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August 11, 2009

Filed under: journalism»new_media

News Not Useless

Since web video is kind of a hobbyhorse for me, at least one coworker has sent me their reactions to the Washington Post's ill-advised "Mouthpiece Theater" videos. These were a series of "comedy" shorts centering on political reporters Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza, culminating in a piece that recommended a brand of beer named "Mad Bitch" to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Columbia Journalism Review has a decent overview here. CJR's Megan Garber also draws attention to an important point from the paper's ombudsman: the Post views this, and other web video, as an "experiment."

I wish I could say that this is uncharacteristic. But there's just something about new media that makes otherwise sane, respectable journalistic outlets ignore the infrastructure of fact-checking, editorial review, and reputational risk that they've built for their traditional output. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli admits as much in his reply to the Center for New Words when he writes: "We did not have a good process in place for reviewing videos before they are published on our site, and we are correcting that." Obviously, the Post would never treat its print reporting with a similar lack of oversight, but when YouTube enters the picture, caution is apparently tossed to the winds. I don't know exactly what it is that causes this. But I do have some guesses.

  • Journalists think they're funny. They're not. I learned a lot from doing competitive speech in college, but one of the most important lessons I took from it was the realization that not everyone is equally funny. Indeed, competing against really good after-dinner speakers allows a person to rank precisely how not-funny they are, and I'm not high on the list. That's not to say that I don't use humor when I feel like it's useful--on the contrary, my highest-ranking speeches often incorporated jokes and wordplay--or that I can't be amusing company, but I learned very quickly the difference between telling a joke or two and actually being funny.

    In truth, reliable comedy takes a massive amount of work. The Onion staff says in interviews that they start each week with six to eight hundred headline ideas, which are eventually culled to the 15 or 20 strongest candidates before publication. With that much effort bent to the task, the Onion and the Daily Show simply make this look easy. Journalists attempting to ape them quickly find out that it's not. Mouthpiece Theater caused offense for a joke that went too far, but the first warning sign should have been that it wasn't particularly hilarious to begin with.

  • Lack of newsroom diversity is insulating. Strictly speaking, Milbank and Cillizza's video wasn't just sexist. There's also a degree of race- and class-based humor that's not merely unfunny, but is also uncomfortable to watch and entirely inappropriate for an outlet in the Post's position. It's my personal belief that these kinds of remarks are far more common when the environment and management suffer from a lack of diversity--say, a newsroom/editorial team that's mostly white, upper-class, and male. If there's a better argument for newsroom diversity than the environment that produced Mouthpiece Theater, I can't think of one.
  • Stars get a free pass. Alessandra Stanley's recent mistake-ridden obituary for Walter Cronkite was almost parodic in its scope: among other errors, she got the dates of the moon landing and the MLK assassination wrong. As James Rainey remarks in the LA Times, this is actually part of a larger trend at both the New York Times and other news organizations: the tendency to pamper "star" reporters when it comes time to fact-check. Unsurprisingly, however, those same stars (as in the Washington Post's case) are often the first chosen for new media ventures, in order to capitalize on their "brand." The result is that video starring those reporters--not to mention other multimedia--is not subjected to the same scrutiny it would get if it were made by a relative nobody.
  • Or would it? In addition to the unwillingness to criticize star employees, I suspect that many editors are afraid to bring a critical eye to bear on new media for fear of revealing their unfamiliarity with it. Nobody wants to look like an idiot. And within the journalism community, the stereotype of bloggers/web video creators as basement-dwelling nerds is still alive and well, so the perceived level of minimum quality is very low. As a result, the reputational warning alarm either doesn't go off, or is suppressed.
The answer to many of these problems, one which I think a lot of news organizations are struggling with (certainly something which is occupying my own time) is coming up with an editorial process for new media that's equivalent to the print process. In terms of video, for example, I argue for a four-stage process:
  1. An editorial meeting on the prospective topic before any footage is shot.
  2. A review meeting after the video capture stage, so the direction being taken is discussed and approved.
  3. A comprehensive check part-way through the editing process, to make sure that the footage and script doesn't have any problems, and to give feedback while changes can still be implemented relatively easily.
  4. A final approval stage before the video is released to the web. This is the last chance for top-level editorial staff to spike a video if it seems questionable.
This isn't unreasonable, I don't think. In fact, it's meant to be roughly analogous to the editorial process that takes place when a reporter wants to write a story for any of our publications. Would such a structure have caught the Post's embarrassing online gaffe? Maybe. But my sincere hope is that a real editorial process would play a more profound role: it should have stopped the entire excruciating series from being broadcast in the first place.

I'll close with a somewhat in-the-trenches observation: as print organizations have moved online, there's been a great deal of panic over the role that video and multimedia will play in relation to more familiar formats. Most of the time, this panic means there's no clear vision behind their use: are they for clowning around? For infodumps by talking heads? For reposting network footage to accompany articles? For aping the stilted, much-ridiculed delivery of the local TV news? You only have to look at the schizophrenic archives of most American media sites to realize that there's no real plan behind it (the unsurprising exception among the big names being the New York Times, which has a generally savvy new media team).

In elementary school, we learn to write about the five questions: who, what, when, where, and why. I think you can answer these in any medium--but I think that each format has its strengths. My guiding rule of thumb has been that video is best-suited toward answering the "who" and the "why"--the human angle, in other words. Who are these people? What are their motivations, and their reasoning? Video leverages the tools that we've evolved over millenia for reading faces and telling stories, in ways that would be very difficult to evoke objectively through text or an interactive graphic. In my opinion, as news organizations try to figure out where video fits into their lineup, that's the high-level discussion they should be having. In the meantime, they should probably leave the comedy to the experts.

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