The Haiti Earthquake and Journalistic Choices

Yesterday, a tremendous earthquake struck Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world. I’ve been thinking a lot about this tragedy in the last 24 hours, praying for the victims and survivors, and hoping that the relief effort will be swift, compassionate and comprehensive. As I write this, the extent of death and destruction is not yet clear. But from what I’ve heard from news reports, the Haiti Earthquake of January 2010 appears to be one of the worst natural disasters of this century, possibly even more devastating than the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

I’ve also been observing how journalists, and especially broadcast journalists, have been covering this story. I first heard of the news on CNN. Wolf Blitzer broke the story during his “Situation Room” broadcast a few minutes after 5 p.m. My wife was watching CNN when the first announcement was made, and soon both of us were scanning the various news channels for updates. We checked out the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but we kept coming back to CNN, since, for at least the first few hours after the earthquake, CNN had the most comprehensive and detailed reports.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked by how little attention this story received on Fox News Channel and MSNBC during the first few hours after the earthquake hit. CNN was covering the story nonstop from when the news broke shortly after 5 p.m. Fox had a brief “Fox News Alert” around 5:30 during the Glenn Beck show, but didn’t provide any extensive coverage of the story. MSNBC broke the story a bit later than Fox with an update during “Hardball.” But again, MSNBC, like FNC, didn’t give much more than a brief mention about the tragedy unfolding a few hundred miles southeast of Florida.

CNN did what a news channel should do when a big story like this hits: interrupt regular programming, stick with the story and provide as much information as you can to viewers. Both Fox News Channel and MSNBC instead relied mostly on their pre-recorded talk programs. On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly interviewed Sarah Palin, who recently became a regular contributor to Fox News. The only mention of the Haiti Earthquake I noticed on FNC during the O’Reilly show was in the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. Similarly, I didn’t hear Keith Olbermann mention the tragedy at all during his show on MSNBC. To her credit, Rachel Maddow did spend a significant part of her show covering the Haiti earthquake, but by then CNN had been covering it nonstop for nearly 4 hours.

I’m rather disappointed that the only cable news channel that stayed with this story from the beginning was CNN. I can understand why MSNBC might have a hard time covering breaking news, as they have the most limited news resources among the three major news channels. But one would think Fox News Channel could have broke away from their routine prime-time lineup to cover a story of this magnitude. While FNC might not have quite the same number of reporters in the field as does CNN, I think they could have pulled out the stops if they had wanted to do so. They certainly could afford to do so. Fox News Channel is watched by more people than CNN, and those higher ratings have helped swelled the bank accounts of Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation, which owns Fox (as well as the Wall Street Journal and many other media properties).

So why didn’t Fox News Channel, the broadcast news flagship of a company called the “News” Corporation, break away from their pre-recorded prime-time lineup of commentary shows to provide breaking news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti? One can only assume this reflects contrasting “gatekeeping” philosophies, about what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Last night on Fox News Channel, Sarah Palin’s debut as an FNC contributor was news. Last night on CNN, the earthquake in Haiti was news. With all due respect to Ms. Palin, I think CNN made the better journalistic choice.

Obama was here

So today was the big day at West Chester University. I’ve never seen such excitement on this campus! I thought it would be big, but I never imagined it would be this big. Over 2,200 wildly animated people crowded into Hollinger Field House to watch Chris Matthews interview Barack Obama on MSNBC’s “Hardball College Tour.”

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of Barack Obama, and I’ve still not decided who will get my vote.  It’s a long way to Election Day, and a lot can happen in the next few months.  But I have to admit Obama made a rather positive impression on me at this event. He really is eloquent, and he seems like a very sincere and passionate person.  I’m not sure what kind of President he would be, but if he does win the election, I think he could bring some positive changes to Washington.  

I’d like to hear from Hillary in person before the primary vote.  I was impressed with Chelsea Clinton when she visited our campus last week.  I know there are those who dislike Hillary, but I think America might benefit from a woman President.  And I thought it was telling when Chelsea she said she thought her mom would make a better president than her dad was.

