Deciding what news to broadcast


In my first blog post, I wrote about how news programs are becoming increasingly lenient about their definition of news.  On Monday, Al Sunshine, a former Miami broadcast journalist, spoke to one of my classes.  He brought up another issue: Do we, as journalists, give our audiences what they want or need to hear?

Audiences might want to hear about the latest celebrity gossip: who slept with whom, who’s pregnant, who was caught doing drugs in the bathroom. Other than entertainment, that news has no effect on most people’s daily lives.

But people need to hear about other issues. They need to know about unexpected weather conditions. They need to know about the latest disease outbreak. They might not want to, but they need to know what politicians are doing with their tax money (even if it isn’t scandalous).

So how do you decide what to give audiences?  An obvious solution would be to air both types of stories.  With time and space limits, though, that is impractical. Companies air stories that are of popular interest because they attract the most viewers. However, when it comes down to it, the need to know about certain issues trumps media companies’ concerns about viewership and profitability.

Sometimes, stories can be an issue of life or death. For example, if a certain toy has been recalled because of a toxic part, parents need to know to take it away from their children.

If there is time to air only one story, one that is either popular or critical, is there really an option here?

Could any journalist with a sense of human dignity choose better ratings over the chance to save someone’s life?  Is it better to risk concealing potentially lifesaving information than to risk boring some audience members for a couple minutes?

There is a reason it’s called NEEDING to know, and we must remember this when deciding which news to broadcast.  This way, there will be no guilt hanging over journalists’ heads if they do their best to tell viewers anything that might be vital.

Misunderstanding others’ opinions


On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen faced allegations that he himself made a racist comment, when in fact he was expressing the views of some of the subjects of his article.

The exact quote he used was that “people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.”

The problem is that Cohen was trying to convey the sentiments of a particular group of people separate from himself, but readers confused this with a statement of his own opinion.

This is one hardship of journalism.  If we are writing about controversial topics, we are going to have to express others’ opinions that we do not share (or that we do share but do not wish to disclose).  How do we avoid being called “racist” or “sexist” when we are only retransmitting someone else’s message?

The task is not an easy one.  Some readers automatically perceive what they read to be the opinion of the author.  These people might be stubborn and hard to convince otherwise, no matter what you do.

With people who don’t jump to this conclusion, journalists can be overly clear that they are not the ones with the thoughts they are writing or speaking.  Stress your sources.  In situations when you might be tempted to write “many believe that” or “some think that,” reconsider this.  Instead, wherever possible, insert the identity of the party, such as the name of a group or a specific individual you are quoting.  This should take as much suspicion off of you as possible.

Still, no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to tell how readers will view others’ opinions you write about.  People, like journalists, are always looking for drama.  The more scandalous an issue, the more scandalous it would be for you to express your own unpopular beliefs.  People tend to see what they want to see, which is not always what is actually there.  Unfortunately, to maintain your professionalism, you cannot write in block letters “I DO NOT AGREE WITH THE STATEMENTS THAT I QUOTE IN THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE” at the top of your story.

Just as fiction authors do not necessarily share the same experiences as their narrators, journalists do not always hold the same opinions as their articles’ subjects.  As the saying goes, don’t shoot the messenger.

Videos as web stories: Where is the text?


The Internet is great for news because we can use it to tell stories in multiple forms, like both text and video.  Video can complement and enhance text stories, adding new information and content.  However, a problem I have been running into lately is having online stories that are only in video form.

For example, on CNN’s website, there are many news stories that are only video.  Granted, you can find the corresponding text version elsewhere on the site, but how hard would it be for CNN to pair the two together on the same webpage?

On my Facebook News Feed, people post human-interest stories that catch my attention, but to my dismay, often the stories have no text to accompany videos.  This is especially problematic when I am in a public setting, like a classroom (before class, not during…), and I am unable to watch or listen.

Sometimes, it is just an inconvenience and I can easily perform a Google search and find a text version of the story. This is generally the case with straight news stories.  It’s harder when the stories are not straight news, because these are the more unique stories that cannot be found on every news website’s homepage.

Often, I don’t have the time or patience to watch a video.  I’d rather have the story in front of me, where I can scan it and quickly get important details out of it.  With videos, it is difficult to locate the important details, and when you try to skip around, it usually ends up taking longer to watch with all the buffering and/or freezing that ensues.  Plus, videos generally require you to watch ads before the story, which is beneficial for the host site’s pockets, but is not in the interest of saving time.

