The Brass Check

Following up on my post about Alison Mutler insulting Romania for fun and profit, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a “meta” look at journalism in general, specifically the print media.

Whether online or printed on paper, journalism in just about every newspaper works in a certain, discernible way.

To begin with, there is a distinction between what’s often called “hard news” and “soft news”. An article about earthquakes in Japan would fall in the category of “hard news” while information about a celebrity wedding would be “soft news”. Certain print media focus (almost) exclusively on hard news, such as the BBC or Mediafax. Other print media focus (almost) exclusively on soft news, such as Click! (NSFW). The vast majority of print media, especially in Romania, usually has both kinds of news.

So what kinds of “hard” news can you expect to see in your newspaper? In order to demonstrate these categories, I’m going to use three different online news sources from today’s editions: Gandul, Mediafax and Stiri de Cluj. I just picked these three “out of a hat” but I could’ve equally chosen another three sources.

All the links go to articles in the Romanian language.

Quoting the government – This is where you literally print what someone in the government says.

Vasile Blaga said blah blah blah about Traian Basescu

Elena Basescu said X, Y and Z about Vasile Blaga

Elena Udrea posted some stuff on her blog and here we are reprinting it for you

Here’s what the FBI told us they did about some poker websites

Probably 50% of hard news is this category. In fact, a lot of the “most serious” news is simply regurgitating what someone in the government had to say about the topic at hand.

More repeating what other people said – This can be literally reprinting another article from a different news agency or else quoting someone who isn’t in the government but belongs to a recognizable agency, organization, charity or NGO.

A tremendous percentage of these stories have to do with financial issues.

The IMF had a lot to say about Romania

Here’s a list of expensive things that we got from another publication

The World Bank President sure had a lot to say about food prices

Someone told us 1% of the electricity consumed in America is used to grow marijuana

Regurgitating Press Releases – This is where a company, a business, a for-profit corporation (or occasionally a non-profit organization) wants to get some information to the public so they contact the journalist and the journalist just prints what they were told.

Here’s some information about a television show

Here’s some information about an upcoming awards show

Here’s the schedule of what’s going to happen in a Bucharest theater

These guys are going to open a museum

Lady Gaga is releasing a new song

Sports – Mostly just the results of games and publishing statistics and the final score, but also sometimes advertising upcoming events.

This player is going to play a game

There’s going to be a car race in South America

Reporting “breakthroughs” in “science” – This one is often quite insidious as it’s portrayed as factual information supposedly backed by vigorous scientific inquiry when actually it’s only a single fact twisted to make a point. The single poll question in a 100 page survey cherry picked to “prove” Romanians are racist (from my last post) is a good example of this.

Some more:

This study “proves” every human spoke the same language 100 thousand years ago

This scientist has a list of foods which slow down the aging process

These other guys have a list of foods which are good for treating digestive disorders

Death and Injury – Probably a journalist’s favorite topic, this is where you write about who is dying and being injured around the world.

Motorcyclist badly injured in a crash

This guy says an elephant was abused

Six people were injured when a car flipped over

A thief was bitten by a police dog

A person died and seven people were injured in a car crash

Crime – Who has been arrested! And who is going to court.

Actor arrested for drunkenness and domestic violence

Police investigate a shooting in Mehedinti

This guy remains under “preventative” arrest

Actions involving a lot of people – Any time a lot of people get together for something, it might make the paper.

A bunch of people listened to what the Catholic Pope had to say

Thirty people met at the mall to protest plans for a park

About 500 people got together to protest Gigi Becali

Thousands of people visited a stadium in Bucharest

Weather forecast – Will it rain? Will it be cold?

And really, folks, that’s where about 99% of “hard news” comes from. Some print media engage in a few other meta subjects, usually known as “editorials” in English (Romanian: comentariu) wherein the reporters comment on the news. It’s essentially the same as blogging (and what I do quite often) only it’s (usually) not called blogging because it’s somehow different when it’s in a printed newspaper.

Neither Stiri de Cluj nor Mediafax has a section dedicated to this but Gandul‘s is called puterea gandului.

And then there’s the “soft news” which is:

What celebrities are doing – Wow! These people are famous and so it’s so interesting what they are doing.

We’re going to the royal wedding in England!

The girlfriend of a local celebrity danced on the table at her own birthday party

Horoscopes – You will meet a tall, dark stranger today!

And last, but not least, “human interest” stories, which are often interviews with interesting people (like me!) or cute stories about dancing puppies.

