Industry News

What Ails The MSM

I write for the Los Angeles Times to KTLA reporter Eric Spillman in the last edition of our “Dust-Up“:

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.

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