Power vs. respect: the Missouri video and modern-day media

I want to be proud of my profession.

I work extremely hard five days a week (sometimes more), nine hours a day (often more) as a television news reporter. I aim to inform viewers of the goings-on of their world, educate about complex issues, and uplift through stories that connect people.

I believe in the power of journalism, and I believe in the power of journalists.

So what am I to make of this?

The link shows the 2015 results of an annual Gallup survey measuring trust in the media. The conclusion? It sits in the headline:

“Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low”

A mere 40% of Americans, per the poll, say they trust the media “a great deal” or “a fair amount”. Among adults under 50, that number drops to 36%. And of course, the differences skew politically, with Republicans and Independents trusting the press far less than Democrats.

But what stood out to me, more than the numbers, was a potential reason for them, provided by the article’s author:

Americans’ trust level in the media has drifted downward over the past decade. The same forces behind the drop in trust in government more generally, as well confidence in many U.S. institutions, may also be at work with the media.

I found that quite perceptive. Within the industry, we like to think of ourselves of voices for the voiceless; I work at a station whose tagline is “Holding the Powerful Accountable”, and we aim every day to live up to that mission.

But for many outside the industry, “the media” is as much an institution as government. Journalists have a great deal of control.

We are the powerful.

I was reminded of that as I watched the video of University of Missouri students — and several faculty members — trying to stop a student photographer from covering their #ConcernedStudent1950 protest. In a legal sense, the photographer was entirely correct; he had as much a right as the protesters to stand on that ground. Many of the tactics used by the protesters — claiming a violation of personal space while simultaneously violating the photographer’s; yelling at and pushing him while decrying his supposed lack of respect — were wrong and downright hypocritical. Even now, days later, when I watch that video, I abhor what I see.

I have heard many journalists make those absolutely valid points.

But I have heard far fewer in my field turn the focus inward.

That video highlights an issue just as critical as the rights of journalists: a widespread contempt of those journalists’ jobs.

“I’m documenting history!” shouts the photographer. The protesters don’t care, and what’s more, they say, plenty have already done that. Individuals can take photos and spread them to their own social networks; they are not particularly wowed by that ability in reporters.

“You are an unethical reporter!” yells one protester, who — despite the students’ and faculty members’ earlier attempts to encourage media coverage — possesses no faith in that media to tell their story correctly.

Then comes the point no one makes on camera, but that others have made since: Where was all this attention before the university’s football team got involved? A few dozen athletes captured the national focus where a far greater number of passionate students could not. How does that reflect on the media’s true interest in finding and telling stories that matter?

I want to again make clear I am not criticizing the student photographers in that video. If anything, I admire them for knowing their rights, standing their ground against a steady stream of bullying, and wanting indeed to document history.

But the video also slams home the point that, for so many, the media is the voice of power — and a voice that cannot be trusted.

(And this is by no means isolated. Look at the way in which Republican presidential candidates blistered the media — and to much applause — during a recent debate. Media mistrust is not necessarily a partisan view.)

In the Washington Post, Terrell Jermaine Starr makes incisive points about how journalists should respond after seeing the Missouri video. Among them:

Further, as reporters, we have to drop our sense of entitlement and understand that not everyone wants to be subjects of our journalism. Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated. It’s one thing to demand access to public lands; it’s another to demand access to people’s grieving.

While Starr speaks specifically about why the black community in general may feel mistrustful of reporters, he writes with an underlying point that should be a central tenet of our field:

If journalism is about reaching an audience, journalists should constantly examine how we interact with that audience — and whether we build or damage our credibility in the process.

I know I am guilty of that entitlement. I assume I will receive a warm welcome at an event, and many times I don’t. I assume people will support my intent to convey their stories to a larger audience, and many times they don’t. I assume people will immediately acquiesce when faced with my legal justification for doing my job, and many times they don’t.

I assume the people I interview will believe in my profession as much as I do.

More often than not, they don’t.

But I still do.

Journalists absolutely possess plenty of power in the present day, from mass media companies to independent bloggers to college photographers. We should continue to cover the stories that matter, even if our collective presence is not always appreciated.

But we must also regularly discuss where the line falls between journalistic duty and humanistic decency. I side with the photographers here, but I have also witnessed numerous instances where media members invade people’s space and privacy for stories with far less gravity. We must approach our jobs with sensitivity to how we are perceived, and we cannot wait to have these conversations until one of us “becomes the story”.

