Facts? You want facts?
It’s only getting worse, according to the new, annual State of The Media, an annual report from the Pew Project For Excellence in Journalism. The report, their seventh, is enormous and detailed.
This, from the executive summary, struck me immediately:
Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial accounts of events. For now at least, digital technology is shifting more emphasis and resources toward breaking news. Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive. It is also leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers — their press conferences and press releases — make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the Web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary. What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events. We saw this clearly in a study of news in Baltimore, but it is reinforced in discussions with news people. While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.
I have added the bold and italics. This worries me enormously.
Here’s what happened yesterday when I spoke to the public affairs office of a major corporation. I asked for an interview with their CEO and determined, after more discussion, that lower-level executives might be better suited to this topic — part of the research for my book.
“Oh, a book,” she said. “They take up so much of our time.”
“No more time than a magazine or newspaper interview,” I retorted, a little — maybe a lot — sharply.
“No,” she said, “There’s all that fact-checking.”
News to me — most publishers do not fact-check at all; the onus is on the non-fiction writer to be ethical and honest and get it right. The most meticulous (or well-financed) hire their own fact-checkers, knowing no one else (which they still do for most major magazines) will make those calls.
I always explain in detail to potential sources not just what I want from them — 10 minutes (more like 60, to start) — but why I need their point of view and how they fit into my larger story. I choose my sources carefully: my time and energy is limited and my book is only 75,000 words, of which most is my own story.
I was told I would have to sign a legally-binding document allowing them to review my material about them and to amend it as they see fit.
She called my request a “deep dive.”
This used to be called reporting.
I recently emailed a list of 20 questions to another source — who freaked out. “I don’t have time for this! Do you have any idea what you’re asking?”
Yes, I do. Like any reporter who cares about their work, I want as much detail as I can possibly get my hands on — not just that someone drove a car, but what color/year/make/model and whether the left mirror was cracked and why. I once covered a head-on car crash in Montreal between a small car in which everyone was killed and a city bus. It one of the most horrific stories in my career — the car’s windows, a sight I will never forget, were sheeted with fresh, wet blood. I only saw that because I got as close to the car as police would allow. My editor told me I was the only reporter to get the make and model of the car.
I didn’t want to do it. It was disgusting and terrifying — and I had my driver’s test the very next day.
That’s what reporters do.
We do not: sit in press conferences and take hand-outs and re-write press releases and let spokesmen tell us their shiny, happy versions of the story. Letting “newsmakers” tells us what matters — hey, it matters to their shareholders and Wall Street! — is BS. Letting corporate and government interests set and control the agenda is a recipe for disaster. And the more they get used to a lazy, stupid, under-paid, under-trained style of “reporting” the harder they bite down on the dinosaurs among us who want facts, dammit.
Not spin. Not a press release. Not just one interview, with three of their flacks sitting in and recording every word — but maybe three or four or 12.
I once interviewed a Navy admiral. She actually reached for my notebook to see what I had written. I shoved it under the desk and kept writing.
People will try, whenever and wherever and however they can — and they have powerful tools at their disposal — to intimidate, ignore, stonewall or confuse reporters.
You, readers, deserve better. John Edwards — shiny, happy guy….until some dogged reporters found out he wasn’t. Enron? Great company…until reporter Bethany McLean led the pack and said, Not so much.
No one likes to be asked a lot of nosy questions. Takes up their valuable time. Might make them uncomfortable. Might raise an issue they hoped no one had even considered. Might scare them.
The day we stop doing that, we’re all screwed.