Saturday, June 23, 2012

Maligned media, Part 1: Sometimes the negative perception is justified

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
Journalists often are a maligned lot.

I would blame some of that on the nature of the work we do, particularly in competitive markets or when a big news story breaks in a small town, drawing hordes of journalists.

In our most visible
roles, we appear to descend upon tragedy like vultures vying for the choicest bits of flesh from a fresh carcass. That imagery comes to mind every time I consider mobs of reporters, camera crews and photographers descending upon a crime scene, for example, or the home of a family recently bereft of a loved one in some awful tragedy.

To be fair, we’re there to do a job, to record a news event, a tragedy or other piece of history that is unfolding in the communities we serve. Yes, we are there for the scoop, and we exult in the adrenaline rush that comes with chasing down a reporting a good story, capturing a great image. We’re there to record raw emotion on film, a 15-second sound bite, or the details we writers need to elicit a greater emotional response from our reader.

Generally, we want the work we do to count for something, to have an impact.

We are an idealistic fellowship that accepts a lifetime of lousy to mediocre pay, often awful hours and frequently a day-in, day-out lack of appreciation from the public we serve. In exchange, we work with the hope that the truth will effect change and perhaps help make the world a better place.

Of course, with the havoc the tech change has wrought on the industry in recent years, many of us simply hope to work.

Still human beings

But journalists remain human beings, fully equipped to aspire to greatness and to fumble face-first into the mire. So when news breaks, it can spark a media frenzy fueled by competitiveness, pride, a hunger to rise up and stand out above the rest, however briefly, with the greatest footage, the most compelling prose. In those moments, I think the purest intent — to clearly, fairly, accurately and truthfully inform the community about what has happened and why it matters — can get lost.

You likely have seen these scenes unfold on television. Perhaps, if you are a journalist like myself, you at some point have been a player in such a drama. Maybe you remember your own hunger while pondering:
  • How can I make my story stand out better than everyone else’s can?
  • Will this story be my big break?
  • Can I get some private time with the victim’s mother/father/sibling? Perhaps s/he will tell me something no one else knows … Maybe the neighbor knows something ...
To be honest and transparent, it is very easy to get caught up in that, because most of us want to rise up to meet the challenges, and we want to shine.

But the adrenaline rush of excitement that comes with chasing down a big story can override the sensitivity that journalists most need to show yet sometimes lose in these situations. From the perspective of the storyteller — whether a visual journalist working with images or those of us who specialize in the written or spoken word — accurately and skillfully relating detail and drama while eliciting an emotional response from the reader is at the heart of our craft. It is a cherished skill. For a few minutes or so, we become the eyes and ears of our readers, offering them an intimate glimpse of another’s heartbreak or triumph.

The best stories not only accurately and nearly completely convey the pertinent details, they also elicit that emotional response — joy, exultation, dread, anger, sadness, fear — that places the reader in the midst of the drama, good or bad.

But because we are human, sometimes the same hunger that drives us to be good journalists comes off as crass, insensitive and even self-serving.

A significant news event will draw out-of-town media in droves like swarms of angry hornets. I have watched “rising-star” television personalities push their way into a press briefing or to the front of a line with an air of entitlement they clearly believed they had. When it was demonstrated they did not, tempers fueled by hurt egos often flared.

Drawing distinctions

Let me make it clear that I draw a clear distinction between an aggressive journalist who is doing the  job, hopefully with some sensitivity, and those who simply believe their status as a reporter for this or that organization entitles them to something they have not earned. The latter might seem to look down their noses at “lesser” beings such as community journalists. Yet they want the same information, and they want it now, that the local journalists have developed because of their contacts in the community.

I point this out because the Cheyenne, Wyo., and the Denver bureaus of The Associated Press, for example, often sent out top-notch journalists who could be aggressive but also respectful. They were welcome in our newsroom at the Rawlins Daily Times. For some reason, however, the TV journalists I encountered from Denver in those years appeared as arrogant and insensitive as they were aggressive.

My co-workers and I encountered this on a handful of occasions during my seven years as a reporter in Rawlins, a small city the high plains of south-central Wyoming. Then, Rawlins was home to perhaps 10,000 people; today, the Census Bureau estimates there are about 9,000.

One of those occasions was a hostage crisis at the Wyoming State Penitentiary; another was the kidnapping, rape and brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl. Both brought media scurrying into town from Denver, a good four- to five-hour drive from the southeast, and even from Salt Lake City, which was about the same distance but to the southwest.

