News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

On the Bias: Puritanical Headline Outrage and considering sources

By Gretchen A. Peck

Criticism of the Press is sometimes warranted. Let’s begin this observation about news with that fundamental agreement. Bias is “a thing” – inherent in language’s DNA, in every single word choice – and it is the publisher’s, editor’s and journalist’s job to choose: Manage bias, or give it free rein?

There’s a niche phenomenon in news criticism that feels fledgling this year: Puritanical headline outrage, I’ll call it.

While it has been the legacy of newspapers to incorporate quotations into headlines, today’s arm-chair news critics declare war with titles over quotations or paraphrases without context – for example, when The New York Times ran this outrage-stoking headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”

In fact, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, the President gave a statement in which he did just that. Of course, anyone who hasn’t lived the hermit life for the past three decades of Trump – the man and the brand – knows that this message is counter to what the President has “advocated for” in the past and present.

A segment of readers seethed over the headline, suggesting that it was biased, and that it provided the President with a megaphone to perpetuate a disingenuous message, by way of the big-font top-of-the-fold headline. Even members of the media said that headline – on top of other such grievances with the newspaper – inspired them to cancel their subscriptions and call for others to do the same.

Today’s (self-appointed) Headline Editors, working from their homes and phone displays, expect news publishers to give broad context in headlines, to tell the full story to readers, in order to remove any ambiguity about the content from the outset.

Could The New York Times’ headline writer have chosen any number of other headline options with 30 characters or fewer?

Certainly.

But when nearing the witching hour of an on-press deadline, sometimes we choose what is expeditious and relevant. Sometimes the moment – the horror of a mass shooting, arguably – calls for an aspirational approach, the common denominator, the sliver of hope, a message that transcends the politics and the politician.

Critics decried that this particular headline was by design, that it was an editorial choice to somehow show favoritism to the President of the United States. This is a theory fundamentally at odds with the very mission of news people and newspapers.

I have to believe that some of this “headline outrage” has more to do with the way people read and process information they read online today. We are a nation of headline surfers. We’ve studied this data.

Today, we viscerally react to headlines and often comment about the content before ever reading beyond it. Naturally, readers who rely so heavily – even entirely – on headlines would want them to tell the whole story. It’s a lofty expectation fueled by illiterate laziness.

To its credit, The New York Times took the criticism to heart and even offered an explanation and apology to readers. It showed that the newspaper was listening, at least.

Let’s use this example – of a newspaper “managing” bias – in contrast to what occurred on FOX News on the morning of Friday, November 22, 2019.

For 53 minutes during a call-in to the live broadcast, the President of the United States led viewers on a rhetorical rollercoaster, a verbal tirade that included a litany of bullshit that would keep fact checkers tasked for the next two days to sort through. The New York TimesLinda Qiu did it, same day: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/us/politics/trump-fox-and-friends-fact-check.html

It is true that the FOX & Friends hosts tried to haplessly interject, but the President steamrolled, and the producers were AWOL.

But they had to see it coming at FOX News, right? This Tasmanian Devil of an interview couldn’t have taken anyone by surprise in the planning meetings or during the live broadcast. They had to expect that the President would behave in this manner. His rally riffs are notorious, and he has a pattern of doing this on past call-ins to the network.

Still, the producers – and to a certain extent those talking heads who had to endure it through gritted teeth and earnest expressions – collectively made an “editorial” decision to give bias “free reign.”

One of the foundational tenets of journalism: Consider your source.

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

A rhetorical reflection as Impeachment descends over the Nation

Days like this call for sentences using “bloviating,” “preening,” and “grandstanding.”
 
Also, “obscuring,” “omitting,” and “lying.”
 
I am cognizant how words are received, digested, shared, and manipulated in digital space. They catch on and quickly become part of the news-cycle vernacular, thanks to personality and platform megaphones.
 
Some media colleague, or perhaps it was the White House, today bandied about the term “Soviet-style impeachment,” and now every other caller into C-SPAN’s “Republican call-line” references it, even though “Russian impeachment” is an oxymoron. Just ask Yeltsin.
 
That’s a poor joke, because Yeltsin is dead, and three attempts to impeach him failed. In fact, no Russian President was ever successfully impeached.
 
I know; shocking, right?
 
Putin probably has a lock on that, too.
 
So it’s a strange comparison that would seemingly be a happy ending for Trump loyalists, except it requires equating Trump to a Soviet dictator who “gets away with it.”
 
In writing about the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, Shakespearean and Biblical parallels are low-hanging fruit, yet effective, relatable to the highly literate and a 10th-grade English class alike.
 
It can be maddening trying to chronicle history when it comes at you fast. The past can feel like the only perspective and guidepost.19c2cdf5-5b31-4c59-a0f5-f44483bb57dc
 
Print news cycles, measured in days and weeks are now brutally, digitally compressed — into hours, minutes, seconds, and Tweet characters. There’s much less time to agonize over word choice. Still, we aim to tell the story with equal parts veracity and verve.
“IMPEACH” photo by G.A. Peck
News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Contemplating the remarkable life of Baltimore’s own Elijah Cummings

One of the phrases I read this morning seemed to perfectly encapsulate the man who wore so many hats for his family, community, and country.

“Unusual compassion.”

That is precisely how I’ll remember him–as a remarkably compassionate, empathetic and forgiving human being. It was his superhuman, superhero strength, and I’m certain, at times, it was his greatest vulnerability.

He was political rarity, especially in today’s gladiator arena that is DC–kind and earnest while also driven and resolved, the stuff of a righteous warrior. The loss is likely still too raw, too soon to fully appreciate how greatly he’ll be missed.

