Monday, January 10, 2011
Of course, the problem with this is there is little evidence that asking 'why' before the traditional questions of 'what', 'where', 'who', 'when' and 'how' are answered is a recipe for good journalism. But commercial pressures, such as they are, encourage reporters to explain before they describe. And there are plenty of voices out there feeding them lines to help them meet those pressures, while generating more heat than light.
The latest example of the exploitation of the need for instant analysis is coverage of the attempted assassination of Arizona Democratic congresswoman Gabrelle Giffords, alongside the killing of six people and wounding of 14 others by an apparently psychotic gunman outside a Tucson supermarket.
Almost immediately, the coverage focused on the reasons for the shootings and, more particularly, the degree to which the event was driven by the extremely polarised nature of American politics. To some extent, this acceleration of the usual news cycle overrode the media's job of getting the facts straight - such as early reports suggesting the congresswoman was dead.
On the surface, all sides of politics in this case offered only condolences and a request that normal investigative processes be allowed to be played out. But as The New York Times observes, the official straight bat offered to the mainstream media from political sources cloaked an intense jockeying for position on social media such as Twitter and through online forums, to influence the debate.
For Progressives, the focus was on the extent to which the inflammatory "put-the-liberals-in-your-gun sights" language of Sarah Palin and her crew contributed to the toxic climate that leads to such crimes. For the Right, the focus was purely on the mentality of the individual shooter, who they claimed was a "leftist lunatic". Over on the website of UK left-leaning newspaper The Guardian, there appeared to be a coordinated effort by right-wingers to blitz the paper's forums with the (far-fetched) gunman-as-a-leftist theory. Others of the more deranged variety fell for Facebook hoaxes so desperate were they to finger the assailant as a "liberal".
As wonderful as social media is, one wonders about the influence of all this inflamed rhetoric and orchestrated misinformation on journalism, if nothing else than it forces journalists to spend more and more time chasing fires started by provocateurs seeking to draw the public's attention elsewhere. In the meantime, the real questions that require digging (the availability of guns to disturbed young people, the scrutiny of inflammatory election advertising in this case) don't get asked - because it becomes easier or merely convenient for the media just to report the flame wars between the entrenched rival camps and watch the page impressions soar.
To provide a local example, Andrew Bolt's incendiary pre-Christmas blog entry accusing the Gillard government of having "blood on its hands" over the Christmas Island asylum seeker drownings (as the bodies were still in the water) served his clear purpose of driving hits to the Herald Sun website and making himself the story. Twitter went nuts and a dozen other blogs lit up. This was all as the facts of the case were still being established. So the media coverage became about the extremities of the various positions in the debate rather than the reality of the events and the issues at the centre.
From this grizzled old journalist's perspective, it seems the tail is wagging the dog. One wonders whether 'The News' just becomes a hook to play out well-worn cultural and political rivalries. And the explosion of social media channels just provides multiple stages for the various protagonists to spar.
See Also: Media Too Trigger Happy Over Arizona Shootings (Alex Slater, The Guardian)
Posted by Mr D at 9:42 PM