Traditional media FAIL in covering Occupy

Yesterday’s post criticized the mainstream media for its predictably narrow reporting on the police brutality clearly visible in the video of the peaceful protesters being attacked at the University of California at Davis. A quick tour of some alternative media sites shows that these “new new new” journalists do a far better job of covering these complex and important stories.

In less than 24 hours, more than 75,000 people have already seen the video of UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi posted on lhfang86’s YouTube channel. The video shows Katehi walking through a crowd of students sitting in protest in stony silence. By refusing to chant or shout, the students created a stunning tableau beyond what words could convey.


Mainstream media often find themselves hamstrung by their rules in knowing what to do with such news. Many news organizations resist showing “amateur” video from YouTube, while alternative media embrace such first-person accounts.

The AP news story on the incident only included quotes from “officials” – couldn’t they find a protester to talk to or didn’t AP consider them worth quoting?

Meanwhile BoingBoing partner Xeni Jardin posted a great article that included an interview with a student who was pepper sprayed. A student identified only as W recounted what he and his fellow protesters suffered.

BoingBoing also reported that the large canister of pepper spray used by the campus police was military grade, which is not to be used on people within 15 feet, a prohibition the officers at UC-Davis clearly violated. Wikipedia, much maligned by the mainstream media, reports pepper spray’s dubious history, including the two-month prison stint served by the FBI agent who falsified the testing that authorized the use of this dangerous chemical by domestic police agencies. Of particular concern are reports that pepper spray could be lethal to people with various medical conditions such as asthma.

The Anonymous-themed 99% Legion Is Awakening site on Tumblr gives visitors contact information on one of the officers seen spraying students in the video, as well as for the UC-Davis chancellor and police chief among other officials. While the site urges people to “[p]lease be respectful in your condemnation of this act of brutality,” I think it’s a safe bet that Lt. John Pike, Chancellor Katehi and Police Chief Spicuzza found themselves fielding a few blistering phone messages.

Mainstream media set up to FAIL

Traditional news reporting techniques are proving inadequate to the task of covering a quicksilver movement that is evolving so quickly. The mind-numbing formula of sprinkling ‘he said/she said’ quotes from people with “standing” (experts, officials, academics, community leaders) leaves readers confused about what to believe and unsatisfied that news account fail to tell them what is really happening.

The leaderless Occupy movement poses a particular problem to traditional reporters because there is no “official” or “expert” authorized to speak for the group. Other than an occasional “man on the street” interview, the mainstream media devalue accounts from citizen participants, victims and witnesses, because of the rationale is that such people often have an axe to grind.

What the MSM fails to acknowledge is that their “experts” often spin events based on the desire to please their bosses or colleagues, or to sell a book, win an election or get a grant. A reporter friend who worked with torture victims in Europe was frustrated that editors were often reluctant to publish their accounts, while the torturers or the officials who protected them were quoted freely because of their credentials.

People crave analysis and context

Mainstream news organizations are struggling with the realization that breaking news is the low-hanging news fruit where fierce competition makes it hard to generate much revenue. Everyone has the same story, so it is hard to drive traffic to your site so that you can profit from page-views and click-through. By rejecting analysis as bias, the traditional press puts itself at an intellectual and economic disadvantage.

In a digital world, people absorb that news almost by osmosis. After a big new story breaks, I often ask my students where they learned the news, and most credit social media.

A trusted friend posts a headline link in a tweet or on Facebook, and my students pick up the news on their cellphone or laptop. Most don’t bother to click on the link back to the story because the headline tells them enough or because their experience tells them they will rest of the story will be mostly empty calories. For real nourishment, they go to non-traditional sites they trust, or they go straight to the source at the acknowledged Occupy Wall Street site or Occupy Headlines.

This is a generation that turns to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and not Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News to learn more. For young digital natives to follow a link back to your story, you must offer them better analysis, new insights, a thoughtful point of view, satirical humor, multimedia or interactivity that allows them to feel they are making a difference.

The mainstream press also exhibits a bias against open expressions of emotion, as if feelings taint rationality. Yet don’t we all struggle to figure out how to fell about the news we hear?

Part of this bias may stem from the fact that males still dominate the decision-making at most traditional news organizations, and competitive, highly educated men are often more uncomfortable with feelings than their female counterparts. In his book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen notes that it is a mistake to think that rationality is a superior form of decision-making. He argues that males in particular succumb to savagery in places like Darfur or Abu Ghraib if they are freed from a conscience that requires feeling emotions such as horror, compassion or remorse to make the right decision.

The mainstream media instead tries to lure young people on the basis of their hard-won reputation for objectivity, credibility and trust. To which, I can only reply – really?

The New York Times epic fails of Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and Judith Miller’s weapons of mass destruction/mushroom cloud debacle undermine the argument that the mainstream gatekeepers deserve our uncritical trust. If even the “best” news organization in the country gets it so terribly wrong, why not give BoingBoing a try?

It wasn’t a blogger who helped propel us into the Iraq War that has cost us 4,480 US troops killed and more than 32,000 wounded, as well as $800 billion of our tax dollars. (Yes, there is obvious irony in linking to statistics on the Christian Monitor site, but perhaps that simply underscores why news consumers need a spectrum of news sources to choose from.)

The problem with objectivity is that it all too often turns reporters and editors into mere stenographers. When the top-ranking GOP presidential candidate, currently Newt Gingrich, says that Occupy young people who go get a job – after they take a bath – the news organization that repeats such garbage as if it offers balance loses rather than gains credibility.

In the latest issue of Adbusters magazine, the Culture Jammers who launched the Occupy meme, an article on “postcool” says that young people have moved beyond the pose of irony and individualism to an intense commitment to building grassroots solutions. Finding ways to report on these new initiatives will pose problems for traditional reporters without ties to those new communities and whose editors would view serving their needs as taking sides.

My apologies in advance for showing my Sixties roots, but the Occupy movement is forcing the media to decide whether it will be part of the solution or remain part of the problem.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s