Friday, May 4, 2012

Jumping to conclusions: covering Junior Seau's suicide

Many years ago Disney World used to have these wonderful junkets in which stations would send reporters along with local sports legends for a week playing what were called "Goofy Games." I was fortunate enough to be included on a few of these, getting the chance to rub elbows with Hall of Famers and actually have conversations with them. By the way, most of the sports stars were already retired.

What was eye opening was a conversation I had with the wife of a man who was a sports legend. She told me how he was bored out of his mind, and spent a lot of time with his old teammates on the phone talking about how boring life was without a game on the line. "You can only play so much golf," she said.

A lot of the legends I met during those weeks fell into that category. I was expecting guys with the world by the tail, but a lot of them were simply sad, middle-aged guys who acted like their lives were over. I came away feeling sorry for many of them.

Think about it: suppose you rose to the level of network anchor and all of a sudden at 35 you're out of the business and no one will hire you because you're too old. You'd get depressed too.

Head injuries and concussions are the hot topic these days when it comes to football, and no one will deny these guys take way too many shots to the brain. But sports suicides are a different animal. Few commentators have mentioned life after the cheering has stopped.

We can never really know what goes through someone's mind that causes that person to take his own life. Jump to all the conclusions you want, but the answers will never really be known.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

There are black widows, merry widows... and the queen of the "A" Block... the grieving widow

A while back I was talking to a client who was on her way out to do a "grieving widow" story. You know... someone dies, reporter shows up, gets family member to choke up looking at picture of said dead person. The reporter told me the News Director told her, "Make sure you get tears."

And that's not the first time I've heard a reporter getting that directive.

So let me ask all you you managers, assignment editors and News Directors a question: Would you go out on the street, pick a person at random, and make that person cry? Of course not.

So why, in a time when someone in mourning needs a shoulder to cry on, do you provide a camera and a microphone?

There are stations that do this constantly, and promote the hell out of these stories. Think about that, those of you in management. You are using someone's death to promote your newscast. You want a camera at your own funeral and your own personal promo for the six o'clock newscast? I think not.

Of course, those stations are usually playing to the lowest common denominator. Their viewers are those who rubberneck at car wrecks and who couldn't name the Vice President of the United States but can identify the entire cast of Jersey Shore.

You wanna do a legit followup to a tragedy? Leave the grieving widow alone and find the real story. Why it might have happened, how it might have been prevented, who might be responsible.

There's a creature that lives off dead things. It's called a vulture. Don't join the flock.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Memo to the National Scholastic Press Association: You don't teach future journalists by bullying them

A few years ago I attended a two week seminar. On day one the moderator told us there was one hard and fast rule. We could not discuss politics or religion, even in our free time. He stressed that we were there to learn and work together, not waste time arguing various beliefs and principles. When he announced this there was a collective sigh of relief from the group. And after two weeks, I had no earthly idea where any of them stood on politics or religion.

Recently the National Scholastic Press Association held a seminar for high school journalism students. During which a man who speaks out against bullying delivered a rant against the Bible and Christians. When several students walked out, he called them "pansy assed."

If he had been a teacher, he would have been fired.

Yes, that's the way you teach future journalists. By bullying them into thinking they must agree with a certain point of view. And yes, this was bullying.

Full disclosure: I'm Catholic, and that doesn't necessarily mean I'm far to the right. I have very liberal friends and very conservative friends. I've worked with and made friends with plenty of gay people, Jewish people, agnostics. Two of my friends who are the kindest, most giving people you've ever met are atheists. If I limited myself to friends who only agreed with my point of view, I'd be pretty lonely. If I tried my best to impose my beliefs on my friends, I wouldn't have them as friends very long.

And if I tried to impose my beliefs on viewers, I'd be tagged with what I consider to be the worst label you can hang on a journalist: biased.

Yet at this seminar these future journalists... teenagers, for God's sake... may have come away with the impression that to survive in this business you must have one set of beliefs. And if you don't, well, you're a "pansy ass" and get the hell out.

So, how did the organization that ran the seminar follow up on this event that offended so many kids? By releasing a statement that included this line which belongs in the cover-your-ass-memo hall of fame:

"We appreciate the level of thoughtfulness and deliberation regarding Dan Savage’s keynote address. Some audience members who felt hurt by his words and tone decided to leave in the middle of his speech, and to this, we want to make our point very clear: While as a journalist it’s important to be able to listen to speech that offends you, these students and advisers had simply reached their tolerance level for what they were willing to hear."

Did you catch the CYA part of that statement? While as a journalist it’s important to be able to listen to speech that offends you. The organization later referred to this as a "teachable moment."

I got your teachable moment right here.

There's a big difference between teaching and lecturing. Between instruction and trying to impose one's views. Between having an opinion and bullying. While as journalists we often have to cover stories and interview people that make us physically ill, this was not the venue to convey that principle. That's what assignments and internships are for. Over the years I've had to cover stories that made me sick, interview people so disgusting I wanted to use a shotgun mike so I didn't have to get closer than three feet. But in college I never endured anything like this.

If you're a high school or college student, know this: you don't have to change any of your beliefs to succeed in this business. You wanna be a flaming liberal or Bible-thumping conservative? Fine. There are plenty of people in the business just like you, and every newsroom has a group of people with very diverse beliefs and opinions. No one will ever ask you what your beliefs are or what your sexual preference is during a job interview. Because if you're an objective reporter, it doesn't matter. Just keep your views out of your stories and you'll do fine.

What biased people on both sides of the spectrum never seem to understand is that you cannot legislate thought. Change the laws all you want, rant and rave, imply that those who think otherwise are stupid or wrong... and you still can't force another person to think in the exact same manner that you do.

It's one thing to be assigned to cover something you find distasteful. It's quite another to go to a seminar with the expectation of learning something and be insulted.

You kids want a teachable moment? Here ya go. If you try to bully your audience into accepting your own point of view, you're not a real journalist.