Because it can be so complicated and frustrating to play videos, I usually don’t watch them at all.

Even though there are undoubtedly Internet users who prefer stories as videos, I think having a story only in video format can be detrimental to a story’s success.  Having a news story only in video format will lead viewers to other websites.

And the last thing a journalist wants is to lose readers to another similar story.

Can we ever ensure source identity?


Earlier this week, President Barack Obama’s tweets got hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), which has recently hacked other high-profile accounts as well. Though the hack was minor, it is still discomforting.

Disregarding the danger that other countries could infiltrate American government technology, what is disconcerting is this reminder for journalists, and everyone, to be cautious with sources.

If you are interviewing Barack Obama in person, you can probably be sure that it’s really him.  But if you ask a random person on the street for an opinion, can you really be sure he’s giving you his correct name?  Even if you had the time, how would you begin researching him?

How can we tell that our sources are who they say they are?  If they are not high-profile, how can we tell if our sources are real at all?  I wish I had an answer to these questions, but I don’t.  I do have some ideas about how to have the best chance of having reliable sources, and they’re basically common sense.

If possible, meet with your source in person. If you can’t, a video chat or phone call would be the next best things, respectively.  At least you can make judgments about authenticity of speech.  Relying on only textual (i.e., email) communication should be a last resort, but sometimes, you cannot avoid it. Use your best judgment and be careful.  The same goes with using websites and online information. These points are pretty obvious to any journalist, but they are important to remember.

This brings me back to the constant fear that sources, especially online ones, may be unreliable.  The best we can do is always be wary of this possibility, and the chance that, for instance, a website may have been hacked or someone else may have authored an e-mail.  If someone can hack the president’s Twitter account, imagine what else can be hacked.

Log in to Facebook … to a beheading?


In May, Facebook banned the posting of graphic content to address the problem of videos of beheadings.  However, Facebook is now easing this ban, allowing certain content, such as decapitations, to be posted as long as the goal is to raise awareness of the horror, not to promote violence.

When I first read this, I was taken aback because I had skimmed over the part about raising awareness. That made Facebook’s decision easier to understand … for a moment, until I thought about how futile these videos would actually be at raising awareness.

Facebook is a social media website. It is a place for people to connect with each other.  Facebook has never had such a serious nature, or any serious nature at all, so users are not expecting bloody, gruesome videos.  Users’ first thoughts would not be that the videos are trying to fight violence, because that doesn’t make much sense.  Instead, most sane users would be horrified and disturbed.

I believe that Facebook is using this “raising awareness” standpoint to save face in the business and legal worlds.

I don’t understand why Facebook suddenly decided that it was okay to allow videos of people chopping heads off of others. Nor do I understand why this violence is acceptable, yet videos depicting nudity, drug use, and pornography — which are at least milder than decapitations – remain banned.  I’m not sure what Facebook is hoping to get out of lifting the violent video ban, but the company’s explanation just doesn’t add up.

The life of a student journalist


It isn’t easy being a student journalist. At times, it can feel like no one takes you seriously.  No one except your professors, that is, meaning you have to turn in high quality work with often not-so-high quality resources.

When I try to contact sources, especially professionals, I know that I am not their first priority. Last year, when I was writing an article about Red Mango, I was lucky enough to be able to speak to the company’s founder via e-mail. After several correspondences, though, he stopped responding to my e-mails.  I already had sufficient information to write my article, so I didn’t press the issue, but I did feel like I had been forgotten about because I wasn’t writing for some high profile magazine. I completely understand this, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

At least I got to speak to him. As a student journalist, it is exponentially harder to contact anyone of importance.  These individuals cater to people who can boost their reputations, give them a business edge, or give them major publicity.  If you’re writing an article for only one set of eyes, you can count most of these sources out.

Sometimes, people won’t speak to you because you are merely a student.  However, the opposite can also be true. Many times, I have noticed that sources are more willing to comply because I am “only” a student journalist. Most people I talk to actually prefer not to be featured in a newspaper or on a website and often the selling point to quote them is that the only person reading an article is my teacher.

Then there are the people who are nice, the people who are probably nicer to you because you are a student journalist.  They understand your obstacles and limitations, and are eager to help you, for one reason or another.  Maybe they are just genuinely nice people, or perhaps they were student journalists themselves.

