Saturday, June 11, 2011

News Story Types - And Why the "News" is Worthless

Almost every newscast includes a humorous story - sort of a waste of the precious 22 minutes.

A friend of mine asks how I can possibly "Stay Informed!" if I don't watch the TeeVee news all the time.  I ask her how she stays informed watching it.  Television news is heavily filtered and then packaged into a 22-minute format (if that, anymore) and you are told very little.

And unfortunately, newspapers, like USA Today (which no one ever quotes, you notice that?) take the TeeVee news format and put it on paper.  Less is more, and in-depth reporting or background information is cut out to "punch up" the "story" and make it more compelling and easy to understand for viewers (or readers).

The problem with the TeeVee news is the format and how they filter news.   And Cable News is no better.  Given 24 hours to fill, they just repeat the same 22 minute format over and over again.  No long-format work with background information.  Even political pundit shows are short on facts and long on long-winded opinion.  And often the facts are compelling and necessary to the real understanding of the story.

Your typical news show has a number of short segments, usually only a minute or two long.  None of them are very informative: 

The Lead Story:  The lead (or lede) story is short and often contains little information, and what little it contains is often inaccurate or irrelevant to the larger picture.   The Anchor reads the story, often only three or four sentences, and then "hands off" to a correspondent in the field.  The correspondent, however, is often no closer to the story, geographically or intellectually, than the anchor.  But, he may be in an exotic foreign location and wearing a trench-coat or other type of news-wear.

The correspondent reads, almost verbatim, the same few sentences that the Anchor read, often cutting to footage, provided by independent photographers, of some related or unrelated scene - or they may in fact, use stock footage.

Very little is actually learned from this by the viewer - the overall story or details are omitted for "clarity."  For example, much brouhaha was made recently over a special election in the 26th Congressional District in New York - an area, we were told, was staunchly Republican, but might elect a Democrat.

None of the reporters bothered to mention where this district was, and after three days of hearing the story, I finally went to Wikipedia to find out (it is between Ro-chester and Bu-ffalo).  Also omitted from the story was the fact that a third party "spoiler" candidate was running, who was nominally a tea party candidate, but had a Democratic background.

The actual story, it turns out, is less a referendum on Republican Medicare reform that a local political situation and a three-way race.  But that is harder to explain in four sentences and not as compelling a lead as "Democrats take Republican Stronghold!" - which is doubly suspicious as New York State is hardly a Red State. 

Story Priority:  What makes the lead varies depending on the importance of the story and the geographical distance from the viewer.  Race and other factors are relevant as well.  As was noted by others years ago, there is a filter in the news business.  When it comes time to reporting - in the newspaper or on the TeeVee, a murder in your home town takes the lead (or headline) over 5 people killed in the next town, which in turn is more important than 10 people killed in a remote city, which in turn is more important than 100 people killed in another state, 1000 in another country, and so on.

So, while a tsunami in Japan might be headline news, it may be knocked down to second place by a murdered tot in your home town.  And when it comes to murder, there are important murders and less important murders, and yes, racism raises its ugly head here.

If you look at all the "compelling trial stories" on the TeeVee Court shows, you'll notice that the ones that grab viewers (particularly women) are the "Tot Mom" kind of murders - where some cute kid is killed by their own parents.  And of course, a cute WHITE kid will get ratings, while a dead Black kid barely gets mentioned.

Think about it for a minute - how many of these Court TeeVee dramas center around white people, and how many around black?  Black kids go missing every day - but we rarely hear about it.  Black folks die in Jamaica every day, but it is only when an affluent white tourist is killed that we hear about it - preferably an attractive female tourist.

And think about it, would there have been half as much fuss over O.J. Simpson if his wife and that unlucky waiter were Black?  Black-on-Black crime simply doesn't get reported - or talked about.

There is a definiate hierarchy, when it comes to the media's reporting on crime or events, particularly when it comes to murder:

  1. White children - preferably not ugly ones.
  2. White women - upper class preferred.
  3. White men
  4. Latinos (in the same order, children, women, then men)
  5. Other races - Asian, Eastern Bloc, Immigrants, etc.
  6. Blacks - preferably upper class or "striving to get ahead and struck down by gang violence" or a working Mom struggling to pay the bills.
  7. White criminals or people involved in criminal activities (they had it coming, right?)
  8. Blacks or other minorities involved in criminal activities.
  9. Dead Hookers
  10. Black Dead Hookers

You may think I am being tongue-in-cheek here, but I am deadly serious.  In a recent story about people dumping the bodies of Dead Hookers on the beaches of Long Island, the focus of the story was not on the poor young women, lured into a life of drugs and sex, with no way out, and then brutally murdered.  No, no - the story was about how inconvenient it was to the rest of us, that their body parts were washing ashore on a public beach!  Inconsiderate bastards!  The hookers, that is.

