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Fred_Vobbe
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More News On TV News?

Post by Fred_Vobbe » 11-16-2005 09:21 AM

More News On TV News? Blogs Go Behind Camera
Websites offer feedback from employees and viewers on what was aired and why. But is it too much information?
By Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK - Why has broadcast television devoted relatively little coverage to the recent South Asia earthquake? Should the networks have done more stories about President Bush's troubled swing through South America earlier this month? And just what do viewers gain when television reporters deliver live reports while standing outside in the middle of raging hurricanes?

Those are just a few of the questions that have been raised on blogs in recent weeks, but not by outside critics of broadcast news. In each case, the queries have been posed by network employees - including those as prominent as NBC anchor Brian Williams - on the network's own websites.

Spurred by declining viewership, the growing prominence of the Internet and the public's increasing skepticism of traditional media outlets, the broadcast networks are now pulling back the curtain in an attempt to preempt criticism and burnish their reputation. In recent months, all of the network news divisions have adopted online features aimed at providing more transparency about their operations and decision-making.

Their efforts come at a time when the news media as a whole have been engaged in substantial public introspection. Those assessments - such as the New York Times' recent examination of the role played by now-retired reporter Judith Miller in the CIA leak investigation - have increasingly become part of the story itself, sometimes leading to even more controversy.

The network blogs, while often remarkably candid and self-critical, have not yet generated a public debate comparable to those instigated in print. Some media critics, though, question whether such in-house productions offer true accountability or mere promotional efforts.

Certainly, the online forums signal a new era of self-scrutiny in broadcast television, which has never formally instituted the equivalent of newspaper ombudsmen to publicly handle viewer complaints. In the wake of the searing fallout from last year's CBS piece that questioned President Bush's National Guard service, the networks are now moving to head off viewer dissatisfaction by providing information about news-gathering ahead of time.

"There are way too many examples lately of how human foibles can intersect with journalism," Williams said. "I think if we can show our processes, if we can show how a bill becomes law in terms of television news ... we become more approachable, more human in people's eyes, less of a monolith."

Williams has tried to change that perception through daily dispatches on his MSNBC.com blog, the Daily Nightly, in which he previews the pieces being considered for the evening newscast, answers viewer criticism and offers mea culpas when the network misses a story.

Over on CBSNews.com, Public Eye Editor Vaughn Ververs plays a slightly different role. Working independently of the news division, Ververs functions more as a go-between for viewers, posting video of editorial meetings, soliciting answers from news executives about coverage and examining charges of bias. (While similar to an ombudsman, Ververs notes that Public Eye does not seek to be the final arbiter in disputes between viewers and the network.)

For its part, ABCNews.com launched a half-dozen new correspondent blogs this fall, including a feature called the Blue Sheet, which promises a behind-the-scenes look at the making of "World News Tonight." Eventually, the new anchor (or anchors) named to replace Peter Jennings will file postings as well, executives said.

Meanwhile, PBS went one step further than its commercial brethren and hired former Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler last month to serve in a similar capacity at the taxpayer-supporter network, the first such ombudsman position created at a broadcast network.

"I do think it tells the public that we are willing to open ourselves up," said Getler, who begins his post today and will regularly post his commentaries on PBS.org.

Jeff Jarvis, who writes about media and technology on his blog BuzzMachine, called the networks' efforts at transparency "significant and overdue."

"It's a reaction both to what's happening in journalism and the fact that the public can now do its own acts of journalism and can check these guys," said Jarvis, a former TV critic and newspaper columnist. "The irony of journalism is we expect everyone else to be transparent and we're not. That's not going to fly anymore."

Decision-making process

The power of the blogosphere to shape public perception was underscored last year when conservative bloggers posted harsh critiques of CBS' piece on Bush's Vietnam-era service just hours after it aired. Questions posed on the websites about memos purportedly written by Bush's commander were picked up by the rest of the media, and the network eventually acknowledged that the documents could not be authenticated.

Now television broadcasters are turning to the Internet to provide the context they cannot cram into a 22-minute newscast.

"We want to be where all the traffic is," said Michael Clemente, executive producer of ABCNews.com. "I think the more people know about how not only we figure out what to highlight but how we get there and the forces brought to bear on those decisions, the better off we're all going to be."

Those involved in the network blogs believe viewers are responding. "I think they're getting a feeling that their concerns, suggestions and comments are being listened to," Ververs said. "And in this age of personal relationships that you find on the Internet, that's the expectation that's growing out there."

