Los Angeles Times

Getting the story crooked

Today, Spillman and Ford debate bad reporting. Previously they discussed non-denial denials, the changing role of the destination media, the effect of blogs on the mainstream press in the Mirthala Salinas story and the distinction between credentialed and non-credentialed media.

Bound and unbound by tradition By Eric Spillman
Dear Luke:

You and I will both agree the mainstream media has screwed up a lot of stories over the past decade.

The folks at The New York Times have admitted their coverage of pre-Iraq-war intelligence was pretty lousy. They relied on Iraqi exiles who were willing to say anything. That's why we heard exaggerated or downright erroneous reports that Saddam Hussein was acquiring materials for a nuclear bomb. And it was all used as a justification for sending in the troops.

I don't think the traditional media has done a great job of reporting on the consequences of illegal immigration. And local TV news treats the health care crisis as if it doesn't exist, when most Americans think it's a huge problem.

We've talked about the failure of local TV and newspapers to shed light on the mayor's affair until blogs like yours blared it and the story could no longer be ignored.

However, I have no top ten list of stories messed up by bloggers. This may sound condescending, but I don't think most blogs ought to be held to the same journalistic standard as most mainstream media organizations. I don't believe most bloggers want to adhere to the same rules, which is perfectly OK.

The old and new media have different aims and different responsibilities.Luke, you have complete freedom to write about anything you want. You have no bosses. You're not bound by conventions. And I agree that gives you a chance to come up with some groundbreaking stuff sometimes.

We in the old media are burdened by traditions. We try to find stories that people who live in Rancho Cucamonga and Santa Monica will care about. We try and tell our audiences the most significant news of the day and the things we think they'll find entertaining. We try to be a summary of the day's events. It's not easy.

My point is between all the sources of information out there — newspapers, radio, TV, blogs, other online resources — people who want to find out what's going on in the world probably have more choices than ever before. That's a good thing for consumers, even if there are some noteworthy screw-ups from time to time.

Eric Spillman has been a reporter for KTLA's Morning Show since 1991. He blogs at ktla.com.

What ails the MSM By Luke Ford
Dear Eric,

I expect that in a hundred years people will look back on our dialogue as the great leap forward in moral thinking for 2007.

With that legacy in mind, I now present my five-point diagnosis for what ails American journalism.

• Failure of imagination

MSM journalism is too predictable. It rarely catches the reader off-guard. To hold attention, you have to constantly defy expectations. You have to play peekaboo with the reader.

First-person news accounts written with attitude can be more powerful than the familiar objective stance. There's no inherent reason why the journalist writing a story has to be less interesting than the people he's writing on.

• Lack of clarity on mission

You can be kind. You can be truthful. You can be ethical. You can investigate. You can shape the community. You can produce compelling and profound reporting. But neither an individual nor a newspaper can do all these things equally well. News organizations need to decide if their primary mission is to report or if it is to shape the community in the light of a certain agenda (such as compassion and opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia).

• Lack of technique

It's rare to read the newspaper and lose yourself in a story. Instead, papers rely on the Inverted Pyramid tradition of news-telling (where the important facts go first), a method most appropriate for transmitting information over a telegraph.

To rivet the readers attention, the writer must:

Take the reader somewhere. There should be a beginning, middle and end to every story and every scene. There must be scene-by-scene construction leading to a climax. There must be desire, struggle and realization for protagonists.

Use realistic dialogue instead of canned quotes from official sources.

Reveal attention to status. (I been pimpin' my appearance in the Los Angeles Times all week.)

Use multiple points of view.

• Unwillingness to treat religion with the same seriousness that it treats politics

Clergy deserve at least as much scrutiny as high school football coaches.

• Sanitizing the news

If a subject says various slurs, they should be quoted exactly. Spare me the "n-word" and the like. If members of one racial or religious group pour scorn on another group, quote the hate in all its glory. Capture how people really talk.

• Poor interviewing technique.

Luke Ford of lukeford.net has earned his living from blogging for a decade. He's the author of five books, four of them self-published.

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