what is news

The Terrible Truth About The News

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media 6 Comments
Wereldomroeper

The author, reading the news

It was one of the most cynical cartoons I’d ever seen.

A colleague had just put it up on the wall of the newsroom at Radio Netherlands International where I was working at that time. The frenzy of fanatic reporters filing their stories disappeared into the background as I read the headline:

“WHAT IS NEWS?”

The question couldn’t be simpler. The answer couldn’t be more complicated. And yet, everything around me was buzzing with deadline-driven activity, as if all of us actually knew what we were doing. After all, we were the news makers. 

NEWS” is one of those words that you and I hear and use many times a day. In fact, we hear it and use it so frequently, that we rarely question what it means. 

There are many words like that; words such as crisis, control, communityand support. These words are so common, it’s pretty obvious what they stand for, isn’t it? There’s no need to define them. 

SEMANTICS

Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, would strongly disagree. He coined the phrase: “The map is not the territory.” By that he meant that an abstraction derived from something, is not the thing itself. In plain language: you can’t get wet from the word water.

The word water (the map) is only a representation of something that’s much more fluid (the territory). But when we use the word water, it is generally assumed that we know what it means. Well, let’s ask the people of Flint, Michigan, about that.

That very human ability to make assumptions is the basis of many conflicts, big and small. People confuse maps with territories all the time. Here’s what I mean.

BUMPER TO BUMPER

“Support our troops” it said on the bumper sticker. Most Americans couldn’t agree more. Especially these days, it is important to support our troops, don’t you think? But on a deeper level, what does ‘support’ really mean?

Remember: the word ‘support’ is just a map. But of what? How exactly, should we support our troops? By increasing the defense budget? By sending those stationed abroad care packages for Christmas? Or should we support them by pulling them out of trouble spots, and bringing them back home?

As long as we’re talking on the level of abstractions, it’s easy to agree. For instance, who isn’t in favor of world peace? Who doesn’t want to see employment increased? Who doesn’t agree that we need to improve our system of education?

But how all these things should be achieved, is a different matter, and that’s where the bickering begins. Need I bring up the presidential race?

WHAT DO WE REALLY MEAN?

Bumper StickerThere’s a vital element through which we consciously (but most of the time unconsciously) determine meaning. Here’s a quick example.

Imagine seeing the “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on a pickup truck with a veteran license plate. There’s also a “Semper Fi” sign on the F-150, and a third sticker saying: “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism.” With that information in hand, how do you think the owner feels we can best support our troops?

Here’s a different scenario. You’re on the highway and you spot that same “Support Our Troops” sticker. But this time it’s stuck to the back of a beat up Volvo station wagon. Next to it is a “Bring them Home” sticker, and another one that reads: “Against the War. Not the Warrior.” Knowing what you know now, what assumptions would you make this time, about the owners’ views on how to best support our troops?

Even though we’re talking about the same sticker, the meaning of the words is contextdependent. And without knowing the context, we’re all in danger of mistaking the map for the territory. Our territory.

As a result, we carry on entire conversations based on mind reads and interpretations that have very little to do with the reality of the person we’re talking to. That person can be a (Facebook) friend, a foe, a politician, or our life partner.

Our lips might whisper the words: “I know exactly what you mean,” but truthfully, our perception is greatly based on distorted personal projections. 

Army MapTHE REAL WOR(L)D

I’m not just talking semantics here. Every soldier knows that the reality on the ground is most likely to be very different from the map that was used during the briefing. Confusing the map for the territory has led to deadly mistakes.

It has killed many relationships and numerous attempts to build bridges between people, cultures, faiths, and political systems. And because it is so ingrained in human nature, it won’t hit the headlines any day soon. The familiar might be deadly, but it’s also boring.

So, WHAT IS NEWS?

The cartoon at my radio station showed this very simple and sad formula for determining the newsworthiness of an event:

“The number of people killed, divided by how many miles away from home it happened.”

I did tell you it was one of the most cynical cartoons I had ever seen, didn’t I? It criticized the “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” type of journalism that is so pervasive these days. A plane crash in some far away land won’t make the six o’clock news, unless Americans are involved (if you live in the States, that is). Had it happened closer to home, it would have made the headlines.