The best storytellers, today and down the road, will be the ones who understand their viewers and readers — and make the extra effort to earn their audience’s respect.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Team Ortho, Kyle Korver, & laughter

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Running for a cause? (11/12/15, KARE-TV): One of the hardest jobs in reporting for television? Making investigative stories look good.

TV stories are often built around moments, and with many pieces, one finds those moments naturally and visually. Investigative journalists must produce those moments informationally and confrontationally — a much tougher task in a visual medium.

In this piece, KARE 11’s A.J. Lagoe and Steve Eckert show how it’s done.

Uncovering deception and monetary misuse from a local non-profit, the duo layers this story with “Didja see that?” moments. Eckert edits nicely the sequence that shows the misuse of funds over several years, and Lagoe leaves the viewer with a jaw-dropper through his final revelation and confrontation with the man behind the non-profit.


PODCAST EPISODE #36: David McRaney, “You Are Not So Smart”


Remember those commercials where a poor sap cannot stop raving about the delivery pizza he is eating, only to be scolded: “It’s not delivery, it’s DiGiorno”?

That’s how I feel at the beginning of every episode of “You Are Not So Smart”.

The podcast delves into various concepts of psychology, but it almost always opens with a pop culture example that both illustrates and introduces each episode’s topic … not unlike what I just did with the DiGiorno example.

But after host David McRaney lures you in with clips from Mad Men or the Twilight Zone, he provides a beautiful hour or so of discussion and conversation that connects on a much more sophisticated level.

McRaney is my guest on Episode #36 of the Telling The Story podcast.

I reached out to McRaney because I was impressed with both his expertise as a storyteller and his versatility in the field. This is a guy who once owned a pet store (twice!), but he transitioned to journalism and carved out an utterly unique path. He has written for a handful of popular web sites, but he has become most prolific through “You Are Not So Smart”, which before it became a podcast started as a blog and continued as a book. From his home base of Hattiesburg, Miss., McRaney has built an empire that has opened the door to opportunities.

What makes his show such a success? McRaney credits, at least partly, his subject matter. “These are heady topics that appeal to the lowest common denominator,” he says, “in that everybody is interested in why we think the things we think.”

But McRaney did not reach 200,000 Facebook followers thanks to topic alone. He reached it through exposure, likability, and superb storytelling.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Adele, Drake, & Taylor

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Adele: Inside her private life and triumphant return (11/3/15, Rolling Stone): I usually resist articles like these.

I usually possess no interest in reading them.

I usually skip profiles of musicians because they seem so phony: carefully stage-managed attempts by pop stars to appear “real” and “authentic”, promoted by writers and magazines who claim to have received earth-shattering revelations. I clicked on this article, a Rolling Stone cover story about Adele, with low expectations (despite a major affection for Adele’s music).

I was wrong.

Brian Hiatt writes a piece that is compelling from start to finish, thanks in large part to its subject. Adele holds back little and swears a lot, but she mostly projects an image free of pretense, showing a naked acknowledgement of the many puppet strings of the music industry. Whereas many pop stars, in articles like these, reflect on more gossipy drama, Adele discusses motherhood, sexism, and journalism. Hiatt composes a piece that sets up these moments and flows beautifully from quote to quote.


3 more podcasts I love in 2015

Two months ago, I had a great idea for a blog post.

As I thought about the many ways in which I consumed news and information, I came to a surprising revelation: I listen to podcasts more than ever.

Rarely did a day go by without me loading up Stitcher radio and pressing “Play” on a podcast. While I enjoyed many popular choices (This American Life, On the Media, 99% Invisible), I also felt I had discovered several series that had not yet pierced the mainstream.

So I blogged about it, listing three podcasts I loved that had hit their stride this year.

That was in September.

Now it’s November, and another revelation has arrived: I have discovered even more great podcasts bubbling up in my feed.

Perhaps I simply crave podcasts more than most. Or perhaps the podcasting industry is developing at an extreme rate, with increasing quality and diversity.

So two months after listing three podcasts I love, here are three more I love; I hope you feel the same way.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring pop songs, pizza, & football

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Hit charade (October 2015, The Atlantic): How much do you want to know about how a chef prepares your meal? What about how a litany of behind-the-scenes employees prepare your favorite songs?