And if you are a young teenage girl, thinking about "running away from home" because it sounds like a fun time - think again.  Because as these examples illustrate, once you live on the street, and resort to prostitution, you go from #1 on the list, to #9.  No one will give a shit about you and when you are eventually killed (there are not many retired hookers out there, trust me) no one will bother to investigate.  It is a sad way to go.

Our prejudices go beyond that of mere race, of course.  The death of foreigners, even in droves, affects us little.  We watch, with feigned interest, a story about a 14 year old Syrian boy, castrated and then tortured to death by the Syrian Secret Police, and wonder how this will affect the price of gasoline.  After all, the real outrage is that it costs nearly $100 to tank up the Hummer, and we have to get to work tomorrow.

And the lack of coverage of such stories - plus the clear hierarchy the news places on them, validates your not caring about them. 

Sex Scandal Story:  In this day and age, almost everyone's sexual peccadilloes are considered old hat and not worthy of comment.  We've seen it all on the daily talk-shows.  Cross-dressing Nazi Lesbians or whatever.  And on the Internet, it seems everyone is trolling for their perfect mate - on Craigslist or some specialty site pandering to a particular perversion.

But at the same time we engage in whatever sexual act we deem fit, we recoil in horror when we find out that one of our political leaders is having (gasp!) SEX!  Even a single man having heterosexual intercourse in the missionary position is deemed to be obscene, if we find out about it.

And if the man is married - well never mind that 2/3 of Americans are divorced and never mind than the major reason they are divorced was probably adultery.  We hold politicians and celebrities to a higher standard!

People even wag their tongues at promiscuous celebrities.  Madonna publishes a book called "SEX" showing her in various dirty poses, and then we castigate her for actually doing it.

Why are we outraged about this?  Well, we mostly aren't.  But the news media lives in a Twilight Zone time warp and for some reason uses the moral values of decades ago when reporting the news.  And this is one problem with the News - they promote stories that they think are important, not necessarily that we think are important, but through sheer repetition, we are forced to think about them.

And let's face it, our interest in a sex scandal has less to do with the scandal, but with our voyeuristic urge to know who is banging who - and how.  So the salacious details of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are headlines - and everyone wants to snigger and giggle about how Clinton got a blowjob from Monica Lewinsky.   What's the big deal, again?  Like you never do that?  Or maybe you never do, and are just jealous?  I think perhaps the latter.

The Sex Scandal stories become death watches - like the Iranian hostage crises - and the News people love them.  How many days can Politician X hold out, before the cries for his resignation force him to make a tearful speech and step down to "spend more time with his family"?

Just once, I'd like to see one of these politicians decide to sell their sex tapes, become a porn star, and not resign their position.  That would be a stick in the eye to the News people.

In Italy, this is of course, what happens.  When the Prime minister has an adulterous affair with a young woman, she is given a job as anchor of the State-run Television.  So she can report on her own sex scandal.  It saves a lot of time and hassle - and there are so many more important things to do in Italy, anyway. 

Political Scandal Story:  Political Scandals, are, of course, important news.  An informed electorate should know which of their politicians are crooks.  But unfortunately, the Political Scandal story is rarely reported, or reported well.

Simply stated, it is not a compelling story to viewers.  They would prefer a juicy sex scandal - they understand that readily, as they understand sex.

But complex scandals, like complex crimes, are hard to explain in three or four sentences or less.  The Watergate scandal, today, would not have resulted in Nixon's resignation.  It was a complex story in a time when newspapers like the Washington Post were willing to follow complex stories.  And you really research Watergate, what it was, wasn't just a break-in, but a series of crimes, large and small, and of course, the cover-up.

Politicians have learned a lot since then.  Ronald Reagan arguably had a much greater scandal with the Iran-Contra scandal.  Not a mere break-in or use of political dirty tricks to try to outwit political opponents - Reagan authorized (and it seems clear that he did) direct violations of U.S. Law by selling arms to our sworn enemies in Iran, in return for money that was funneled to an illegal war in Central American.

Yawn.  No one really gave a shit.  It was too complicated a story, and the only compelling thing was Oliver North and the Cake he gave the Ayatollah - or whatever.  Unlike Nixon, Reagan "came clean" and let a few political underlings fall on their swords and the whole thing blew over.

Today, politicians still lie, cheat, and steal - for their own private gain, not for political or geo-political causes, either.  But most folks willfully ignore this - if the politician's professed beliefs align with their own.  So Senator Klaghorn uses government money to pay for a new swimming pool at his house - and no one in his State objects, as he is "Pro Life" or whatever.

