify the conventions under “entertainment programming?” Or, better yet, tell the two parties that if you continue to disseminate disinformation, you can do it on someone else’s airwaves.

Ann Romney in town: Is it news?

If the wife of a presidential candidate comes to town for a private fund-raiser, gives a three-and-a-half-minute public speech to the party faithful and says nothing of substance, is it news?

I suppose so, given who Ann Romney is married to. But I hope it isn’t big news in the morning paper. There is a line between telling people that someone in the news was in town and being manipulated for a political purpose. And I’ve already written about that this week.

Travis Fain has more.

Friday update: How the News & Record played the story. Looks right, to me.



Plain talk, redacted

One of the earliest and most fundamental lessons I learned in journalism was that no one outside of the newsroom gets prior approval or restraint of anything we published. Period.

A corollary was that sources didn’t get to approve or change their quotes. You might read quotes back to them to make sure that you got them right. You might read a section of your own writing to a source to make sure you characterized a technical issue clearly. But any changes made to a quote or a story were made by the writer not by the source. You never gave away that power or responsibility.

So what are we to make of this New York Times story that says the Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and Reuters have agreed to allow campaigns to approve the quotes of their aides before publication? I don’t know. Hell, I had to read the story twice because it was so hard for me to believe.

Oddly, the story doesn’t actually say why the news organizations agree to such restrictions. This is the closest reference: Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.

Campaign strategists wouldn’t talk to the New York Times or the Washington Post? Do you really believe that? They wouldn’t talk to the two most powerful political media outlets in the nation? I don’t, but for fun, let’s play it out. If campaign stategists won’t talk to you, what that really means is that you will get beat on a story because the strategist will talk to your competition. And no news organization wants to get beat. (This, despite the fact that no one really ever remembers who had what scoop because news becomes a commodity in about two seconds these days.)

They could say what every editor I’ve known would have said: “Hell, no, we won’t give you prior approval over your quotes. We’re going to tape it. If you say it, it’s on the record. Be responsible for your words, don’t say something stupid and you’ve got no problem.” The source could say no interview and that’d be that. But if your competitor gives in, well, you lose the story.

Would we worry about that? Probably. Would that cause us to compromise a principle? No. We’d just try to get another story.

Most media organizations have ethics policies. I would love to see the wording on an item that explains when, why and which sources get the authority to review, approve or strike through their quotes before publication. Bet no self-respecting media organization would put that in writing.

Much of the public doesn’t trust what newspapers print. The public thinks reporters are biased. This is a step in the wrong direction.

How to cover the Democratic National Convention

Later this month, the Charlotte Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is sponsoring a seminar for journalists going to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Given the people involved, it’s worth a look.

The program includes Rob Christensen of the News & Observer of Raleigh; Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications, who worked nine conventions during his time at CNN; John Ensslin, national SPJ president; and WCNC’s Carrie Hofmann. You can also learn how to avoid arrest if you’re covering a protest demonstration and take a walking tour of uptown Charlotte’s convention sites.

It’s scheduled for 9 a.m.-4 p.m. July 28 at UNC Charlotte Center City. Registration, which includes lunch, is $15 for dues-paying SPJ members and students, $25 for others. Details here.

“Good government should always trump politics.”

I had a funny dream the other night. Well, it wasn’t funny, but it is fun to think about.

It seems that the state’s top Republicans called a surprise news conference in Raleigh. The media was abuzz, not knowing what would bring Thom Tillis, Phil Berger and Pat McCrory to Raleigh when the General Assembly wasn’t meeting.

McCrory stepped to the microphone. He had volunteered to make the announcement because he expected to be governor of all North Carolinians soon. He wanted to start clean.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice. Like you, we have seen the polls that indicate how North Carolinians feel about same-sex marriage and civil unions. Likely voters plan to vote in favor of Amendment One ensuring that marriage is between a man and a women, and that pleases us. However, the polls also indicate that people are confused about the amendment, and that once it is explained to them, they oppose it.”

Berger and Tillis shifted uncomfortably behind McCrory. They had championed the amendment and led it through the legislature. They weren’t sure they liked what was coming, even thought they had agreed to it.

McCrory pressed on.