During the hostage incident, a TV station helicopter defied FAA airspace restrictions over the Wyoming State Penitentiary, hovering where it wanted as its cameraman looked for a good angle and tried to determine exactly which building was home to the drama.

At some point, after repeated warnings, the sheriff radioed the helicopter pilot and told him to leave before the lead started flying. He just laid it out as if he was ordering a cup of joe, saying something like, “You know you’re not supposed to be up there, and if you don’t leave in about 30 seconds, we’re going to shoot you down. I don’t think either one of us wants that.”

The chopper left, immediately. A co-worker who had been in the prison’s pressroom told me later there were prison guards and sheriff’s deputies, perhaps a couple of state troopers to boot aiming rifles at the aircraft, just waiting for the order. Denver’s broadcast media did itself no favors that day as far as advancing its reputation among southern Wyoming law enforcement.

Some are pushy and rude

But some of the big-city media carried itself with even greater arrogance a couple of years later when it showed up to cover the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl who went missing late one night while walking her dog.

Our paper, the Rawlins Daily Times, covered that story like a hawk. From the morning after her disappearance and the discovery that day of a bloody bundle of clothing just outside of town, to the days of searches that followed, we chronicled our community’s efforts to find a girl who was much loved by her family, friends and neighbors.

When the girl’s body was found and a press conference was called to announce the arrest of the budding serial killer whose path she crossed on March 31, 1990, I arrived early, sat down in the front row with my camera and waited.

I was certain I already had all the details — I’d been virtually camped out at the sheriff’s office for four days, had met the missing girl’s mom and had talked to her dad on the phone. The night before the press conference, I was in the sheriff’s office when they brought in the girl’s family to let them know they had made an arrest and recovered her body.

The press conference the next day was a formality, but I needed to be there, as much to be certain that I didn’t miss anything as to ensure I would have a photograph of the sheriff and maybe the county attorney to go with the story I would write.

When the Denver media arrived later, they sized up the room, looking for the best place to position themselves and their cameras. There was a contingent from a TV station that clearly envied the spot I had staked out.

Several of them insisted I should move so they could have better camera angles “because we’re with (whichever) television station in Denver.” I pointed out there were plenty of other seats in the room and held my ground. Besides, they were here for the thrill of a sensational story in a community with which they had no connection. This was a flash in the pan for them; for the people in Rawlins, this was a pain that would last.

One of them called me a small-town hick, which drew some chuckles from his compatriots. He pressed the point on their behalf, insisting again they were the big-city media, implying that I should defer to their Denver-flavored awesomeness.

I did not.

I had less self-restraint back then but held my tongue anyway. While I had a bevy of clever insults in my arsenal with which to counter this arrogance, I simply told “Mr. TV” that I would not move and turned to wait for the press conference to start. Still, I was angry.

My exchange with Mr. TV left a lasting impression and serves to remind me today that we journalists do have egos. Part of me wanted badly to put Mr. TV in his place, but doing so would have served no useful purpose. It would not have reflected well on me, on the  Rawlins Daily Times, or on my community. It also would have put our egos at front and center on a day when they were even more irrelevant than usual.

The real story that day was not the media. It was the beginning of justice in an incredible sad, violent tragedy.

The perception that the media are little better than a self-serving pack of jackals more interested in making names for ourselves than in serving the public can be as accurate as it can be wrong. On this day, the big-city media was there for a hot, tragic tale that would play well for a day as a regional news story. They left when they got their piece of it, even though the story would not conclude for another six or seven months.

The  Rawlins Daily Times covered that story from the beginning, before the outisde media took interest, and we covered it to the end. One of the last stories I wrote for that paper was about the day a judge sentenced Robert Lee Clegg to multiple life terms for the murder of Lisa Marie Hansen.

The  Rawlins Daily Times reported the story for its duration, as should any local news organization truly intent upon serving its community. We were not the among the jackals.

But the jackals indeed were there, at least for a while.
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Addendum: I want to take a moment to respond and to clarify after a journalist I respect and trust, Steve Buttry, offered a constructive criticism (below) of this piece. Let me make it clear the big-city media had a right to be there and, generally speaking, their presence fulfilled a necessary and vital role.

The writing of this dredged up some intense memories, good and bad, including the indignation I felt at the time. I would hate, as Steve put it, to paint big-city media with a broad brush. I mentioned The Associate Press reporters and photographers I encountered out there specifically because in my mind, they often reflected the best in terms of professional demeanor and good journalism when they followed news into small communities like Rawlins.

In the situations I discussed, there were just a couple of bad apples who served to cast the broader media in a poor light. Unfortunately, the impressions they left in that community served to reinforce the negative stereotypes about the media.