Friday, September 16, 2005

Broken Breaking News

(Sorry for the paucity of posts this week...I've been busy doing research for another project)

At Press Think there was a discussion about the Associated Press story I wrote about a few weeks ago so I left a comment and Jay Rosen left an interesting response (link):

I wrote about the AP story a week ago (link)...heh...A.M. even linked to me.

This line: "The contractors were walking across a bridge on their way to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to fix the 17th Street Canal, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Corps."

later became this line: "Fourteen contractors were traveling across the Danziger Bridge under police escort when they came under fire, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers."

How did this happen?

Why was the clause "under police escort" added to a quote? Was this question from a second interview? Or did the A.P. realize they somehow left it out?

Did they speak to Mr. Hall the second time?...did they ever speak to Mr. Hall?

Why did the AP writer (assumingly) mistakenly think that it happened the way it did in the first place? Why isn't it important to find out the answers to these questions?

Posted by: Ron Brynaert at September 14, 2005 12:34 AM | Permalink

It is, Ron, because it might tell us something about the reporters' reflexes. But I think the point Dave and others are trying to make is that this kind of reporting shouldn't be taken as "finished" work, even though it was "published" work. Especially the initial AP account of a breaking news event, which is always going to be revised.

But this episode reveals something important about journalism that I think is poorly understood by its practitioners: Lots of times there aren't really good reasons why a news report presented one way wasn't presented another, why these sources were consulted, while those were not, why this event made the news, but that one, equally event-ful, didn't.

Reporters and editors could try to explain how a decision came to be, but very often their reasons will sound arbitary to the public: "It was coming up on deadline." "We had a big take out scheduled for the next day, so this had to run today." "Our regular reporter on that beat was out on vacation, so it fell through the cracks." "The editor's kid said there were drug sweeeps in his school." "It was a good lighter story to balance all the hard news that day." And many other things that fit under the category of contingency, or happen because of a production system's strange demands, or because of group think, or rituals peculiar to craft culture.

There's nothing surprising about this. If you try to explain why a bureaucracy behaves the way it does, you will discover similar factors at work. But journalism trapped itself into claiming there's a rational reason for everything in the news, when they know that much of what happens cannot withstand scrutiny because "our regular reporter was out on vacation" is just not a good reason if the news is supposed to be entirely prudential as a product.

Journalists will sometimes signal their awareness of this when they talk about the risks in "watching sausage being made" in newsrooms. But I believe the cause of the thin skin often observed in daily journalists is this elusive factor I'm describing.

Many things news organizations do can't be explained very well, or defended persuasively to audiences outside the craft. The public senses this, too. Officially there's supposed to be a good reason for everything in the news. There is sometimes, maybe even most. But a lot of times, no. Each time that's an implicit loss of credibility, which is why transparency is driving trust down. But the real problem is in the claim of system rationality itself.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 14, 2005 01:21 AM | Permalink


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