And although I’m not particularly impressed with John McCain, I will probably watch how he does when he appears with Chris Matthews on the next stop of Hardball’s College Tour (April 15 at Villanova University). It would be interesting to see if the Villanova crowd gets as excited as the one here at West Chester.

Below are a few pictures of the event.  You can see more photos on my web gallery.

Another Vivian Boo-Boo…and a bit of history

No textbook is perfect, but a good text should at least get people’s names right. I have earlier complained about John Vivian perpetuating mistakes in his text, The Media of Mass Communication, which I use in the large lecture course in mass communication I teach at West Chester University. I like the book, and I will likely continue to use it, but the careless mistakes in it are annoying.

So I wasn’t surprised when one of my students pointed out another mistake to me today (thanks, Laura!). Near the end of chapter 13, in a “Media People” pullout box, is a brief bio of hip-hop star Nelly. The textbook states that Nelly “was christened Cornell Hayes, Jr.” Nelly’s last name is Haynes, not Hayes. My student wrote that this mistake is significant “because he even refers to his name in one of his top songs, Number One, where he plays off the relationship between the underwear brand Haines and his last name Haynes.” (Actually, I believe the correct way to identify this song is #1, with a pound sign and a numeral, but that’s beside the point.)

I might add that while I was looking over this part of the text, I found another mistake in the same section. In the caption below the picture of Nelly with Christina Aguilera, a reference is made to the “MTV Music Video Awards.” Ooops. It’s the “MTV Video Music Awards,” not the “MTV Music Video Awards.” It’s been that way since they were started in 1984, and they are often referred to as simply the VMAs or VMA Awards (although technically the second is rather redundant, since the “A” in VMA stands for Awards).

Many people might wonder why it’s called the “MTV Video Music Awards” when the term “music video” is more widely used today than the term “video music.” So let me just share a bit of history…

In the very early days of MTV, the term “video music” was commonly used to describe this kind of television programming. I even used it in the title of the thesis I wrote for my master’s degree back in 1983 (Future Radio: Video Music and its Effects on Radio Listening.) Keep in mind that this was at a time when the genre was just coming together, so people weren’t sure what to call what MTV was doing.

Music was a popular form of televised entertainment long before MTV came on the scene. The Ed Sullivan Show regularly featured musical performances, and helped propel Elvis Presley and The Beatles to stardom. A number of TV shows were built around music performances, including My Hit Parade and American Bandstand. But most musical performance during TV’s early years emphasized the music, and rarely attempted to visually illustrate a story. They were essentially the video equivalent of a concert performance.

Monkees_season2.jpgOne of the first successful TV shows to integrate music into a visually-supported storyline was The Monkees, launched in 1966 on NBC. Although many critics at the time panned The Monkees as a cheap knockoff of The Beatles, the program quickly became a smash hit, and even won two Emmy Awards. A typical episode of The Monkees featured a simple and often campy comedic story that would culminate in a musical performance which was integrated into the storyline. These performances were not simply shots of the band singing and playing guitars; the musical performances were a key part of the plot of each episode. The technique was similar to the narrative approach used in filmed musicals, like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, as well as the approach used in presenting The Beatles in the films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! But while The Monkees was built on these traditions, it was a pioneering adaptation of this storytelling approach to fit the constraints of television. It would also spawn other pop-music based TV shows, including The Partridge Family and The Archies.

Then in 1977, one of the original Monkees, Michael Nesmith, produced a “conceptual” video clip to help promote his song Rio. Although Rio was not a major pop hit in America, it was a modest success in Britain, and inspired many musicians to experiment with video as an art form itself, and not simply as a visual recording of a musical performance. Rio would later be incorporated into Nesmith’s hour-long video masterpiece called Elephant Pants, which won the very first Grammy award in the “Video of the Year” category in 1981. It wasn’t until 1985 that the Grammys started calling this category “Best Music Video,” since the term “music video” didn’t come into wide use until well after MTV was launched in 1981.