And the rules about use of money are so opaque and byzantine that it is possible for an innocent to be accused of malfeasance, while meanwhile an outright thief can skirt the law.  For example, if you want to run for President, it  is a pretty good gig - provided you lose.  You collect all this money, and then get Federal matching funds.  You then withdraw from the race and keep the dough - to spend on other people's political campaigns, or just to buy crack and champagne.  And it is all perfectly legal.

No, the political scandal story is too complex for the nightly news.  You rarely see them anymore, and if you do, they are reduced to the simplest terms. 

Ain't It Awful Story:  In this day and age, these are a staple of TeeVee news.  Unemployment is up!  The market is down!  The national debt is at all-time highs!  We love to wallow in depression and self-pity, and the News gives this to us in spades.

Funny thing, though, it always does this, even when times are great.   During the go-go 1990's and 2000's, people were making money and everything was going up, up, up!  But the News reports only about unemployment and dips in the stock market - never the rises.

If you go back over the years, the "Gee, the economy is awful" stories predominate, even during good times.  The old adage that "Bad news sells" is true.  You don't get people to "Stay Tuned!" by saying everything is going well. 

It's an Outrage! Story:  These are usually along the lines of the bridge to nowhere type of story, where you are baiting into believing that the government is squandering most of its precious budget dollars on pork barrel projects or obscene or profane art exhibits.  They get you all riled up about the utter waste of it all, so that pretty soon, you are screaming in outrage.

What is never said, of course, is that the bridge to nowhere actually goes somewhere, and that the "dirty" or controversial pictures in the art exhibit are only one or two of 200 paintings, and the government's involvement in promoting the exhibit is trivial.

What is never, ever said, of course, is that most of the money spent by the government (more than half) goes directly to YOU, in the form of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SSI, Welfare, Unemployment, and other transfer-of-wealth programs.  The next largest chunk goes to the military, and most of that goes to expensive and esoteric (but rarely used) high-tech weapons systems like the B-1 and B-2 bombers.

But that isn't as interesting a story and won't get you to "Stay Tuned!" through the next commercial.

There are other outrage stories as well.   A friend of mine came over the other day, livid because the TeeVee Nooze program put on some idiot who professed to be representing "The Pedophiles of America" and they let him blather on about pedophilia.  The Nooze loves this sort of "guest" who is sure to garner outrage.  I suspect he may have been a put-up job - there are people who spoof the news programs on a regular basis by showing up as phony characters.

The net result, however, is just unfocused outrage on the part of the viewer.  My friend was upset and angry over, what?  What changed in the world from the day before, other than some idiot got on TeeVee and said something that made her angry?  And that is just was the TeeVee people were hoping for - she watched seven SUV commercials to see the end of the piece.

It is baiting plain and simple.   And it worked. 

The Compelling Video Story:  In this day of camera phones, and security cameras, and cameras just about everywhere, the television is taking advantage of what would seem like a natural fit - broadcasting compelling videos of events.

So, we are told, there is an outrageous video of police brutality, or of a crackdown on rioters, or some malefactor "caught on tape" - or a natural disaster or some other event.

And sometimes, these videos are interesting, if they help the viewer understand the scale of an event, such as that of the Japanese Tsunami.  When you see an entire village washing away, you understand exactly what a Tsunami is and how deadly it can be.

Other times, these videos are just voyeurism - a chance to see a dead body or violence, which people like to watch (doubt me?  What is on the TeeVee Shows or the movies these days? Violence and dead bodies).  It is compelling video, because people like to slow down to see bloody SUV wrecks.  But it is hardly "news" - but rather just pandering to our lowest common denominator.

In other cases, the video is hardly compelling, unless heavily edited and put in context by a cover story.  Oftentimes, the "Startling video" ends up being far less than that, but merely a background to a story narrative.

And of course, videos can be manipulated and distorted to make a point.   The vaunted "Wikileaks" video "Collateral Murder" was edited from a number of pieces of raw footage, and then an audio feed tacked on (and not the audio feed necessarily corresponding to the video).   Then, captions were added to "explain" the scenes.  It is an outrage, because we are told it is an outrage.  But from the perspective of the guy in the helicopter, it is a bunch of terrorists with a grenade launcher, who should have been shot.  The fact that an idiot news crew would follow around a bunch of terrorists with a grenade launcher wasn't something you could see from 500 feet up, now was it?  And what does one expect, if you follow around a guy with a grenade launcher in Baghdad?  That he might get shot at?  And who goes to "rescue" dead and dying terrorists with children in their car?

Of course, we don't get those answers - just the compelling videos and the damning captions, which are applied like sentences handed down from a court - this is what happened, never mind interpretation.

