Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 7

Reposted from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  This series is all the more appropriate given what the wonderful Chris Muir skewers so delightfully today…  originally posted June 20, 2003

I just realized that I forgot to post the discussion on how most media outlets operate, and to contrast it with other types of communications. So, I am going to do an abbreviated version and then jump into today’s suggestions and commentary.

First, all traditional outlets have the concept of deadlines. This is because the presses were only run once a day if possible, to cut costs, and in broadcasting because radio picked a set time for large-scale news that carried over into TV. How a story gets selected is simple: it is either a breaking news story that is big (fire, robbery, murder, etc.) or is a story that was most likely assigned to a reporter. Reporters can and do come up with their own stories, but they must be approved by, and other assignments come from, an editor. This editor then says have this story ready by XXX and the reporter hops to it. They research, talk to sources, write up/produce the story, and it goes into the hopper and out into print or broadcast. Review is often cursory by an editor or senior producer, and the copy desk (where a lot of fun and interesting mistakes can and do occur).

This is in contrast to lets say a science journal, where stories usually are produced in a manner of months, reviewed by outside experts in the field of the story who approve or disapprove it, and who often provide commentary to go with the story. The process is relaxed, and deadlines are in terms of months or more, instead of hours and minutes.

Both have one thing in common, however. Journalism and peer-reviewed science writing count on people who are knowledgeable in their field to write and edit the stories in question. Journalism is increasingly requiring reporters who are intimately familiar with given subject areas, from science to law to business. While it is required, it is often not the case and it is not at all unusual to find that editors assign a general reporter to cover a major story that needs a specialist instead of the staff or freelance specialist.

This is a subject that has been debated hotly and long within journalistic circles, as well as being the stuff of water cooler discussion as well. In some cases, it is because the general assignment reporter is a name or someone they trust to give the story the particular slant desired. In some cases it simply reflects a deep seated prejudice on the part of the editor, who most likely came up as a general assignment reporter and is still not comfortable with specialization. In other cases it is probably nothing more than a brain fart on the part of the assignments editor. Other scenarios may be applicable as well. You pays your money, you picks your reality.

That there is a prejudice within journalism against specialists is something of a given. When I was starting out, I could have already retired if I had a dime for every editor who said to me that the public was not interested in science. It didn’t matter if the paper in question had just conducted a poll that showed they were, the editors did not understand science, were scared of it, so “the public” was the same. I have seen it in other areas as well, and the horror stories by other specialists, such as in business, are both funny and heartbreaking.

But to be fair to many in editorial positions, there is another concern that lurks: conflict of interest. There were and are some in power who fear the specialist because they do know the subject matter. They have studied it, covered it, and are intimately familiar with this. While the validity of the fear is doubtful, I think that there lurks within the subconscious of the editors mind the idea that because the reporter is an expert that they have been co-opted and can no longer write objectively.

One area where this can be clearly seen is in coverage of the military. For many years, I found it was the kiss of death to let anyone know you were familiar with such, or had even been in ROTC. If you did so, you were immediately branded the enemy and heavens help you. This was part and parcel of the war waged by The Media against the military (see this for more on that topic), but I also feel it is indicative of how The Media feels about other specialties as well.

It also does not help that in many institutions, the copy desk is not required to run specialist stories back by the writer after editing. The result is that stories that started out both accurate and precise (and there can be a big difference between the two) end up garbage. If lucky, it may be just a bad headline, such as one that was in a paper during a Shuttle mission. The mission featured some plasma physics experiments and the headline identified the payload as a blood experiment. At worst, you get factual errors that can endanger the public with faulty information.

So, I think it essential that The Media and related outlets embrace the era of specialization. Knowledge and familiarity do not mean subversion or conflict of interest, but are crucial to accurate and fair reporting. This specialization needs to extend from the writing all the way through the editing. You have that specialist for a reason, let them do their job and learn how they can help you do yours as well. That does not diminish you in any way; indeed, it shows that you are a big person for being willing to do so.

So, today’s suggestions are as follows:

1. Make use of specialists in subject areas, particularly in science, business, law, military, and other arcane matters.

2. Make use of specialists all the way through the process.

3. No outlet can have all the specialists it needs, so make use of freelance specialists as well.

4. Since no outlet can have specialists in all areas, if you see a problem let the outlet know in a constructive manner. Offer to help them with correction, correct information, introduction to experts, etc.

5. If the outlet won’t make a correction or is otherwise uninterested, let the blogs know and see if pressure can be applied that way. Public ridicule can work wonders…

6. Be an informed consumer of news from The Media. Learn the track records and background of the local or other reporters of interest. If you find they are lacking, switch media and let it be known. Media outlets are businesses, and they can and will change tunes – and reporters or editors – if the proper motivation is applied.

There is, of course, more to come. Stay tuned.

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