Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If Fox and HLN had rules

Fox News, like most of its cable competitors, is populated mostly by pundits and talking heads, not journalists.

Chris Wallace is one of the very few exceptions. Why he stays with an organization that has such a poor track record for journalism is another matter. Generally speaking, though, Wallace seems to try to do a decent job.

He recently picked up a lifetime achievement award for excellence in journalism from the Radio Television Digital News Association. No, I didn’t know there was such an organization, either.

It might come as a surprise to some that during his acceptance speech he encouraged his fellow journalists to stop focusing on getting things first.

“Play the long game,” he said. “Tell your audience we won’t always have it first, not because we aren’t covering the story, but precisely because we are covering the story."

Too many news organizations are so fascinated with the technology that allows us to immediately communicate with the world that they forget the first rule: Get it right. Wallace warned against focusing on speed over accuracy, which is particularly dangerous today because errors rarely get corrected.

“The Internet will always be first — I’m not talking right now about legitimate digital news organizations,” Wallace said. “You cannot compete with twitters, and bloggers and people that are writing in their pajamas living in their parents’ basement.”

Sadly, some actual news organizations behave as if they’re operating out of their parents’ basement dressed in their pajamas. They put out information without verifying its accuracy or checking for context. That results in a world that is much more poorly informed than it ought to be.

As I’ve written before, journalism demands more than regurgitating information overheard on a police scanner or picked up from a press release.

No news organization is uniformly perfect. Too few, however, have established standards and rules to guide them. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the formal standards that result in the output of our cable news channels like HLN, CNN, Fox and MSCNBC? Some possible examples:

1. When hiring women, make absolutely certain they are attractive and willing to wear short skirts.
2. Don’t worry about fact-checking. No one takes us seriously anyway.
3. At the end of the day, it’s all about ratings. You will be forgiven nearly anything if enough people watch your program.
4. Whatever you do, don’t go into too much detail. Our viewers aren’t bright enough to take in a lot of information in one sitting. This rule can be broken if the news event is particularly enticing, such as the kidnapping of a young girl or similar atrocity.
5. If you don’t have something compelling to say, just speak louder.

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