And that is the problem with video - it promises to expose the truth to all of us, but often obscures it, instead.   All you need do is not manipulate the video, but selectively choose the start and stop times you elect to show on TeeVee.  So the "suspect" who is the subject of "police brutality" is shown on the ground being subdued.  Not shown, is the fact he was wired on Meth and Crack and lead the police on a hour-long chase, took hostages, shot at the police, and then struggled like a wild man, hitting officers in the process.  Yea, it took six cops to bring him down - that is not brutality.  And by eliminating his crime-spree from the videotape, the entire thing is out of context.  It is hardly like he was a librarian on his way home from work who was randomly targeted for violence and abuse by Police.

This is not to say that never happens, only that in most cases, the "Compelling Video" is only compelling because we are told it is, and the same small group of frames is repeated over and over again, devoid of context, until we are convinced that events happen as the narrator said they did. 

Human Interest Story:  Nothing rounds out a broadcast like a human interest story!  And these can take a number of different forms, as noted below.  The big deal is that some "ordinary Joe" like us, gets to be on TeeVee!  We respond to this story, because it plays to the fantasy of the TeeVee viewer that maybe someday their lives will be Tee-Vee worthy (perhaps they can be the slack-jawed yokel with the compelling video from their smartphone, of the bloody SUV accident).
Victim Story: Suzie has been victimized by criminals, the government, or her own stupidity.  The point of the story is never that you shouldn't do what Suzie did, but that she is a victim and deserves sympathy, if not in fact government money.  And the greater point is, we are all helpless victims here - of circumstance.

Humorous Story:  Some oddball who collects the worlds largest ball of string is profiled with humorous music in the background.  People sure are funny!  And maybe you, too, should be an oddball with a weird hobby!  You might get on TeeVee!  Perhaps now is the time to start training squirrels to water ski.  You might want to look into it.

Heartwarming Story: Patty takes in stray cats, dogs, or children, or goes out and delivers cupcakes to shut-ins.  The world would be a better place, if everyone was like Patty!  I am not running down Patty, here.  But this is not really news (none of it is) it is just a glurge designed to make you feel good.  In a world where the economy is tanking, and politicians are having sex, we need more Pattys!

* * * 

All of this, taken together, is hardly educational or "keeping you informed".  And even assuming it is, how does this help you?

The other day, I went to the bank, and the bank manager, who is a nice lady - but she is blonde - had the TeeVee in the lobby so "we can all watch the Tot Mom Trial!" - as if this was the news event of a lifetime - some white trash people kill their kid, and I'm supposed to care, why?

She asked me some opinion on some obscure part of jury selection and I confessed I had no idea what the trial was all about.  She was horrified that I was so "uninformed" as to the "issues of the day!"

But as a Lawyer, my feeling is this:  Criminal trials will go on with or without my interest in them.  The result will depend not one whit on my opinions, but that of 12 jurors.  And in most cases, but not all, some sort of justice will be done, regardless of my participation or lack thereof.  After all, I am not representing the "Tot Mom".

And in most cases, the public's opinions about trials are little more than popularity contests, and have little or nothing to do with the facts of the case, or the Rules or procedures of the Law.  Most folks think a trial is like voting people off dancing with the stars (do they do that?  I am not sure, I don't watch it).  They think a trial is a popularity contest.  More perpetual high school.

And unfortunately, this sort of attitude has negatively affected our justice system.  Jurors, often retirees or people on welfare - who watch a lot of TeeVee, look at jury duty as a chance to be a celebrity - perhaps write a book.  They are sold the idea of trials as entertainment and sport, rather than solemn rituals of our Democracy.

And increasingly, Judges and Lawyers as well, fall into this trap.  The O.J. Simpson trial turned into a circus only because the Judge let it - by letting cameras in to the courtroom.  Real Judges don't put their collection of trolls on the bench, as if they were good luck talismans in a Bingo Hall.

Television can do real damage to our Democracy, by turning news into entertainment - and in fact, turning everything, even the goings-on of our government, into entertainment.  What goes on, on the floor of the House or Senate is not deliberation anymore (that takes place behind closed doors where deals are cut) but instead mere grandstanding for the C-SPAN cameras - the chance to make a sound bite that makes the evening news.

We call elections like football matches, instead of political contests.  You don't want to be voting for the loser, do you?  Go team!

Of course, the great unwashed masses (who become greater and more unwashed, every day) will continue to wallow in this sort of weak thinking and there is not much we can do about it.

But on a personal level, if you want to act rationally in an irrational world, one of the best things you can do, is to turn away from the irrational and irrelevant data of the Television, and in particular, the Television News.  Not only is the data bad, it is often designed to get you to act against your own interests.  The Television sells the debt lifestyle, the victim mentality, learned helplessness, depression and obesity.  Want to improve your life?  Get rid of television.

Not only will you not be "uninformed" but you will be smarter as a result.

And whatever you decide, please don't try to convince me that I am in danger of being "uniformed" on the "issues of the day!" by not watching this drivel.  Because it is the people who watch this crap who know absolutely nothing about their world.