Public Eye has sought to strip away the mystique about network news through behind-the-scenes features that explain how stories are reported and newscasts pieced together. One recent posting including a 27-minute video of the action inside the control room during the broadcast of the "CBS Evening News." Another detailed the lengths that "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley and his producers went through to obtain an interview with an underground eco-terrorist, which culminated in a secret meeting with two masked men in a Harlem brownstone.

On the Daily Nightly, Williams - whose blogs postings are written in a more casual, droll style than he uses on the air - explains what stories were discussed at the 2:30 p.m. editorial meeting and why they are in contention to lead the broadcast. He also devotes a substantial amount of space answering charges of bias, such as a recent spate of messages that accused the NBC anchor of being disrespectful to the president by referring to him as "Mr. Bush."

Since it began in May, the Daily Nightly (which also includes postings from a range of NBC correspondents) has generated considerable e-mail to the website and the show's main e-mail address - as many as 750 on a recent day, Williams said. Many writers said that reading the blog had persuaded them to watch the 6:30 p.m. broadcast.

"What a brilliant idea," wrote Orlando, Fla., viewer Morrison Vogt. "What I am learning is that the Daily Nightly needs to go along with the evening news, not simply as a stand-alone tool. When you watch the news and then read the Daily Nightly, you have this great feeling of being part of it all. They fit so very well together. It all becomes much more personal."

Media observers praised the networks' efforts but warned that monitoring oneself is a difficult task.

"I think this whole thing is going to be a short-term phenomenon," said Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR's "On the Media," which examines journalism trends. "There will be too many incidents cropping up in which the bloggers will be at cross-purposes with their employers."

Indeed, some of the postings have already highlighted internal matters that the networks wouldn't be keen on promoting.

In a recent entry on Public Eye, Ververs criticized CBS' initial response to the furor over the Bush story, saying that the network's immediate focus on bolstering the story's credibility instead of examining its underpinnings was "a lesson in how not to practice journalism."

On his ABC blog Down and Dirty, correspondent Jake Tapper detailed the challenges of getting a story about Bush's South America trip on "World News Tonight" earlier this month. "Pieces are often killed at the last minute, with extreme prejudice and a certain bloodlust," he wrote in another post. "News can be a nasty business."

For his part, Williams offered his regret recently about not airing a piece on the Bush trip after seeing a segment on a rival network. "We dropped the ball," he wrote, adding that correspondent Kelly O'Donnell had pitched the story but that executive producer John Reiss didn't agree it merited a segment.

Such airing of internal newsroom debate may make executives cringe, but Williams said he has not received any chastising from the front office.

"By its nature, the blog is promotional, and if I'm going to make a fuss and tell people how good our work is, I probably owe it to them to admit when we mess up," he said.

At CBS, the inception of Public Eye in September was met with some initial wariness from network employees who feared it would unfairly single out CBS for criticism. But the blog's focus on broad media issues and its ability to offer producers a chance to quickly dispute charges of bias have been welcomed.

"I'm a big believer in the more we tell people about how we gather the news and decide what is news, the better it is," said Bob Schieffer, interim anchor of the "CBS Evening News. However, Schieffer said he hopes the blog will use caution in showcasing internal editorial discussions, noting that the kind of glib language bandied about in newsrooms could be easily misinterpreted.

"We should be judged about what we put on television, not about what we were thinking about or what was going through our minds," he said.

For all the revelations in the network blogs, some media experts said that true accountability can only come by appointing an independent outsider to evaluate coverage.

"The issue that may evolve in the process of this is the question about the independence of the bloggers and whether this actually has an impact on increasing the standards of the organization," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio's ombudsman and the immediate past president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen.

"It might be perceived as a public relations gesture. In my experience, the public actually wants to know how independent we are."
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Cherry Kelly
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Post by Cherry Kelly » 11-16-2005 10:45 AM

Living near a city - we have stations competing for local news hot spots -- top ratings. Some of the things they do are to feature local events, and good news items as well as an ever increasingly watched "Try it before you buy it" segments.

Maybe its time that national news stopped with all the political negativity and started concentrating on some "good news" - even a small segment every night of the week - about GOOD things that are going on.

I think that people are tired of all the negativity reporting that goes on. Iraq is another area - instead of just reporting all the "deaths" going on - why not show some of the good that has been accomplished. Show some of the towns that now have water - electricity - schools opened - new hospitals - why should we have to hear or read about it in other places?

IF the major nets devoted just five minutes every night with a "good news" type reporting - their ratings just might go up.

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