“We don’t like that. We don’t like the idea that a poorly worded amendment obscures what we think is good law. We don’t like that people don’t understand what they’re voting on. We want people to make the right choice for the right reasons, not because our amendment writers screwed up. We don’t like that we have so divided the good members of the clergy. When God-loving ministers can’t even agree on what the Bible says, we’re in some kind of uncharted territory.”

He swallowed. “Consequently, we are asking the General Assembly to reconvene in an emergency session and withdraw this amendment. We will rewrite it and put it back on the ballot next year. We want voters to understand exactly what they are voting on so that the will of the people is truly represented. If they vote to support a marriage amendment, which we think they will, fine. But if they kill the amendment, then so be it.

“We know this is an unusual occurrence. We know that we may pay at the ballot box. But we learned in school that good government always should trump politics. And we learned from our parents that doing the right thing, even when it was hard, should always trump doing something underhanded.

“When I am elected governor of this great state in November, I will represent all of the people in North Carolina and their voices should be heard. Thank you.”

I said it was a dream. Still, it’s fun to think about.


How can newspapers cover elections to serve readers better?

On Saturday, I referred to a survey that I thought would send chills down the spines of journalists, but really shouldn’t. Today, the Elon University Poll reports one that should send chills down the spines of newspaper journalists, but probably won’t. (Full disclosure: I’m the director of communications for the poll.)

The poll reports that North Carolinians, when asked where they get most of their news about the May 8 primary, responded 42% television, 24% the Internet, 11% newspapers, 10% radio and 7% talking to people.

I single out newspapers because they devote a great deal of energy covering the elections, more than the other news sources. Oh, you can see a great deal of presidential coverage on television and the Internet, and that’s great. It covers one of the dozen or so issues on the ballot. But governor? Lieutenant governor? Congress? School board? Board of County Commissioners? State Senate? If you’re going to be informed about those, it’s likely going to be from information published in the local newspaper.

And about as many people get election information from the radio as from newspapers? OK, I implore television to devote more attention to the local elections than to crime and inconsequential stories that they air because they have video. But they won’t. So, let’s move on.

It may be time for newspaper editors to question some of their traditional principles.

* If only one in 10 people rely on the newspaper for election information, should editors devote their efforts to covering other issues more important to their readers?

* If the primary purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” is there another way newspapers can cover elections that is more helpful to their readers?

* This is counter-intuitive to those who still consider television news competitiion — here’s a secret: TV has won — but is there an opportunity to partner with television to take the information that citizens need (elections) where they are gathering (television)?

* 24% of respondents cited the Internet as their No. 1 source. Presumably that includes some newspaper websites. Presumably the percentage will climb in the future. Doesn’t this suggest that newspapers should provide citizens with deep, detailed election information online?

There are ways to discount the poll response. People were only talking about the presidential race. If asked about the other races, they’d say newspaper. When people were thinking of Internet sites, they were really thinking of newspaper internet sites. These are probably true of some of the respondents.

One thing’s for sure: Changing nothing is the wrong response.

The marriage amendment: Breaking political stereotypes

We all tend to paint people and positions with a broad brush. It helps us categorize and connect the dots when we label. It also creates false assumptions. For instance, if you need reminders that not all protestant churches believe the same things, not all African-Americans think the same and not all Democrats march in lock step, two stories today provide them.

Both the Charlotte and Greensboro newspapers write about how ministers think about the marriage amendment that is on the May 8 ballot. For people who think the word of God is clear, they must be confused by the different positions the clergy take on the marriage amendment. (Personally, that didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the timidity with which some ministers approach preaching about the issue.)

The Charlotte story also illustrates the different positions that some black churches and the NAACP take on the marriage amendment. And that black Democrats — which some people believe vote as one — may not be following the party line on the amendment.

Stereotypes, consider yourselves busted.

Quit screwing around; to regain trust, it’s time to change

Craig Newmark’s survey on the credibility of various news sources is simply the latest that shows the public doesn’t have much trust in mainstream media. Not much trust in any of the mainstreamers: newspapers, TV, radio or news websites. (Yep, news websites are mainstream now.)

The survey shows that only 22 percent of respondents say that newspapers are “very credible” in reporting on politics. And that’s the top rating. Cable and network news get 21 percent, and talk radio and Internet news sites each register 13 percent.

For years, traditional news organizations have marketed themselves as trustworthy. It’s time to acknowledge that most people aren’t buying it. That bond of trust may be irrevocably broken.

