Who Is To Blame? The Government or Lazy Reporters?

More propaganda coming from the Bush administration... To me, there are two issues here. First and foremost, there's a big difference between a video news release and a pre-produced segment that appears to be editorial. The former tends to run on stations with some editing and input. The latter does not. We need to ask ourselves whether or not the government should be in the business of producing propaganda that is likely to run unedited on TV stations, with the appearance of a hard news story.

The second issue deals with the laziness of the MSM. From my journalism days, I remember the dynamic at work here. Early on in my training (B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications from Washington & Lee University), I was exposed to the process that makes it easy for such things to infiltrate legitimate news reporting. And the structures within news departments continue to allow for it. In one journalism class, each student was assigned a beat. Regardless of what was happening on that beat, student reporters were responsible for 3-5 stories per week within that beat. I remember being assigned to the "Community" beat during weeks when very little of importance was going on and it was difficult to find 3-5 things to write about in a week. At the same time, I also remember being assigned to "Cops and Courts" when there was a major murder trial going on, plus all the arrests, court actions and whatnot that are typical of a college town. On Cops and Courts, there was never a lack of things to write about and working that beat often entailed making big decisions about what was newsworthy and what wasn't. I followed that big murder trial for weeks and wrote a huge story when the verdict was delivered, which soaked up much of my available time and made it very difficult to write about other goings-on during that time.

The point is, the dynamics involved in allocating a reporter's time and the limits on time that reporters can spend on stories is something that can be taken advantage of. Often, both in my training and in working for real-life newspapers, what was written during the week and what eventually runs in the paper are two very different things. Sometimes stories need to be bumped for whatever reason (need more fact-checking, additional reporting needed, etc.) and sometimes space needs to be filled. Sometimes, in allocating a reporter's time, something gets ignored that ought to merit a story. When there's space to fill or there's something that escaped attention, news releases come in handy.

There were many times during my training where I'd have two larger stories an hour before deadline and needed something quickly, which is when news releases came in handy. You could take a news release and gather all the relevant facts, make a couple phone calls and have a quickie story ready for publication that requires little effort. Sometimes "little effort" appeals to a reporter on deadline who needs to fill some space.

The dynamic isn't much different in broadcast. The time constraints are more stringent, and your subject matter is limited to whatever footage you might have, which may even make the problem worse. And then along comes this 90 seconds of produced footage from the government on something topical and relevant. The temptation must be overwhelming at times.

I don't want to excuse the mainstream news media here, but in an age of "better, faster, cheaper" I can see how some of these pre-produced news releases end up on the air. Shame on lazy reporters and editors for running them, but sometimes one is limited by what one can accomplish with limited reporting resources and whatnot. Reporters and editors surely shoulder much of the blame here.

The Bush administration shows remarkable knowledge of the workings of the press and how to get propaganda on the air. The big question, of course, is whether taxpayer dollars should be used in an attempt to blur the line between advertising/PR and editorial. I'd suggest that any video news releases should conform to a standard wherein stock footage is provided and talking points disseminated, but nothing that could be used to lend the appearance of a legit news reporter actually having produced the segment.

One other thing to consider here, which is that television is largely a linear medium, meaning that folks can tune in at various points during a segment and completely miss any warnings (should there be any) that content comes from the government and wasn't produced by the station or network. The only way to solve this problem would be to provide a persistant video message that indicates the source and runs throughout the segment. Not that I've ever seen any warnings, persistent or otherwise, that a video segment was produced by the Department of Agriculture or Defense or whatever...

One thing's for sure. The system isn't working here. There's a breakdown in the news filters we all depend on, and there's also a breakdown in the ethics of the current administration with regard to passing off propaganda as legit news content. This problem can exist only in situations where both of these things are broken. Fix one or the other and the problem goes away.