Rest in peace, Statesman.

Photo: The New York Times

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

The Story Behind the Photo

Impeach

I shot this photo in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the first Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of the 45th President, Donald J. Trump. Shortly before this was taken, I found myself in a sea of women flooding a metro station, politely and patiently ascending the escalator and staircase that spit them out closer to the Mall. The mood was upbeat, unified. They sang and cheered. They chanted. They poured into the streets and moved toward the Mall. The streets near the event stage were already packed—women, men, children, arm-in-arm shoulder-to-shoulder.

It was on that walk toward the Capitol that I took this photo. It was one of the few images from the day that I printed and framed. I’ve kept it on one of my desks. People who’ve come through my office may have thought it an endorsement of impeachment. I did not frame it for that reason, though even back then, I had an educated, odds-were-with-me expectation that a Trump Presidency would be disastrous and untoward. Anyone who watched him for 25+ years, as a unethical businessman and epic misogynist, knew it wouldn’t end well for the American people.

It seemed likely that his Presidential fuck-ups and conduct would be so monumental—unsuited to the job that he is—that impeachment might one day mire and divide the nation. And here we are.

Rather, I framed the photo because it felt particularly iconic for the day. It was more about the women marching than the man many were protesting.

The sign the woman crafted is a bubble-style mailing envelope, cut and splayed open. I know this because the night before the March, I’d followed the Maps app to a local office supplies store, where women had overrun the shop in search of poster board and Sharpies. Everyone in the store, it seemed, had traveled to DC with the hopes of locking down those creative supplies once in town. The store ran dry of sign-making stuff, necessitating the creative use of the large mailing envelopes for sign media. They started selling like wildfire. I even bought one. During the March, I wore mine sandwich-board style. It read: “1st Amendment Guardian” in plain black Sharpie.

The woman in my photo wrote IMPEACH on her splayed-open mailing envelope and walked with confidence toward Congress. Maybe she felt prophetic. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. And here we are.

News & Publishing

Watchdog journalism is worth it

investigation-702x336By Gretchen A. Peck

Investigative journalism is often the stuff of drama. Exposing corruption, abuse, inequality and crimes are inherently good, juicy stories—not to mention a core competency and duty for newspapers. It wouldn’t surprise anyone in news to hear that investigative journalism is not just popular among broadcast audiences, but with people who read newspapers in print and online. After all, investigative reporting helps people; it informs communities; it changes things; and thankfully, for the news organization, it brings in revenue.

Read more at Editor & Publisher magazine:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/watchdog-journalism-bites-into-revenue/

News & Publishing

Headlines always fall short

The New York Times published a bad headline.

In the newspaper’s defense, headline writing is sometimes problematic. At the 12th hour, before the presses roll, when you’re tasked with finite space, painfully few characters and a need to quote a President’s national address, this stuff happens.

The headline was misleading as it read, but there was a lack of space to lay out the “backgrounder” context that puritanical media critics wanted. They wanted a headline that called the President a “racist.”

They wanted the headline to scream: He said this stuff, but of course he doesn’t really mean it. 

They wanted the headline to tell the full story. Headlines never do.

And, of course, this particular headline was never going to meet that expectation. It was never going to say, “Today, the President spoke insincerely about racism and gun culture.”

It was never going to say that a.) Because that’s a full sentence. b.) It’s editorializing in what is intended to be a straight news piece.

Critics, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “The media is biased!” And then, at the same time, expect us to be biased, to make a qualification or judgment — and blatantly, on the front page, above the fold.

Certain members of the media (looking at you, Joan Walsh) piled on and stoked the embers of a digital subscription revolt against the Times. Never mind that 2,000 newspapers have shuttered in just a few years. Never mind that 95% of the time, The New York Times masthead somehow, incredibly, produces important deep-diving work that smaller papers cannot, because they lack the resources.

Never mind all the other good work by staff not tasked with political coverage. Never mind that many of them are trying to decide tonight whether they should pay their rent or buy groceries this month.

Never mind that every day is a mental, physical and spiritual succubus on journalists trying to cover this Administration.

This anger against The New York Times is misplaced. It’s bubbling up because of a President, who is never held to account for his words, his policies, his opacity and gaslighting, his indecency, and his criminal conduct. Of course, the President was insincere when he read his scripted statement. His uncomfortable body language. The sniffing. The stumbling over the words. The legacy of racist, violent rhetoric, archived and freely searchable on the Internet. The predictable 180-degree spin on Twitter the very next day.

Does The New York Times need to spell it all out for the American people in a pithy 15-character headline?

Are we that daft? ~ G.A. Peck

Here’s what The New York Times had to say about it:

News & Publishing

Preparing for 2020: News Organizations Ramp Up for an Election Cycle Certain to be Dynamic, Fast-Paced and Combative

By Gretchen A. Peck

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the press received some rather harsh criticism about its national coverage. Type in “press failures of 2016,” and Google will unkindly deliver a long list of critical analysis about the media and how it handled the Trump vs. Clinton battle for the White House.

Disillusioned voters blamed the press for a failure to present Trump as a viable nominee, let alone as their likely future president. Some declared that journalists missed the story of the Trump voter entirely.

That type of criticism—that the press had missed the Trump story—wasn’t entirely fair, according to Peter Wallsten, senior politics editor at the Washington Post.

Read more at:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/preparing-for-2020-news-organizations-ramp-up-for-an-election-cycle-certain-to-be-dynamic-fast-paced-and-combative/