What journalists see — and you don’t

By Caitlin Kelly

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Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua — and back!

What a fun week it’s been!

Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”

So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.

If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.

Maybe you knew that.

But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.

It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.

It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:

Length and space

Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.

In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.

Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.

Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.

This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015 (my photo)

Clarity

Short is often better — get to the point!

But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.

Graphic violence

Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.

The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.

Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.

I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.

By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.

Lies

This is a big one, especially now.

If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.

It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.

We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).

Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?

Self-immolation

Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.

It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.

We’re all human and we all mis-speak.

That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen  to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.

It’s our job to untangle it all.

Far too many press releases!

I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.

There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.

Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.

Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.

Documents, leaks and FOIAs

If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.

The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.

FOIAs (pronounced foy-ahs), are Freedom of Information Act requests, which winkle out crucial documents from the federal government. As the press withstands unprecedented attacks here in the U.S., journalists are creating secret and on-line national groups to plot strategy and one writer I know has switched to an encrypted email.

The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.

You need a free press more than ever now.

 Proximity/celebrity/recency

The big three of news determinants.

The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.

Which is crazy.

Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.

(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)

Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.

If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.

The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…

I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.

 

How crucial do you think a free press is?

 

Do you agree with Bannon?

19 thoughts on “What journalists see — and you don’t

      1. Something similar has happened before. President Adams John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. He later regretted it more than anything else he had ever done. Any criticism of the government was outlawed and members of the press were imprisoned, immigrants hounded. http://www.ushistory.org/us/19e.asp

        “Clearly, the Federalists saw foreigners as a deep threat to American security. As one Federalist in Congress declared, there was no need to ‘invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquillity.'”

  1. Your comments about what goes on behind the scenes in the reporting and editing of news stories is spot-on. The reality of the amount of material that gets left on the cutting-room floor is particularly relevant–something that few readers understand or appreciate. Recently I gathered over 20,000 words of transcribed interviews and research for a story with a 900-word limit.

    1. And yet…if we skimped on all that research we’d have a much less nuanced understanding of what it is we’re trying to write about, for an audience who may know much much less than we did when started out.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Caitlin.
    You probably know about it already, but if not, you might be interested in a great conference held every year at Boston University sponsored by the College of Communication, the Journalism Department––The Power of Narrative: Telling True Stories in Turbulent Times. This year promises to be especially intense. http://www.bu.edu/com/narrative/

  3. They call press the “forth authority ‘ beside judiciary , parliament and government . This forth authority should subject to” LAW “. To me, Journalists who deceive the public are liers and should be brought to justice.

  4. Great NYT piece – congratulations!

    I find what is happening in the US very alarming. The fact that DT is trying to characterise the media as “crooked” and has also picked some scapegoats (Hispanics, Muslims) is truly scary – to say nothing of all these executive orders. I listened to a piece on CBC yesterday about how Canada now has to likely revise its position on so-called “third country” refugees (people who seek refugee status in Canada after being accepted into the US are considered to be coming from a “safe third country” and no longer eligible for refugee status). I never thought I would see the day – I didn’t even think of it as a possibility. Make America great again? If this keeps up, we’ve got a ringside seat to the self-destruction of a (formerly) much respected neighbour and friend. Right now, US journalists have the most important assignment of their lives.

    I am very opposed to any kind of pandering or kow-towing to this megomaniac on the part of my government. Trudeau is about to be tested in a most extreme way.

  5. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes reassurance. NYT, Washington Post, and Politico are an integral component of my morning diet, in large part because of the obvious dedication to content quality AND integrity. Not surprising at at to find that you are a member of this elite tribe.

    Now, wouldn’t it be great if Twitter and Facebook lost its footing as a “primary source” for so many?

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