Nesmith also created Popclips, a program which many historians identify as the most direct predecessor of MTV. Popclips aired on the Nickelodeon cable channel (which today is one of the “sister networks” of MTV). The program featured videos of mostly pop music performances, hosted by on-camera “Vee Jays” (including the relatively unknown Canadian comic Howie Mandell). Nesmith would eventually sell the Popclips idea to Warner-Amex, which developed it into the Music Television cable channel (which would soon be known simply as MTV).

So when MTV started the VMAs in 1984, it was at a time when many people still thought it more appropriate to use “video” as an adjective for this kind of music, rather than use “music” as an adjective to describe this kind of video. Some people still prefer the term “Video Music,” and I for one am glad MTV has stuck with it in the name of their award program.

Now if only we can get Vivian to get the name right in his textbook…

College Media Convention – Day 2

Today was a full day for me at the College Media Convention. I spent most of the day in sessions related to software included in the new version of Adobe’s Creative Suite. I began by attending a session on one of the components of the suite I use the least: Adobe Illustrator. This vector graphics application has gone through a number of iterations during its history, and in earlier versions of the Creative Suite, Illustrator seemed to be one of the least integrated. The latest version appears to correct that issue, as Illustrator has become an integral part of Adobe’s Creative Suite 3.

Next was today’s plenary session. Unlike yesterday’s keynote speaker, today’s was rather ho-hum. You know you’re in trouble when a speaker spends the first five minutes asking the audience to “raise their hands if the think this will happen“ and ”raise their hands if they think that will happen.“ One or at most two questions like that are OK, but it gets old quick. Among other things, Sam Feist, CNN’s Political Director, spent a lot time talking about how important it was to be apolitical as a journalist. This from someone who holds the title ”Political Director“ seemed a bit odd. At times he sounded more like a public relations professional than a journalist, spending a lot of time extolling the virtues of CNN’s news policies. And although he tried hard to hide his political inclinations, he didn’t try hard to hide his distaste for Fox News Channel. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with most of Sam’s points, but I did find myself getting rather tired of his ”old school“ views of objectivity. One student tried to pin him down on whether objectivity was still possible today, a question he conveniently spun toward a critique of FNC. I really wasn’t surprised at Sam’s talk, as he works for one of the biggest names in the business. He has reason to play it safe and stick to the ”middle of the road.“ But is it any wonder why Fox, despite its obvious bias, is getting a lot better ”rating point per dollar“ return than CNN? When it comes right down to it, I think most news consumers today appreciate journalists who embrace their bias rather than try to hide it behind the increasingly thin curtain of ”objectivity.“ Even I would rather spend an hour watching Bill O’Reilly say patently stupid things than spend an hour in the ”Situation Room.“ Neither one is very good journalism, but at least the first is somewhat entertaining at times.

The rest of the day I spent attending sessions on the other components of the Creative Suite, including sessions on Flash video, Photoshop, In Design and Acrobat. I also had time to take in a session on blogging, which was quite interesting. I wish I could get more of my students at The Quad interested in blogging. Maybe someday.

After a full day of sessions, I took a group of editors from The Quad out to a place called ”The Reef“ for dinner. Although it looked a little iffy at first, it turned out to be a nice place to kick back and talk. The food was pretty good, and it was plentiful. And it gave me a chance to reconnect with some of my best students. Being on sabbatical, I kinda miss being around students, so it was nice to have the chance to interact with them again. What can I say? I guess I just like being around college kids.

National College Media Convention 2007 – Day 1

Since I’m on sabbatical leave this semester, I wasn’t originally planning on going to the National College Media Convention. But after thinking it over, I decided a couple of days before the convention that I would go after all. The convention was just a short train ride down to Washington, DC. And it would be good to see my student editors from The Quad, West Chester University’s award-winning student newspaper.