The answers to the latter come from this absorbing article, written by Nathaniel Rich for The Atlantic (with a major hat-tip to author John Seabrook, whose book The Song Machine supplies much of Rich’s material). With no concern for spoiling or party-pooping, Rich dives into the factories that produce, with seeming cold-hearted machinery, an increasing number of the hits that grace the Billboard charts.

Much of this story’s success derives from its thoroughness; Rich, through Seabrook, dives into the subject with great detail. It shows in paragraphs like this, including some wit from a writer basically saying Santa Claus isn’t real:

Pop hitmakers frequently flirt with plagiarism, with good reason: Audiences embrace familiar sounds. Sameness sells. Dr. Luke in particular has been accused repeatedly of copyright infringement. His defense: “You don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing.” (Dr. Luke does get sued for being similar, and quite often; he has also countersued for defamation.) Complicating the question of originality is the fact that only melodies, not beats, can be copyrighted. This means a producer can sell one beat to multiple artists.


Logan’s big play: Watching one story reach millions

One thousand people.

I could not believe it.

Twelve hours earlier I had posted a story I had just produced for the early evening newscast on Atlanta’s WXIA-TV. It surrounded a young man in northwest Georgia who, at age 5, had been diagnosed with autism. Since middle school he had served as the manager of the football team; now a high school senior, he had just done something on the field that had moved everyone in the stands.

That young man’s name is Logan, and he scored a touchdown.

And within half a day of my posting Logan’s story on Facebook, it had been liked by 1,000 people; it had reached 100,000. And it was just getting started.

Logan’s story was about to take off around the world.


I have the good fortune, through my job as a reporter, of continually meeting fascinating people. Sometimes they are famous figures; sometimes they are citizens championing a cause. So often, though, they are people who never intended to feel the reflection of a TV camera lens; they just did something to become worthy of it.

That was the case with Logan.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring waffles, touchdowns, & justice

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Empire of waffles: Utah County man credits success to job loss (10/11/15, KSL-TV): More and more in local TV news, I notice photojournalists trying inventive moves with smaller cameras.

Witness this piece from KSL-TV’s Ashley Kewish and photojournalist Ray Boone.

Just make sure you’re doing so on a full stomach.

Boone shoots the story of a Utah man who lost his job and then opened a waffle truck. Because a good portion of the package takes place inside the truck, Boone gets creative with — I assume — a GoPro that maneuvers all over the place. It graces the ceiling, sidles next to a waffle iron, and hovers over the action.

I appreciate the extra effort he made to make that story even more delicious.


The balancing act: journalism and stress

My fiancé did not want to hear it.

I had just turned on an interview I had conducted with a coworker, Jeff Hullinger, that I would eventually post as a podcast. I left the interview running in the living room as my fiancé walked in, hung out for a minute, and walked back out.

Why? Because Hullinger had earlier that week witnessed an execution, and in the interview he described in powerful detail what he saw.

“I hope that interview wasn’t too much for you,” I said later to my fiancé.

Her response? “Yeah, I went into the other room and closed the door.”

The curtness in her voice made it clear how she felt.

This situation is not unique to me. Hullinger’s wife, he said, had given him a clear instruction when he accepted the execution assignment: “I don’t ever want to hear about it.”

This situation is also not unique to my life … and that concerns me.

I accepted long ago that I receive, as a journalist, an extraordinary amount of access unavailable to most. That access is often a treasure: I have traveled to the Olympics, interviewed countless celebrities and public figures, and enjoyed fascinating and probing conversations with people I otherwise never would have met.

In other cases, that access is a burden, a necessary evil in the journey to inform. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring candles, Peru, & a dozen scientists

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Hundreds gather in Roseburg to mourn shooting victims (10/2/15, KING-TV): On its own — and, really, that’s all that matters — this is a powerful story of the upsetting, unfiltered emotions of a community after last week’s school shooting in Oregon.

What makes it more impressive, from a behind-the-scenes standpoint, is how quickly this story was produced: from start to finish, in 70 minutes.

KING5 reporter Alex Rozier and photographer Dan Renzetti were dispatched to Oregon to find compelling stories, and they discovered one here in a candlelight vigil at a nearby park. Renzetti makes some beautiful maneuvers in his shooting and editing; I found particularly poignant his allowing a candle to naturally light one interview subject. Rozier writes the piece with care and context.

I would love to hear their takes on this, but I imagine the compressed time frame forced a certain level of precision and focus. Regardless, Rozier and Renzetti produce a package that brings home the emotions of a tragic situation.