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Midterm Essays (News In Broadcast And Electronic Media, November 2012)

sandy(Submitted November 2012 for BECA 460, News In Broadcast And Electronic Media)

This Midterm exam is worth 25 points.  Each of the answers below are worth 5 points.

1) In “The Bias of Language, the Bias of Pictures,” Neil Postman points out three essential principles of language in television news.  In your words, sum up those points and briefly give an example from a TV news program (cite which one) illustrating each of those three points.

2) “Is Twitter a useful tool for journalist?”  Reinforce your answer with two attributions from the Ahmad piece and an example from class discussion.

3) Do you agree with Angelo Fernando’s “Tech Talk: Citizen Journalists Fill a Void?” Reinforce your answer with at least one reference from this article and reference part of the classroom discussion with Storify’s co-founder related to citizen journalism.

4) Three parts:
a) Explain what is meant by the chapter title “Managing the Business” by Silcock, Heider and Rogus.
b) Explain convergence models and the converged consumer, found in that same chapter.
c) Give one newsroom example cited by either Leila Harmon and/or Phillipe Djegal of KRON-TV News when it comes to the challenges of gathering news.

5) Observe two different newscasts either online or on television and give examples as to why or why not you think news reports are balanced in terms of race, gender and socio-economic levels.
Reference in this answer Bob Papper’s article on “Women in TV News at a Record High but Minorities Drop” and “The Influence of Exposure to Depictions of Race and Crime in TV News”

1) Postman’s first principle is that words are abstractions that can never exactly match what they are describing, and our choice of words alters how we perceive any event. The second principle is that there are different levels of language: a) words that describe, b) words that evaluate, and c) words that infer what is unknown. We see news stories every day that appear to be “objective” but employ language that applies judgments to events. (Postman gives the example of the phrase “explosive issue”. The explosiveness of an issue is not a verifiable fact; it is an opinion, even if that opinion is shared by most viewers.) The third principle elaborates by pointing out that words don’t just have definitions, but connotative meanings, and words that appear to be synonymous change the impact of a story, depending which ones are used.

A Nov. 3 Fox News report on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy offered an example of how this works. Correspondent Anna Koolman delivered a report from Staten Island with the lower third headline, “Tensions Mount As Victims Of Super Storm Sandy Lash Out.” The choice of words tells us immediately how we are supposed to think about federal relief efforts. Koolman’s segment begins with her showing a badly damaged neighborhood and stating that Secretary Janet Napolitano was “promising resources” and Governor Cuomo was “promising” money and gas trucks to help people in the area. The word “promising”, with all its connotations (don’t we all know how easily promises are broken?), is delivered as a repeated litany whose rhythmic cadences and accusatory tone infers that vain promises were being dangled before these devastated victims of Staten Island. Koolman introduces one local who is “fired up” (a much more exciting expression than “frustrated”) because she hasn’t been able to get in touch with FEMA yet, due to the fact that there is no cell phone or internet service in the entire neighborhood. Note here that this is probably the case for many areas in many states. Who knows what FEMA officials may be doing, how strapped resources are, and how the disaster is being handled as a whole? All we know is that one angry woman has been “chasing” FEMA all day. Without Fox ever explicitly saying so, a story of people coping with a natural disaster becomes a story about the incompetence of FEMA, thanks to the use of carefully chosen language.

2) Obviously, there are numerous examples in which Twitter has been useful in providing quick on-the-spot reports from an event as it occurs, so it certainly has its place in journalism’s toolbox. However, the very nature of Twitter, as we have discussed in class, limits its potential as a journalistic force. The accessible nature of social media is valuable on one level, but many fellow students voiced serious concerns about the possible erosion of journalistic standards as a result. (Granted, even mainstream media itself does not always appear to be clear on what is fact and what is opinion, which further muddies the waters of the discussion and provides fuel for those who would have us believe that only the internet will bring us truth; witness the hoopla over blogs as the “new media” in the previous decade.) Tweets by nature have severe limitations; 140 characters convey even less nuance than a TV newscast with all of its time constraints.

Commenting on the uncritical boosterism of new technology in print media, Ahmad observes sardonically on page 149 that, rather than asking whether Twitter is a useful tool for journalists, we might ask if journalism is becoming a tool for Twitter instead. Journalists, publications and TV networks have embraced the use of Twitter as a promotional tool, publishing regular tweets that link back to their full-length articles. Journalists have also used Twitter to send out strings of eyewitness reports as a live story unfolds, giving print media a leg up in matching the immediacy of live television (p. 151). But what happens when an erroneous story gets out and is seized upon and retweeted all over the Web? Can corrections be made in time to fix the damage? The speed at which information is spread nowadays is matched by the speed of misinformation. Where does journalism itself fit here? Ahmad asks, if the role of journalists is now to filter, analyze and verify all the free-floating information going out online, who then holds the journalists accountable in turn, if media outlets in a capitalist system are themselves in thrall to the lucrative technology industry? (152-153) It is certainly a thorny and as-yet-unresolved dilemma, though I think the closing anecdote in which he approvingly quotes Tariq Ali on Obama’s simultaneous lauding of human rights struggles in Iran and covert approval of drone killings in Pakistan has more to do with the paradoxical nature of American imperialist power in general and frankly doesn’t shed much light on a discussion of 21st century social media.