I didn’t write all of this to tell you something that you didn’t already know. But if you look through all of the above topics (with links to today’s corresponding articles) you’ll start to notice a few things.

  • Almost none of the information is original – it’s simple a form of stenography in which you write down (or in these days, copy and paste) what someone else told you and then (sometimes) re-arrange it and print it. It’s the difference between running a grocery store and displaying other people’s fruits and vegetables and being a farmer and growing your own stuff.
  • Regardless of which newspaper you’re reading, most of the news is the same – When you’re restricted to (almost) exclusively repeating what other people have to say, you’re barely distinguishable from your competitors.
  • Because all these kinds of “news” appear in the same publication, they’re given virtually the same weight – if a story about which celebrity is appearing at a wedding or what team won a game is in the same paper as news about an earthquake in Japan, it gives a false sense of equal importance to all the stories.
  • Gossip, rumor mongering and snickering over the misfortune of others is given a LOT of importance.
  • The opinions of people in power, whether in government or wealthy corporations, is given a lot of coverage whereas the opinions of the relatively powerless is only mentioned when they meet en masse.

And just like the dog that didn’t bark, there’s a lot MISSING from just about every print media:

  • Original reporting – this is when the journalist actually gets out of the office and enters the wider world and does research and investigates and finds a story. Very few people know that the Iran-Contra affair was a story that only came to light after some investigative reporting by the Lebanese newspaper Ash Shira’a.
  • Truly analyzing what effect news will have on people – okay, the World Bank president says Romania is in trouble. But beyond quoting what he had to say, what does this mean for the regular person on the street? How will someone be affected?
  • Contradicting people in power – in nearly every case, a person in power (whether government, business, etc) is quoted as saying X, Y and Z. But where is any information or opinion in contradiction of what they said? If the IMF says Romania must do what they command, who dare speak against it?
  • Positive stories – Gloom, doom, death and dismemberment (not to mention “racism”) sell newspapers. But beyond the occasional cute puppy story, there’s almost never any mention of something positive and constructive going on unless it’s the implementation of a government policy, a corporate event or an undertaking of thousands of ordinary people.
  • The voices of the those not in power – plenty of ordinary people have relevant things to say about the topics of the day. But in the vast majority of cases, the only opinions you will “hear” in the print media are those of people in power. If a politician says “I farted three times” then it’s news. If a carpenter says it, it’s not.

Mind you, I’m not calling for some Hungarian-style media law to force news sources in Romania (or anywhere else) to follow some kind of model or format. They can go on printing whatever it is they like.

What I am saying however is that the news could be a lot better.

Furthermore, there’s actually one more very important element missing from most print media today – thousands of pieces of news. Since so much of the news is cloned from one media outlet to the other, it’s very difficult to grasp the scope of how much news isn’t reported. A few years ago I set up an RSS reader to follow 4,500 newspapers from around the world and I was simply amazed at the number of stories which could be covered but aren’t.

For example, did you know that there’s a presidential election ongoing in Nigeria? Why does this matter? Perhaps because it’s the most populous nation in Africa with tremendous oil reserves?

Did you know that the United States is considering removing Sudan from its official list of “terrorist sponsoring nations” despite the ongoing fighting in Darfur?

Did you know that Ethiopia is going to buy unmanned attack aircraft from Israel? What are they going to use those for?

Everyone reports about the civil war in Cote D’Ivoire but did you know there’s a civil war going on in Burkina Faso?

Or that the former Prime Minister of Spain defended Qaddafi?

Or that Tomislav Nicolic, a prominent Serbian politician, is on a hunger strike? Why?

Did you know people are dying in Khagrachhari, India due to a long-running insurgency?

Or that Asian mafias are taking over Las Vegas?

Or that Google, a company which sells ads and lets people do internet searches, has now committed itself to eradicating “violent extremism”? How exactly do they plan to do that and will it involve censorship?

Maybe some of those stories are of no interest to you but I bet at least one of them might be. And yet day after day, year after year, it’s eery how almost all the print media in a given country continues to run nearly identical stories.

It’s why I think blogs have become so popular with a lot of people – it’s the only place sometimes to get something other than the same cloned news as all the printed media churn out every day, whether you’re looking for more in-depth analysis, stories you haven’t heard about before or simply a different opinion than that of politicians, rich people and those in power.

My sincerest hope is that someone, somewhere in Romania is reading this and does have a chance to set up a new kind of printed news media. I truly think there’s a “market” for this, so to speak. I know I’d definitely buy a paper that was even 10% different than the other ones at the kiosk.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep doing my thing :)