Monday, June 01, 2009

Tilting at windmills? Or how NBC Nightly News burned me

I am usually on the side of newspaper, specifically, but more generally news media apologists. I worked as a reporter at the Albany Times Union, a respected medium-sized metro paper; I went to a renowned journalism school, The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications; I have many friends in the media; and I work now teaching students about writing and journalism as an editor at L.A. Youth.

I know how stories are put together. I know that reporters don't write headlines, don't conceive the way a story is presented or illustrated (hardly), how competition works, how deadlines work, and that local television stations in particular steal most of their non-breaking/news conference stories from the local newspaper.

[While waiting for the Rensselaer County District Attorney's office to start a press conference one of the TV reporters complained that their assigments came down after the news director read the newspaper in the morning. A second reporter then chimed in: "At least your news director reads the paper!" Hilarity ensued in the wake of that most pathetic of confessions.]

And I still have burned into my brain a deep empathy for the challenge of finding "real people" to help illustrate a story's point. The people who you use to open the story and who help the readers/viewers identify/connect with the story in the way that the experts cannot. Experts = being talked down to. "Real people" = being talked with.

About 10 days ago, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams called us asking how they could get in contact with one of our students, who'd just published a story about her family's earthquake planning. I said that I'd have to check with Stephany but that I felt pretty confident she and her family would be amenable to being featured as the "real people" on the story.

[Mad props to co-worker Amanda who had the foresight to suggest deviating from our web-publishing schedule and putting Stephany's earthquake story up first, even though it wasn't the print issues's cover story. NBC said that they found the story on our website. On the heels of two quakes, she was thinking news hook, yos!]

I call Stephany and she's excited about it. So I call NBC back and tell them that things are a go and I'll just send each of them the others' contact info so I no longer have to play facilitator. Hooray!

Now my job involves dipping my toes in the dark waters of advocacy and public relations. Part of L.A. Youth's mission is to promote a better image of teens in the mainstream media by allowing them a forum to demonstrate their complexities and honest reactions (with the occasionaly paradoxes and contradictions thrown in). And part of L.A. Youth's mission is to continue to exist. So the potential of national exposure for a story promoting a good public service has us excited. We decide that as soon as the newspaper gets delivered to us (the call came in on a Thursday and the newspaper should be delivered the next day), we're going to overnight mail it to Stephany (so she can show NBC and perhaps it could get used in B roll) and also to NBC. Flood the zone, as Howell Raines might have said.

In the course of my phone calls to Stephany, I noted that without being too obvious, giving L.A. Youth some props would be great exposure for us. She totally understood.

The shoot took place over a couple hours on Memorial Day morning. When Stephany emailed me, she noted that NBC said that they weren't going to shoot the paper. :( But Stephany said that during the interview she told the TV reporter that her interest in earthquake was really sparked by doing the story for L.A. Youth and having gotten the opportunity to interview an expert in safety with the California Emergency Management Agency. :)

So Stephany calls Wednesday to say that the story is airing tonight. By the time we get this message it's already 7:30ish EDT, so it's already aired. We immediately go to the NBC Nightly News's website and watch the story ...

... which of course has ZERO mention of L.A. Youth.

At first, I'm really proud of Stephany and just a little disappointed that we didn't get mentioned, since after all, they got Stephany and her family because of us. But the more time has passed, the more disappointed and even a little pissed I am. And it's not about the lack of acknowledgement but because NBC's decision to avoid sharing credit was bad journalism that ignored the most important part of the story.

In her story, Stephany wrote about how her family has now started taking this much more seriously, specifically because in the course of her story she interviewed a state emergency preparedness expert. Stephany wrote that after a quake last summer, the first one she really felt, she panicked. After that she renovated her bedroom by removing a bunch of things that were in dangerous positions and that her mom made some kits. But that's it. They didn't make any plans about what to do or practice anything. After like literally about 36 hours she and her family resumed their pre-quake lives.

This reaction from her family is NOT exceptional. It's the standard. After a quake that rattles some stuff, people talk a big game about getting prepared but they actually don't.

NBC played dueling violins with reporting. They quoted some stats from a Cali. Safety Commission report noting only like 13 percent of Californians have quake insurance, 30 percent have disaster plans and 40 percent have enough bottled water. Just before that info, though, NBC had the token quote from Home Depot guy about how after a quake there's a double-digit increase in purchases from their emergency-preparedness aisle, flashlights, batteries, stuff like that. But as Stephany's interview with Kate Long reveals (and also the stats NBC quotes from the CSC report), supplies are simply the beginning.

Noting that Stephany and her family got really into this because of the story was not only an interesting nugget, but relevant. Brian Williams intro'd the story as essentially that quake safety is in our collective SoCal psyche and wanted to show how people are prepping. But the actual story, which NBC even hints at, is that not enough of us are prepping comprehensively.

Look, I'm not naive. I was a reporter and I know how this stuff works and that everyone wants to seem like they found their sources, but we're not the competition. Acknowledging how you got the story in this case didn't seem like it would have hurt them. In fact, Stephany got interested in this only because she wrote her story. So it was actually germane. Including it would have shown that most people out here even after quakes don't change their routines. Stephany and her family didn't really. It was her writing about it that changed her attitude.

Come on, NBC, you should be a lot better than that.

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