Being a student journalist has its ups and downs, but they are necessary lessons to fully prepare for the trials and experiences of being a professional journalist.

Instagram: I just don’t get it


I don’t understand Instagram.

I’m always the person who is skeptical about new technology and I’m always on the late side of adopting it. But, in this case, I’ve thoroughly racked my brain and I just don’t get the hype.

Instagram is basically a photo-sharing social media service. Facebook does the same thing but so much more; besides sharing photos, you can post statuses, send instant messages, and so on. Twitter lets users share photos as well.  In fact, you can even share Instagram photos on Facebook or Twitter, which makes even less sense to me than using Instagram as a separate entity.

Instagram does let you follow celebrities, but that’s what Twitter and official Facebook Pages are for.  Instagram users claim that “you get more likes on Instagram,” which may very well be true, but it’s not something that would be impossible on another social media outlet if users started the trend.

One of my friends is adamant that Instagram is great because it lets you put filters on photos. However, there are so many photo editing apps and programs out there that make having an Instagram unnecessary.

For example, I upload photos from my phone to my computer via iPhoto, which allows me to edit my photos.  If I want, I can make them look like they would if they were taken using an Instagram filter.  I don’t need another app to do something when a program that I need to use either way can do the same thing.

My friends keep pleading with me to get an Instagram. I admit, sometimes I feel out of the loop when everyone is talking about something and I can’t figure out what they mean, until I realize everybody is referencing a picture from Instagram. But this isn’t a compelling argument to get an Instagram. It still doesn’t make sense why people can’t just post all of their pictures to Facebook. If they don’t want to “bombard” their friends’ Facebook News Feeds with pictures, then why should they feel any different bombarding Instagram?

Another argument that I’ve gotten is that Instagram is better than Facebook or Twitter because it is only pictures. Okay, you got me there, right?  Well … kind of. Facebook used to have a tab you could click on to view only photos, but this feature seems to have been lost in one of Facebook’s infamous updates. (There’s still a tab called “Photos,” which I thought was the same thing until I tried clicking on it today.  Obviously I’m not mourning the loss of the old feature.)  In any event, I don’t see why it would be necessary to have a separate News Feed for photos.

Or rather, I don’t see why this type of website has become dominant among technology users. My problem with Instagram isn’t its existence as app, but rather its popularity.  In today’s fast-paced, convenience-obsessed culture, I am surprised that people would be interested in spending extra time on something as needless as Instagram. It’s not like Instagram users stop using Facebook or Twitter, so why are so many people active on Instagram at all? I still haven’t solved this mystery.

I can’t conceive how Instagram in itself can be used to benefit reporters because it provides no new tools or unique applications. Despite this, it is important that reporters use this social medium because the American public is using it.  After all, that is to whom journalists must cater.

Peace journalism is great idea, in theory


In my Freedom of Expression class at the University of Miami, we have been discussing peace journalism.  Advocates for peace journalism recognize that today’s media are too eager to focus on violence and tend to favor what they consider to be the victimized parties and assign blame to the “others.”

Peace journalism attempts to give everyone a voice and expose untruths on all sides, while promoting peace and reconciliation instead of war and violence.

In this style of writing, journalists are not supposed to use words like “terrorists,” as these words are considered demonizing language. Instead, they are supposed to call groups by what they call themselves, like al-Qaeda.

Our assignment was to find articles and rank them according to a peace journalism rubric.  As I read through articles, I realized how difficult it would be to adhere to the peace journalism standards. For example, “murdered” has negative and obviously violent connotations, but what else are you supposed to say if that’s what happened? Saying that a man “killed” somebody may have a little less of a negative connotation, but the connotation is there nonetheless.

I agree that an author should make every effort to quote or at least talk to and write about all parties involved and I do think that in many cases this can be done better than it is done now. Sometimes, though, it may be too dangerous.

Should journalists have to reach out to a group that just bombed a civilian’s house? And how are they supposed to talk about this incident without victimizing the civilian? I’m not sure how peace journalism advocates would answer these questions, although it seems to me that the rubric is arbitrary; the person rating an article can interpret the categories and define them however he or she chooses.

One part of the peace journalism rubric is “writer advocates for one side/position.”  (A score of three indicates deviance from the peace journalism philosophy.) This is where peace journalism contradicts itself: it says that authors should be objective, but one of its main goals is to promote peace and reconciliation rather than violence.  Even peace journalism has its own agenda and is inherently biased.