I’m glad I went. On Thursday afternoon, I enjoyed the keynote address by Rob Curley. I heard Rob three years ago when he was doing great things at the Lawrence, Kansas Journal-World. In particular, he was a pioneer in developing deep, rich content for the web, and saw early on the importance of the web for local newspapers. Last year he took a dream job as vice president for product development at Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. In this position he has helped guide an extensive team of “convergence journalists” who create content for the Washington Post-Newsweek family of web sites, including most notably,

I’m not sure how many in the audience truly appreciated how rapidly Rob Curley rose in his profession, or how amazingly prescient his advice was a few years ago when he spoke at the College Media Convention in Nashville in 2004. But I hope that at least some of the students who heard him speak Thursday afternoon take heed of his suggestions…

  • Local newspapers must own local breaking news. Newspaper staffs are typically the largest news staffs in any market, easily outdistancing the resources of local broadcast news outlets. Yet when it comes to breaking news, people often turn to broadcasters. Newspapers need to realize that the web can help them in the effort to be the authoritative voice for breaking news.
  • Newspapers should embrace platform-independent delivery. The most important part of the word newspaper is news, not paper. Most journalists today write for both print and web, and many create audio and video content as well. Newspapers can and should be the dominant sources of news content in any platform. Convergence journalism isn’t just a trend; it’s today’s reality.
  • Newspaper websites should be about dialog, not monologue. Too many newspapers ‘t just “shovel” their print content into a web template. But that’s not how the web works…at least not effective web sites. People want to be able to participate. Give readers a voice on the web. Use the web to connect with your audience.
  • Embrace change with the right mindset. There are plenty of people in the newspaper business who resist change, who pine for the “old days.” But change is inevitable, and those entering the journalism field would do well to position themselves for change. This means having both a broad skill set and an open mindset. Having a variety of talents can open a lot of doors, but having a bad attitude can close a lot more.

Although it was a very fast-paced keynote, and at times a bit overwhelming, I left feeling good about what I’ve been telling my students for years now. And it made me feel good about advising student media. Journalists really do make an important contribution to the world. I’m honored to work with students who may be someday become the next Rob Curleys of the world.

Verizon Fios TV…It really is good

Today I had Verizon Fios TV installed in my home, as part of a “triple play” package of TV, phone and broadband service. After watching it for a few hours this evening, I’ve got to say it really is as good as the advertisements would lead you to believe. And it’s a lot better than the cable and satellite systems I’ve had in the past few years, including Comcast, DirectTV and Dish TV.

I’ve had the Fios broadband service for over a year now, and it has been fast and reliable. In fact the only real issue I had was with the D-Link router they originally gave me. Today I got a new router which has additional capabilities. Of particular note is the MoCA (Multimedia over Coax) functions, which allow me to distribute photos and music from a computer to watch on a TV. The router also enables the distribution of an extensive library of on-demand programming to any set-top box in the house.

The quality of the picture is excellent, in both standard and high definition. There is a brief moment of pixelation during channel changing, but the signal “locks in” at full quality within a second. My guess is that the pixelation is a trade-off for lower latency while changing channels; it reminds me of the interlaced GIF or progressive JPEG images that were common in the “modem era” of the internet, when it took a second or so for a web page to load. But the pixelation moment is very brief, and is quite tolerable. It certainly is no worse than the pixelation on digital cable, and much better than the pixelation I would frequently experience with satellite reception.

One issue that I still have to resolve is the location of the “Home Media DVR” set-top box. I had originally planned to put the box in bedroom, but I have already had to move it to another room. Like the TIVO and ReplayTV boxes I’ve had, the Motorola QIP6416 that Verizon provides is too noisy for a bedroom. The sound of the fan is noticeable in a quiet room, and the sound of the hard drive is even more audible during read/write operations. So I’ve switched the bedroom TV to one of the standard set-top boxes, the whisper quiet QIP2500.

I’m sure I’ll discover some other idiosyncrasies over time, but so far, I’m very happy with Verizon Fios TV. The picture quality is great, the channel selection is unsurpassed, and the cost is a good value compared to cable, even when factoring in the monthly equipment fees. I’m still not sure about the Home Media DVR, as it’s not nearly as user-friendly as TIVO. But I understand some interface improvements may be forthcoming, so I’ll wait and see what the future brings.