3) Continuing the subject of new media boosterism, we have Angelo Fernando’s article in the text. Do I agree with it, you ask? Well, I will say that this was my first encounter with the term “CitJo”, a ridiculous, ungainly word that I sincerely hope does not catch on. Fernando is a “marketing communications strategist”, and he certainly writes like one. Putting style aside and dealing with the content, we have a brief survey of how online citizen journalists are changing the nature of news. Much of what we touched upon in the previous question applies here: if anyone can be a journalist without editors, who ultimately takes on the role of fact-checker? The most valuable change that Fernando briefly touches on, in my opinion, is what he labels “the citizen add-on reporter” (p. 230), which is his way of noting the fact that online news articles and opinion pieces now allow readers to submit comments. To me, the idea that you can now talk back to the press in real time is an unprecedented change. Like most changes, it is a mixed blessing; the potential for lively discussion is countered by the potential for YouTube-comment-level discourse or even outright harassment. In general though, I find the new back-and-forth exchange to be a healthy development on the editorial page.

Our session with Storify’s Burt Herman left me with mixed feelings. At the start, I was very enthusiastic about the notion that social media can be “curated,” and something substantial might be built from all the free-flowing information and general chit-chat getting lost in the online shuffle. But as we were familiarized with Storify and what it does, I started to question whether it really adds anything special, unique or useful to what’s already out there. One of the reasons Facebook remains the success that it is, I think, is that it already performs the same function that Storify seems designed for. Like a lot of people, I use Facebook as a sort of personalized, constantly changing “magazine,” staffed by people I like or at least find interesting, that provides news, opinion, entertainment, and handy links to primary and secondary sources. So why do I need Storify? Does a collage of various tweets and YouTube links really constitute a “story”? Is Storify going to turn us on to anything that we aren’t already aware of? Will Storify even still be around in a year or two? I remain skeptical.

4) “Managing The Business” is about the changing role of the news producer in response to media consolidation and the ensuing radical changes in the structure of corporate media. The chapter is taken from an instructional book for TV news producers, and the point of the title is to emphasize to an aspiring producer that it is not enough to merely do one’s one immediate job, but to be aware of and work with the new media business climate.

Convergence refers to the post-consolidation practice of delivering information and/or entertainment through multiple platforms (radio, TV, print, online) owned by the same parent company. Ideally, a news organization can take a story and, using the same pool of resources, deliberately distribute aspects of the story to different media according to each medium’s particular strengths (e.g. the immediacy of TV, the details and statistics that work best in print, etc.). In reality, convergence tends to be partial, with each outlet working independently with some sharing of resources. What makes convergence a more valid working method is the phenomenon of the converged consumer; rather than having individuals getting only partial information through a single choice of media platform, we see a great number of consumers actually engaging with more than one medium at the same time. (Reading the paper, watching the news, checking sites on their phones, etc.) The chapter backs this idea up on p. 121 by citing a 2004 Media Center study showing that 75% of TV viewers read newspapers while watching and 2/3 surfed the Web while watching. Both percentages seem high, but if credible, they justify the use of media convergence.

The chapter also points out another result of media consolidation: more resources are spent on disseminating news than collecting it. Budgets are cut, staffs shrink by attrition, and fewer people are called upon to do more work. Thus, where in the past a news crew would be sent out to cover a story, now a reporter like Philippe Djegal travels to a location on his own, sets up the camera himself, tapes his own report and edits the raw footage into a short news “package” that is ready to air on whatever station chooses to air it. While it certainly creates the potential for more exciting challenges and the development of diverse skills for journalists, the real reason for this change is that it cuts expenses for the corporation. Is it a positive development for news gathering? Are we more informed when the corporate media functions with greater financial efficiency? Whether we are or not seems to be beside the point in this business model.

5) A big problem with attempting to gauge minority portrayals and representation on TV news during this particular week in history is that the most prominent and newsworthy black male at the moment happens to be an incumbent President in the final week of his re-election campaign. On one hand, that’s a great thing; on the other hand, the very progress this represents makes it all too easy for many to discount that racism is still a big problem in the United States. Papper’s article, with its many detailed graphs, breaks down the demographics of all TV news staff, not just those in front of the camera, so to view 30-60 minutes of a newscast and trying to determine the level of diversity seems insufficient.

CNN’s Sunday afternoon coverage from 4-6 PM on Sunday, Nov. 4 was pretty much all-electoral, with no big crime stories to report, so it was not a good time to examine the disproportionate representation of black males in “crime news” that Mastro et al lay out so clearly in their chapter. I noticed some diversity among the reporters covering the work being done in various swing states. Don Lemon, a black man, Poppy Harlowe, a blonde white woman, and Kyung Lan, an Asian woman, did represent one version of an American microcosm, but the afternoon was dominated by white guys with white hair, right up to the main anchors Blitzer and Cooper. Was CNN “balanced in terms of race, gender, and socio-economic levels” in this sample? Again, there was some diversity, but as CNN’s idea of balance tends to be more along the lines of “Let’s talk to a conservative! Now let’s talk to a liberal! Well, the truth must be somewhere right in between!”, it’s easy for a cynic to think that their ethnic and gender representation is as tokenistic as their political representation. As for “socio-economic balance”, I can’t speculate on the class of the anchors or correspondents, but one of the main stories was on the large turnout for early voting in Ohio, which statistically attracts a strong minority, student, and working class presence (which is precisely why voter suppression in that state has become such an important issue).

On the CBS Evening News at 6 PM we had more Ohio election stories, including get-out-the-vote drives in black churches and among the black community in general. A report on a police helicopter crash in Atlanta mentioned a search for two missing officers, both African-American. We had a black correspondent interviewing a group of young students in Beijing who were following the US election. And a story on Hurricane Sandy relief included an interview with two Red Cross relief workers, one African-American, one Asian-American. I didn’t see any clichéd ghetto thugs on either Sunday newscast; African-Americans, whenever they turned up, did so as “good citizens”. Perhaps the post-hurricane “let’s pull together” attitude has rendered stereotypical fear-mongering distasteful to the networks, at least this week.

(Critiqued texts are from CRITICAL ISSUES IN BROADCAST NEWS, edited by Dina Ibrahim, Cognella, San Diego, 2011)