I believe that peace journalism is a noble concept, but it is impractical. It is an unattainable ideal, but we can at least shift toward it, combining some ideas, like less thirst for blood and more open-mindedness, with traditional reporting styles.

Hashtags: Not just source of comic relief


Multiple people have shared the following video on my Facebook news feed:  In it, entertainers Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake verbally imitate the way some people haphazardly use hashtags on social media.

HOW ANNOYING. That’s directed to my few Facebook friends who post pictures (every minute, too) with captions in which *every* one of 30 words #has #its #own #individual #hashtag. I’m not sure if they’re doing this to maximize the number of likes their photos will get, if they genuinely think people are searching for pronouns like “I” or phrases like “realwomenlikeracecars,” or if they’ve gone altogether crazy.

People like that are taking hashtags too far.  They are giving hashtags a bad rap.

I wouldn’t be so quick to cast the hashtag aside, though.  It does have its merits.  The idea behind hashtags is that social media users can search for them or click through to them in order to find related material containing the same hashtag.

This can be useful if one day you really feel like seeing posts about a certain topic, such as #cute pictures of #dogs.  This isn’t their only function: hashtags can be useful on a deeper level, too.  When news is breaking, you can click on a trending topic and view all posts with the same tag, which can help you piece together information. The posts will be from a variety of sources that can include both professional news sources and citizen journalists.  This allows you to get multiple perspectives and you can judge for yourself whether or not the posts are reliable or enlightening.

Hashtags can also benefit journalists or companies by popularizing stories or products.  This often happens with TV shows, which may present viewers with a hashtag suggestion on the bottom of their screens.  When many people use the same hashtag at the same time, the hashtag can appear under “Trends” on Twitter.

This can start conversations with people who have used the same hashtags and therefore have similar interests, like watching the same show. It may spark the curiosity of other Twitter users, who might be interested in shows or products they see on the website and decide to find out more about them. If a journalist is lucky or is good at promoting, his or her story can become a trending topic as well.

Trending topics are a good way to find out what is going on in general.  Once you get the gist of a piece of news, you can choose to pursue the rest of the story.

Even though I didn’t click on a hashtag, I came across the above video via another form of trending, as it has gone viral on social media. This just reinforces the utility of hashtags, regardless of how easy they might be to satirize.

What happened to real news?


Yesterday, I attended a presentation by Alina Falcon, Telemundo’s executive vice president of News and Alternative Programming, in the School of Communication. She spoke about the changing role of the media, and one comment particularly struck me. She said that today, there is increasingly less unscripted, serious news; it is being replaced with straight talk, interviews, and other filler that costs less to produce.

Falcon’s remark resonated with me because, when I watch news programs, I feel uncomfortable during certain segments that can’t really be classified as news.

Though whether entertainment news is news is a controversial topic among journalists, that’s not close to what I mean.  I’m not saying that entertainment stories shouldn’t be on the news.  Some people really are interested in celebrities, TV shows, and the like. At least these stories deliver information to which the average person isn’t already privy. But news programs often take this too far, as in shamelessly plugging their own networks’ shows.  You’ll find stories raving about the “must-see” season of The Voice (does anybody even watch this, anyway?) on NBC, but the show isn’t so much as mentioned on ABC or CBS.

Then there are the stories that can’t be labeled “newsworthy” by any standard.  The kind entitled “Six Places You May Have Misplaced Your Keys” or “Eight Things You Shouldn’t Say to Strangers.”  These types of stories have literally no new or valuable information.  I mean, if a cameraman from the news station came up to me right now, I could cover the same story off the top of my head.

The best is when the programs show you teasers from upcoming stories. “What was the unbelievable item a student found in her lunch?”  “Coming up: You’ll never believe what happens in this video!”  “Stay tuned for the shock a mother got when she opened her front door!”

You wait a half hour to find out.  Sometimes, the story really is surprising, like if the girl found a diamond ring in her sandwich. Still, it’s cruel that programs leave you hanging for so long to hear about it. Other times, the content is just short of being as engaging as a black screen: the video is of a guy failing to balance on one foot, or the mother was checking her mail until she realized it was Sunday.

This kind of programming is embarrassing to watch, and should be infinitely more embarrassing to air. I challenge networks to spend some money and give us real news or to remove this façade by at least transferring these filler clips to differently categorized programs.  Otherwise, networks would be better off showing sitcom reruns during the time slots these stories waste.