So, how about we try something different? What if mainstream media covered politics differently, focusing less on the horse race and more on the issues? What if television rambled on less about, say, the Catholic Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception insurance and delved deeper into health insurance, period? What if the time spent dissecting who made what gaffe after each GOP debate — and forcing viewers to listen to the candidate’s handler explain what he really meant — was actually spent talking about Romney’s time at Bain, Santorum’s voting record in the Senate or Paul’s record in the House?

What if the reporters actually had the freedom to call BS when candidates or campaigns parsed the truth? (Here’s an attempt.) What if they followed the Daily Show model in covering the hypocrisy of some political candidates and government policies (without the humor, presumably)? What if television actually gave more than a soundbite and didn’t let candidates off the hook? Watch the morning news programs and it’s either he-said, she-said journalism, or the reporter asks a question, the candidate doesn’t answer, and the reporter moves to another question that the candidate doesn’t answer. In the end, the viewer gets little sustenance.

One of the common assumptions is that the public doesn’t like the sausage-making process that hard-nosed reporting is. They think it’s intrusive and rude, and it often is. Good interviewing often makes people uncomfortable because the reporter is trying to pull the truth together and match facts with what’s being said. It does get ugly. But I think the general public wants to see reporters who are independent and boldly seeking to get answers to the questions the public has. (And that isn’t which GOP candidate is leading in the polls today or an embarrassing video of Romney singing “God Bless America.”)

It’s also transparent, and transparency builds trust. (Think it doesn’t? Think of how you feel when a news exec declines to talk about something going on at his shop? Or think about your reaction when you hear a news exec who has announced layoffs say, “it won’t impact our news coverage.”)

Case in point: Jay Rosen and NYU Studio 20 took a look at the questions posed to the GOP candidates at all of the 20 debates and asked if it reflected the “citizens agenda.” (113 questions were asked about campaign strategies and negative ads!) Rosen suggested that last night’s debate viewers pose their own questions on Twitter with the hashtag #unasked. As Jay tweeted afterward, “Number of questions tonight about science: zero. Technology: zero. Climate change: zero. Small business: zero.”

There is a reason that the trust bond is broken between the public and the news media. It’s us.

Taxation without representation

For those playing at home, that’s an acknowledgement from the N.C. Attorney general that there will in fact be no one elected to the District 6 seat or the at-large seat until 2014 — which means almost 43,000 Guilford County voters, an eighth of the county, will be without representation on the board of commissioners.

If there is a better illustration of politicians putting politics over the people they purport to represent, I’d like to hear it.


Who represents the public’s interests?

One of the great divides between journalists and public officials is over access to public information. Stated simplistically, journalists want more access; public officials want less.

Journalists represent the public when they attend meetings and seek information. They do that, not because it’s fun, but so they can pass the information onto readers and viewers. Obviously, voters put elected officials into office to represent their interests.

Who’s right? Let’s look and you decide. Courtesy of the N.C. Press Association, here are a few of the recent skirmishes between the press and elected officials.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: When the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board agrees to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a lawsuit, it does so in closed session.

From the News & Record: Greensboro City Council voted to NOT notify the public when small groups of council members meet with city staff members to discuss policy.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: The paper sues the Henderson County sheriff, the board of commissioners and the county’s insurance carrier in an effort to force them to release details of a settlement involving the sheriff and a female employee.

From the Lincoln Times-News: The Lincolnton City Council met privately and decided to threaten to sue a local website for libel.

From the Brunswick Beacon:  The chairman of the Board of Social Services may be removed from his chairmanship for repeatedly violating the state’s open meetings law.

From the Alamance News: Burlington City Council met behind closed doors to order up a new city incentives policy.

Don’t get me wrong; some of the actions above are allowed under state law. That doesn’t mean, though, that they represent the best interests of the public. When people can’t see what’s going on they lose trust in government, and trust is a precious commodity these days.

The publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times said it best in the story about its lawsuit.

“This isn’t the county’s money or the sheriff’s money,” Randy Hammer said. “We are going to court because this is money that belongs to people who live, work and pay taxes in Henderson County. It’s their money. And they have a right to know how it’s being spent, especially if the county is having to pay extra money because the sheriff mismanaged his responsibilities as a public servant.”