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 You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Ferguson, Ferguson, & Ferguson

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.

Black death in the era of Ferguson (11/24/14, Ebony): I approached the aftermath of the Ferguson verdict wanting to listen, not talk.

I wanted to listen to perspectives that were not my own, backgrounds that I had not experienced.

This week, I offer three great first-person reflections following the verdict, starting with Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony Magazine:

If this isn’t our collective “Black wake-up call,” then it will never come. The whole damn system is guilty as hell, and if we fail to challenge it, then we are too. There is not one more moment for complacency; our silence is consent. The people of St. Louis are roaring; will the rest of us join in? When the only thing standing between imminent death and us is the fear, nervousness and ineptitude of the police, will we continue to act as if we can pray, earn or achieve our way out of struggle?


How I spent my summer vacation (and used it in a story)

My older friends in broadcasting like to tell me of a time when traveling was a natural part — nay, a benefit! — of the job.

Apparently, a time once existed when one could wrangle a trip to a foreign country to do “slice-of-life” stories. I do not totally believe this, but I don’t totally *not* believe it.

These days, traveling for a story — if you work for a local news department — is a much rarer sight. I got an enormous opportunity this past February when I went to Sochi to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics, but I can count on one hand, in my five years in Atlanta, how many times anyone at my station flew internationally for the job.

I love to travel, especially to foreign countries. And when I do, I try as hard as possible to separate myself from work. I set my Outlook away message; I rarely use my phone because of the lack of wi-fi abroad; and I take comfort in the fact that I can do very little for our nightly newscast while I am out of the country.

But those trips, ultimately, always affect my work. They open my eyes to other cultures, enhance my perspective as a whole, and even give me added photography practice.

Last month, for the first time, one of my trips directly paid dividends on the air. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring perspective on serious matters

It is often said that, in the modern media world, perspective and complexity are difficult to find.

Perhaps more accurately, those qualities fail to catch on as much as simplicity and virality.

But certain stories lend themselves to a little perspective — particularly those that become universal enough to require more than a standard news cycle.

Here are three great stories from last week, on some topics that are anything but:

Bomani Jones’ brilliant take on Donald Sterling (4/29/14, Dan LeBatard Radio Show): How interesting this must be for Bomani Jones.

The sports columnist wrote an eloquent, thorough story back in 2006 about the racism of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The article received little attention.

Now, by simply letting fly with improvised but heartfelt comments on a radio program, Jones’ thoughts on Sterling have indeed reached the masses.

The Sterling issue is at once remarkably simple yet deceptively complex, and in this 12-minute interview on the Dan LeBatard Show, Jones explains the complexity behind the simplicity, describing why he is not impressed with the far-too-late movement to remove Sterling from the NBA.

And last week, when the initial shock of the Sterling tapes began to fade as a news story — but the urgency and controversy required more coverage — perspectives like Jones’ began to rule the day, making for a much deeper discussion. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring “Mercer 78, Duke 71”

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.

A significant role of the media is to chronicle the major events of our society.

If something captures the attention of the nation this week, I should ideally be able to look back in five years and remember how we all discussed and covered it.

And I should also be able to relive how the various spectacles and sideshows that surrounded it.

In the moment, though, we tend to share the spectacles and sideshows as much as the actual events.

This past Friday, 14-seed Mercer stunned the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Online the following day, I saw a slew of articles getting shared about it — not about the game, but about what made it more than a game.

Here are three such stories that did their job exceedingly well:

Duke loses, world wins (3/21/14, New Yorker): How strange for staffers at the New Yorker to see this article atop its “Most E-Mailed” list.

Despite some strong competition in the Top 5, this was Number 1.


Beep baseball, and my two minutes of blindness

It had been a frustrating morning.

Back in May I was made aware of a baseball team in my home city of Atlanta that played every Saturday during the spring. The team was special for a powerful reason: each of its players was deeply visually impaired, if not completely blind.

At the time I anticipated a tremendously moving story, but I could not find a day to shoot it before their season ended. However, I was told, the team — named the Atlanta Eclipse — would be a part of a truly special event in late July: the World Series of beep baseball.

(The sport is called “beep baseball” because the ball beeps, so that the players can hear it.)

I then learned that the World Series would feature 19 teams from around the country, as well as the defending world champions from Taiwan. Beyond that, it would be held in Columbus, Ga., a mere 90-minute drive from Atlanta.

I got excited. The story, I felt, had great potential; I would simply have to cool my heels for two months until the Series arrived.

But now, nearly two months later, I was frustrated.

I had arranged to shoot a practice several weeks before the Series, but the day beforehand I learned that a majority of the players would be unable to attend, for various reasons. I showed up on a rainy Saturday morning to find just three players — along with their aides and the team’s volunteers and coaches.

Because of that, and because of the weather, I did not have much to shoot. I got whatever video I could, but I knew it would pale in comparison to what I would see at the World Series.

Hence the frustration. No one was to blame, but I found myself spending valuable weekend hours on a shoot that had produced disappointingly little.

So I decided to play.