Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Welcome, Golden Eagles

It appears as if I'm getting an influx of visitors from Marquette, after having this blog plugged by Lisa Ling during her speech earlier today in Milwaukee. (Thank you, Lisa, by the way; it's much appreciated.)

This blog, so you're aware, works on the concept of learning something. Anything. No knowledge is bad knowledge. Sometimes it's extremely relevant and important, sometimes it's completely random and seemingly useless. Believe me, no knowledge is useless. You never quite know for sure what knowledge you'll end up using at some point in your life or for what purpose. Sure, some things you will absolutely need to know, and you know how, but there are countless times in my life that my brain has unearthed some random piece of trivia in order to help a more relevant topic make more sense. Sometimes that random piece of trivia becomes relevant in its own right.

Remember Balloon Boy? That was the little silver balloon in Colorado that we all thought contained a kid, floating a fair ways at screamingly high altitudes, and then it turned out there wasn't actually a kid inside. A couple weeks later, the show Mythbusters aired a 'Balloon Boy Special'. The 'special' turned out to be a rerun of the episode wherein they proved, several years earlier, that in order to lift even a 3-year-old kid just barely off the ground, you would need a quantity of balloons- and, thus, helium- closer to what you saw in the movie Up.

The knowledge was there. It had been gathered. We just forgot about it.

Anyway, for the Marquette newcomers, we'll expand on Lisa's topic of choice for her speech, that is, the state of journalism. I'll point you to a previous post, concerning the focus on acquiring sponsors and eyeballs at the cost of the actual reporting, and leave that topic at that.

That aside, I'd like to add an addendum on the topic of story choice. Lisa talked about 'American-style glasses', where you don't really hear about a lot of international stories in the American media except if it's something shocking and massive and often don't hear about it at all unless there are Americans involved (note how a death toll always makes sure to include how many Americans were killed, even if it's in a ridiculous ratio such as '100,000 dead, including three Americans'), and a lot of domestic stories don't get play either.

To me, a part of the problem she didn't address is repetition.

You've probably heard an old joke about how it's amazing that the amount of news just fits into a half hour/hour/newspaper. That joke stems from back when you just had the three network broadcasts. Today, with 24 hour cable news, you would think there'd be a much wider variety.

The problem is that there isn't. If you watch enough, you'll start to notice that the actual amount of news presented by a cable news channel in a day probably covers two, maybe three hours. Four at the most. The rest of the day is usually spent rehashing those two, three hours, ostensibly for the benefit of those just tuning in, and often only one hour's worth of news, the same five stories or so, will get saturation coverage for the day and everything else just fights for elbow room on the ticker.

This is not to say that you should never give anything that kind of saturation coverage. Far from it. Some stories absolutely deserve it. In fact, as Lisa said, some deserve more saturation coverage than they get, and for longer duration. You only hear little bits and bites about Haiti at the moment, as if everybody went 'Well, Haiti's over, great job, all.' (They do still greatly welcome donations, if you're so inclined.)

But... it's a big world out there. There's a lot of stuff going on. I recently introduced the Random News Generator based on that- I make a list of all the countries on Earth plus a number of territories and dependencies, pick one at random, and report something from there. And so much of it gets squeezed out because of this imaginary cutoff line after which everyone apparently has to loop back around to the top stories. The only difference throughout the day is who's reporting the story and what their personal take on it is. We're gonna report the news like this. We're gonna report the news like that. We're gonna report the news this other way you won't see anywhere else. And then all three end up doing the same set of stories.

And if you switch to another channel, at least in America, you'll get much the same set of stories. Perhaps they're rearranged, but it's still the same stuff.

This is one reason (of many) I personally respect Lisa so much. She makes a conscious effort to go report on something else. Something that didn't quite make that cutoff. The fact that she does an outstanding job of it makes me respect her all the more.

Lisa said in the speech that those stories are out there; you just have to look. Couldn't agree more. There are some really great stories, some really great reporters and writers out there if you know where you're looking. This is why I pepper my bookmarks with aggregators, places whose primary purpose is to put all that news in one place so your task of finding the good stuff is that much easier. As a nice side effect, it serves to get you in front of a wide variety of sources, which is good, because that way you can stave off the echo-chamber effect that has a nasty tendency to take hold if you only get your news from one source, a small cluster of places.

Specifically, I've got three aggregators bookmarked:
*Fark. You'll find me posting here as 'Gosling'. (Warning, though; lately there's been a problem in the Politics tab with a large quantity of taglines whose sole purpose is to create a flamewar in the comments thread. I've talked to owner Drew Curtis about it; remains to be seen if he's gotten the message to tone it down.)
*Google News. It's Google, but with news. Enough said.
*wwiTV. This is an aggregator of TV channels, often live streams, available online, news included. In addition to all three major channels- Fox News, CNN, MSNBC- you've also got a variety of local stations and a myriad of foreign channels. BBC and Sky News of the United Kingdom, Al Jazeera of Qatar, France 24, NHK World of Japan, CCTV of China, channels from India and Saudi Arabia and Argentina and South Africa and Panama and even North Korean state television if that's what you really want to look at.

We really do need more contrarian reporters in Lisa's vein. With everybody falling all over each other to cover the same stories, there gets to be a competition over who can report it in a more interesting manner, and the result is the quality of reporting comes down all around. Not enough journalists take the approach of simply covering something new.

It's not all that hard once you know the trick to it:
1: Be intellectually curious.
2: Keep your eyes open for something you didn't know before.
3: Find out as much as you can about it.
4: Tell everyone what you learned.

The quality of writing will come the more you work at it. I once had a humor column for a high school newspaper, also carrying the name 'Random Human Neural Firings'. (It just sounded good.) You don't want to read those old columns. I don't want to read those old columns. That's a pretty good sign that you're improving as a writer: when you look back on your own past writing and cringe.

Marquette, you guys are new, you guys are green, you don't have any bad habits yet. Make sure you don't pick any up.

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