That’s an example of the proximity effect. People tend to care more about what happens in their own backyard, especially if it’s grotesque, gruesome, and controversial.

MALFUNCTION

Now, let me ask you this: How many people experience a wardrobe malfunction on any given day? When it happens to you or me, it’s no big deal, but when a famous actress steps out of a limo, unintentionally showing some extra skin, the tabloids are having a field day.

It’s an example of the prominence effect. Whenever a celebrity is involved, the media will jump on it. The proximity effect and the prominence effect are just two of the filters journalists use to determine what news is. To a certain extent, these two filters are based on silly, but semi-objective criteria.

Here’s my question:

Is it possible to be utterly impartial, and leave personal values, opinions and ratings at the door when evaluating the newsworthiness of a story?

In 1996, the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists dropped the word “objectivity” from its code of ethics. Deborah Potter writes in The Handbook of Independent Journalism (a U.S. Department of State publication):

“Journalists are human beings, after all. They care about their work and they do have opinions. Claiming that they are completely objective suggests that they have no values.”

Twitter BadgeNEW SOURCES

Twitter has become one of the world’s fastest growing news sources. How objective do you think most of those microblogs (a.k.a. tweets) are? By definition, blogs usually reflect opinion instead of fact, and most Twitter-users don’t subscribe to a code of fair and balanced news-gathering, based on checking and double-checking sources to provide a complete picture. Twitter-chatter is highly subjective. That’s one of the reasons for its popularity.

But let’s bring it a bit closer to home. You’re a reasonable person, aren’t you? When push comes to shove, can you set your own prejudices aside, and open your mind to whatever information comes your way?

THE MIRROR

Well, let’s see how objective you are. When you see a “map,” do you think you really know the “territory”?

Remember that F-150 pick-up truck with the “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism” sticker, the veteran license plate, and the “Semper Fi” sign?

That redneck driver is surely a right-wing republican Fox-News watching ex-marine in favor of killing our way out of any conflict, with an NRA endorsed semi-automatic rifle, yes? If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

Well, as you get off the highway to pump some gas, you end up parking your car right next to the F-150. A young guy in a “Life is Good” t-shirt, steps out of the truck and starts filling it up. A woman at the next pump is clearly upset about the provocative bumper stickers, and she says to the young man:

“Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism… that’s a terrible message you have on your car, young man. I’m against any type of war, but that doesn’t make me a supporter of terrorism, does it? Do you call yourself an American? Shame on you!”

The young man looks at her in shock. His face turns completely red. Then he takes a deep breath, and says:

“Ma’am, I’m on my way to the hardware store to pick up some stuff. I’m working on a house for Habitat for Humanity. This truck belongs to a friend of a friend who was kind enough to help us out. I didn’t even notice the stickers.”

On hearing that, the woman turned bright red, and apologized profusely.

At that moment she realized:

Things are never what they seem to be. The map is not the territory.

Think of that, when you watch or listen to tonight’s news.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Face the Press without Stress

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion 7 Comments

This is Part One of a mini media training for artists, authors, entrepreneurs and anyone getting ready to be questioned.

As long as you’re prepared, you have no reason to be scared!

 

 

There’s no publicity like FREE publicity, especially if you run a small business on a small budget.

Right now I’m the media manager and PR-advisor to “Music for MS,” a benefit concert organized by and featuring my wife.

It’s my job to drum up as much media interest for this event as possible, and fill up the venue in a few weeks, by word of mouth and other means.

Every glossy flyer or multicolored poster we would print or ad we’d have to buy, would mean less money for the cause (the National Multiple Sclerosis Society), so I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m mobilizing the local press and I’m using social media to reach out to the community. It saves tons of paper which makes it eco-friendly.

The official campaign began yesterday, and so far we’ve already landed two interviews. This is where things get serious. Anyone can write a glorious press release, but not everyone does well on radio, television or in the papers. I know what I’m talking about because I have trained hundreds of people to get ready to meet the press.

