Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year's Resolution every member of the media should make: It's time to retire the "If it bleeds, it leads" philosophy

Since the horrific story of mass murder in a Connecticut school, there has been much discussion about what we as a nation can do to prevent this from happening again. Members of the media have been very diligent in raising possible solutions. We need more gun control. We need to ban assault weapons. We need to revamp our mental health system. We need to crack down on violent video games. We need cops in every school.

While every one of those ideas may have merit, members of the media have missed the obvious element that contributes to our culture of violence. And all they have to do is look in the mirror.

All those crime stories that often lead national and local newscasts have a very definite effect. It's called "desensitization." In other words, when you see something horrible over and over, when it becomes so routine that it results in nothing more than a shrug, you've become desensitized to it. When we air stories of violence every single day, viewers begin to think murders and other violent crimes are no big deal.

And when kids grow up with that, when they grow up seeing the "murder of the day" on the local newscast, the result is that life doesn't have as much value. Another murder? Eh, what else is new.

The violence we cover as journalists may not be as graphic as that in a movie or a video game, but here's the big difference: it's real. It's not entertainment, it's not escapism. It's real life. And we broadcast it nightly without any thought to the ramifications, yet hypocritically get up on a high horse and slam Hollywood or the NRA for exposing the country to violence.

Look in the damn mirror.

As media people we have an incredible amount of influence, and it goes beyond the in-your-face bias that has permeated our industry. We create a perception of what life is like in a particular community. If we fill our newscast with stories of murder and mayhem, viewers may assume the entire market is one big war zone.

I think back to a time when I worked for a scanner chaser. We were covering a shootout that resulted in two dead drug dealers. A cop was smiling as we arrived, and said, "Hey, some good news for you guys. Two less pushers on the street."

With that story in mind, ask yourself this question: Do stories like that really matter to the average viewer in your market, or are you simply chasing the scanner with the belief that if it bleeds, it leads?

Look in the damn mirror.

If you want to make a difference as it pertains to violence in this country, do your part. Don't sit there in your ivory tower and point the finger of blame. There's plenty of that to go around. But we are just as much to blame for creating the perception that there is nothing but violence in our country.

Perception is reality.

Here's what we're saying to the viewers: "You want fifteen minutes of fame? Do something violent, and we'll tease the hell out of it and lead our newscast with it."

There's a reason you never see fans running onto a field during a baseball game. Broadcasters have realized that showing these people would only encourage more people to do it, so they have a policy of not showing them. With that in mind, what are we encouraging by broadcasting stories of violence every day? It's an easy way to get yourself on television, to gain a bit of fame in our reality TV obsessed society.

When you fill your newscast with real stories, when children stop seeing blood flow across the screen every night, then you've got the right to point that finger of blame. Until then, you're just as guilty.

Look in the damn mirror.

You don't have to see violence to know it exists. In the old movie "From Here to Eternity" Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine engage in a fight to the death toward the end of the movie. The fight begins in a dark alley, then moves behind a wall. But the camera never moves, never follows the actors. We know what's happening, but we don't need to see it.

We know what's happening in real life as well. We don't always need to see it. Children really don't need to see it.

The "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy needs to be retired. Local news ratings have been on a steady decline for years, and one big reason is the tendency to load up a newscast with blood and gore. But this goes beyond ratings.

You want a happy and safer new year for the children in this country? The next time you want to point the finger of blame, look in the damn mirror.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

The first (and possibly annual) Grape Awards

What the hell... every magazine has its awards issue. So we'll take a shot at some of the good (and mostly bad) things that flashed across the tube or had an effect on it in 2012.

Presidential moderator who could apply for a job as an extra on "The Walking Dead"- Jim Lehrer

Funniest line about the Presidential debates- Bill O'Reilly, who cracked that Lehrer sprained his wrist during the coin flip.

Video proof of what your News Director means when he says, "Get your head out of your butt" - Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Missing the obvious award- (tie) Chris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya, who claimed the above was caused by Vince Wilfork pushing the Jets lineman into Sanchez. Uh, no, Sanchez ran face first into the guy's butt. The video don't lie.

Prime time show that jumped an entire school of sharks- Revenge. Great the first year, more convoluted than the health care bill this year.

Creepiest commercial that made every woman say "Ewwww" and every man cross his legs- The one featuring the old guy offering a free sample of a catheter. Operators are standing by.

Most useless new gimmick during election coverage- Fox News "partnering" with Twitter to add up the number of tweets on a certain issue. And this meant... what?

Best new gimmick during debate coverage- Focus groups.

Incredibly talented Broadway star who finally brought her talent to television- Sutton Foster

Dog ate my homework award- Candy Crowley, CNN, for having a transcript on the Benghazi story and still confusing the issue.

Best moderator of the Presidential debates- Seriously?

Great new show that missed the obvious- Revolution. C'mon, can we have one, just one flashback of teenage girls freaking out when their cell phones died?

Funniest stat during a football game- NBC, during a December Eagles-Cowboys game in which it was stated that the Phillies had won a game more recently than the Eagles. Ouch.

Story I can't wait for Jon Stewart to skewer in 2013- Anthony Weiner's return to politics.

Anthony Weiner award for most appropriate last name in a sleazy story- Suzy Favor-Hamilton, the olympian who admitted to being a $600 an hour escort. With a stripper name like Suzy Favor, it was a matter of destiny.

Most puzzling love affair, sports division- National media's fawning over Michael Vick while slamming Tim Tebow. Guess they missed that right vs. wrong discussion in kindergarten.

National story that Americans got sick of real quick- Penn State. Important, yes, but the creepiness of this tale made me change the channel after a couple of days.

National story on which reporters dropped the ball- Benghazi. Not a Woodward or Bernstein in the bunch.

Undercover story that's begging to be done- The sheer ineptitude of the organization known as FEMA.

Best pinch hitter on the Sunday morning shows- Jake Tapper, who just left ABC for CNN.

The Dick Stockton award for the NFL play-by-play guy who seems to be watching a different game than the one being broadcast- Dick Stockton

Most insensitive piece of "journalism": The New York Post, for running a photo of a man about to be run over by a subway train, and every news organization that broadcast the photo.

The "I'd rather be first than right" award: Tie... The reporters who announced that the health care law had been ruled unconstitutional when it hadn't, and the reporters who broadcast the massive amount of mistakes on the Connecticut school shooting (wrong name of the shooter, wrong name of the school, wrong occupation for mother of the shooter, the list is endless.) But hey, you were first, right?

Biggest cause of the "I'd rather be first than right" problem: Twitter.

Worst addition to NFL pregame shows- Rob Riggle, Fox. The comedian who never made me laugh. Not even once. 

The "everyone's wonderful, so let's sing Kumbaya with Chuckie" award- Jon Gruden, Monday Night Football

Hospitality award- The staff of the Gulfport, Mississippi Marriott who opened the breakfast room for our crew late at night during Hurricane Isaac when every restaurant in town was closed.

Biggest surprise- Showing up at Graceland at four in the morning to do a live shot for the Today Show and seeing about a thousand people holding a candlelight vigil for Elvis Presley. At four in the morning.

Nicest celebrity I met this year- Priscilla Presley.

Video that made my flat screen explode- The Pittsburgh Steelers "deranged bumblebee" throwback uniforms. (Yeah, I can see Steel City hardhats putting those on their Christmas lists.)

"Analysis" that added nothing to the story- news organizations bringing in psychologists to find out why mass murderers do what they do. (Answer: they're just plain evil.)

Classiest move by a network- NBC postponing its staff Christmas party in light of the Connecticut tragedy.

And finally...

Best Christmas present I received from MTV- Cancellation of Jersey Shore, which will hopefully end the endless questions I receive as to whether Italians from the Northeast really talk that way. What, youse gotta problem wit da way we tawk?


Monday, December 24, 2012

Your packages need to be like my Christmas Eve dinner

The Christmas Eve dinner is the event of the year for old Italians. It's known as the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" and features seven different kinds of seafood. It is my favorite dinner, trumping Thanksgiving and Christmas.

You can go to a seafood buffet, but there are a lot of things that make the Christmas Eve feast unique. It's the bells and whistles. The decorated tree and Christmas music in the background. My hilarious aunts arguing over whether the fictional doctors on ER are better than the ones on Chicago Hope. The parade of desserts after dinner when you sit down to watch a Christmas movie. Everyone gets to open one present on Christmas Eve. It's those little bells and whistles that make this night more than just a seafood buffet.

I know at this point you're waiting for the television analogy, so here goes. Are there bells and whistles in your work? Is your package just a bunch of sound bites and voice track, or have you added the flavor provided by nat sound, music, graphics, clever writing, a solid anchor intro? Is your resume tape montage a bunch of similar standups, or have you varied your locations, styles, and types of stories?

I can buy you a Christmas gift and put it in a brown paper bag. Or I can find a nice box, glittery wrapping paper, a pretty bow and a cute tag. If you see both under the tree, which one do you pick?

Television, like life, is all about bells and whistles. Make everything you do interesting, but add some spice. Be different, be daring, try new things.

Think about it... we call a television story a "package" for good reason. Wrap it up in an attractive way that makes the viewer excited and want to open it first like the prettiest Christmas gift under the tree.