for release August 17, 2001
by Melodie Davis
Media: The People Behind the Scoop
Did you ever notice that there is never a rest from endless pontificating by a nonstop parade of sports stars who are put on the radio or TV without a thing to say?
Sometimes I think the dumbing down of North America is due to our penchant for listening breathlessly for a play-by-play analysis of every move, lap, hit, finish, shot, dive, dunk, pass and tackle. Forecasting. Analyzing. Reviewing. And then, there is movie making after the fact, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. speculating after his July Daytona victory that there would be multiple movie offers for the tragic and triumphant story of the Earnhardts. (Then again, maybe you've had enough of tiresome pontificating by a never-ending parade of columnists such as myself.) Channels have proliferated for someone to fill with something and now fiber optic cables and World Wide Web have brought infinite channels for people to let their views be known.
If you've ever been interviewed for TV or radio, you know how a reporter may tape many minutes or hours worth of conversation, and then maybe five seconds of that conversation shows up on the air. One man was a technician for a local TV news program. He said he got tired of spending many hours setting up lights, sound and props for a reporter to drive up, do a quick interview, and then the technician would have to tear everything down, put it back in the vehicle, and go to the next taping. Hours of work and effort for maybe a minute of material on the air. Eventually he quit his job for one that seemed more ultimately rewarding (Purpose, Sept. 2, 2001). That is the nature of media-and whose fault is it? It is our own fault. As viewers, we get bored and turn the channel if a segment goes on too long with details we think we don't need, or doesn't have any "pictures" or video to go with it. And so the media rely on hot stories, catchy phrases and good visuals.
This pressure, unfortunately, inspires "duh" kinds of questions and answers by reporters and interviewees. I was reminded of this after Earnhardt Jr.'s dramatic and hard-earned victory at Daytona. I did not see the race nor an interview in which a reporter supposedly asked him if he cried when he won. "No, actually, I was pretty happy," Earnhardt was reported to have said. The people telling me this story thought it was emblematic of the dumb questions reporters ask on occasions like this or worse-shoving a microphone into the face of a someone who has just lost their child or home and asking, "How do you feel?"
One of the reasons I did not want to become a "real" journalist is I didn't want to have to interview people that didn't want to be interviewed, or coerce people to tell stories they didn't want to tell.
Cheryl Preheim, one of the reporters for KUSA TV in Denver, Colorado, covered the Columbine shootings for KUSA TV in 1999. At a media conference earlier this year, she told how incredibly difficult it was to be a reporter at that terrible time. Not only was she working endless hours and then sleeping in her car, but people screamed obscenities at the media, telling them to go home, get out. She said she wanted to tell people, " 'If it weren't for my job, I wouldn't be here.' I wanted to say, 'I'm bawling in my car after my TV report is over. I'm not as callous as you think.' " She knew she was hated, and she hated that feeling.
Overall, she said the stations and media tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, with all of the stations cooperating with a media pool, so there would be fewer cameras, etc. "Our station took the stance that you're a part of your community first -- and then you're a professional." When there was a family of a victim that she was supposed to call and request an interview, she took the unusual stance of calling the family, and just leaving a message that said something like, "I can't blame you if you don't want to talk to me, but if you would like to tell you story, give me a call." Families did return her calls and she was able to share their stories of loss and memories of their loved ones; she said she became very good friends to a number of families of the victims.
And that is the important thing to remember no matter what your job: never forget that people are people -- whether they are reporters trying to do their jobs, or families who have just been ripped apart. Remember that your boss has her own insecurities, family problems, hopes and dreams. The sports star -- as he rambles on in no-brainers like "we came out, did what we had to do, gave it 100 percent" is a person saying the things he's expected to say, too. And that the reporter who has just asked a really hard question, may go to her car and cry.
What do you think? Send your responses to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 790 words; end material = 105 words
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