YOU ARE UNINTERESTING

One of the first things my students would always complain about is the focus of the media: Why do they only cover sensational stories? Why has the news become so superficial? Why don’t they come to me for a story? What they’re really saying is this: “Paul, you’re a journalist. I’m interesting and you should interview me!”

My knee-jerk response would be: “No you’re not, and why should I?” But of course I’d keep that to myself. Here’s what I’d say instead:

1. You have to have a hook to be heard.

If your name is Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, you don’t have to do anything special to attract the attention of millions. In fact, that would be your only accomplishment: being famous for being famous. Mere mortals such as you and me have to give the news media a good REASON why they’d want to come to us. A hook. Preferably with fresh bait.

News is the report of an event that is:

  • recent
  • unusual
  • previously unknown and
  • interesting and relevant to a great number of people

 

Let me add something to that definition: If there’s nobody to cover it, it’s not news. Fortunately or unfortunately, these days, all we need is one idiot with an iPhone.

Secondly, news is news if conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation or Bertelsmann AG decide we should learn about it.

Third, news is news if the corporate sponsors (or other powers that be) feel it does not undermine their interests. (click here for an example)

Fourth: the more local the outlet, the lower the bar for what is deemed to be newsworthy.

Let’s assume you’re a voice-over professional hoping to attract some interest from the local papers. You’ve just completed another audio book. That’s something recent, but is it news?

Well, it depends on how unusual the book is and how many people would be interested in it. If we are talking about the audio version of Hitler’s secret diaries that were thought to be lost, you might have a story, but I don’t think this type of publicity would do your career any good. Which brings me to my next point.

2. You have to have a clear objective.

What do you ideally want to happen as a result of the media attention you hope to generate? Unless you’re hungry for recognition, an interview is just a means to an end.

In the case of my concert, the overall goal is to raise money and awareness for the fight to find a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic, mysterious and often misunderstood disease of the central nervous system. In order to accomplish that, I need as many people as possible to come to the concert. This gives me a way to measure the success of my campaign.

Please note: what you hope to accomplish and what the journalist wishes to accomplish, are usually two very different things!

If you don’t know what you want to get out of the interview, don’t do it. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to. It’s better to wait for the perfect opportunity than to waste a mediocre one.

If you do have an objective in mind, it’s time to go to the next step:

3. You have to craft a compelling core message.

If you could summarize what you’d like to get across in one or two sentences, what would it be? Let me put it in another way: If at the end of the interview people would only remember one thing, one powerful image or one great idea, what would you want that to be?

That should become the heart of your message, and it is your mission to get it across no matter what.

In the age of information overload, it is harder and harder to cut through the clutter and be heard. People scan the news and rarely look past the headlines or sound bites, so give them headlines and sound bites. You’ll survive.

I don’t care if you think it’s shallow or giving in to sensationalism. Should you get the chance to reach thousands, if not millions of people, don’t waste it by being boring. It’s regrettable to be forgettable.

A sound bite is usually not something you’ll come up with when the intimidating cameras are rolling and you’re staring into the hot, blinding studio lights. Do not count on your magic talent for improvisation. You can’t wing it.

4. You have to be prepared.

Well, well… isn’t that a given? Of course you need to give it some thought. Or is it better to be spontaneous and ‘in the moment’? You don’t want to look too rehearsed, do you?

Here’s my take on that.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is not preparing for an interview. They’ve literally said to me: “But I’m the expert. You can throw any question at me any time. I don’t need interview training.”

Just because you’re an expert doesn’t mean you’ll do well during an interview. Readers, listeners, viewers… they all hate pompous know-it-alls that talk over people’s heads.

I have seen great thinkers, captains of industry and even bishops nearly faint because they couldn’t handle the pressure of the simplest unexpected question.

They approached a 2-minute interview as if they were delivering a half-hour sermon, and when time was up, they had said nothing of significance. Of course they’d blame the network for not giving them enough air time.

Everyone who’s ever been interviewed will agree with me: When you’re in the hot seat, time as we know it does not exist. In the stress and excitement of the moment, people forget the simples of things such as their middle names and the phone number of the organization they’ve come to promote.

Here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be that way. In the next installment I’ll tell you how to deal with tricky questions.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice