Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Stockholm Syndrome and Pack Journalism: The Kryptonite to Objectivity?

When looking at the role of the political media, much can be said about the concept of objective journalism. Certainly, political media has travelled a long way since the partisan press outlets of the 19th century, which hammered home party lines with complete disregard for bipartisanship or balanced stories. The so-called "road to objectivity" saw the art of journalism grow into a full-fledged profession during the 20th century, harnessing "truth" and "accuracy" as crucial characteristics of the industry. Yet, as late as 2011, a survey indicated that 68% of people hold the belief that the press is biased, 46% feeling too liberally, and 22% too conservatively. So what's the deal?

The generally accepted journalistic code of ethics requires writers and outlets to be fair and balanced. ABC News Senate reporter Sunlen Miller explained how that particular outlet "prides itself on its ability to present a fair and balanced story", making objectivity a requirement for every piece that goes out. This style of "he said, she said" journalism places an emphasis on factual reporting, giving opportunity for both sides of a story to be told. Speaking generally, most outlets will also refrain from a clear alignment with a political party, avoiding direct affiliation with one side or the other. Particularly in American politics, the presence of only two political parties means not all readers will exclusively share opinion with the same party on every issue. For this reason, media outlets should remain more neutral, in order to maintain a readership.

The ideaa of "the most trusted man in news"
Walter Cronkite hosting a partisan radio show
is an unimaginable one
Yet, objectivity is an increasingly contested term. 1996 saw the birth of Fox News in a renaissance of partisan media. Established to combat the perceived liberal bias of major news outlets, Fox aimed to give more coverage to the conservative right, a group it felt was being neglected by entities such as CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Does the emergence of right-leaning political outlets mean the "media" is no longer objective, or does it mean that the "media" as a concept simply no longer exists? No longer do the the public have to wait around for 6pm to catch one, unified, nightly news broadcast. At this point in time the power was in the hands of the news outlets as they set the agenda and were responsible for informing the entire nation.  Today, people can tune directly into a media outlet wholly in alignment with their own beliefs at any point and get straight to what they want to hear - relevant news. The plethora of options available suggests that the media has departed from objectivity, because consumers can be so specific as to how their news is consumed and thus remaining unbiased is not necessary.

What is more, today's political campaigns are seldom seen unaccompanied by a string of story-thirsty reporters. The so called "press pack" will follow politicians everywhere, frantically scampering for the first word on an issue or following an event. Many have argued that this "pack journalism", where reporters may be "on the bus" for months on end with politicians, removes some of the bias associated with modern reporting. With a sameness to many of the stories coming out of the press corp, a more moderate stance develops. Despite this, I'd like to think that the opposite actually happens. When reporters are spending every day and every month with politicians, it is undoubtable that relationships and sympathies develop. Below, we can see a clip of President Obama present the aforementioned "neutral" Sunlen Miller with a 30th birthday cake aboard Air Force One:

Likewise, during his 2000 campaign for President, Texas Governor George Bush did something similar for NBC journalist Alex Pelosi. Whilst I do not wish to jump to conclusions, it would perhaps be foolish to assume that these kind of interactions and gestures have absolutely no bearing on journalists; they are, after all, people too.

Let's not also forget that every story cannot be entirely objective. Choices must be made in regards to word order, omission and inclusion of certain details, adjectives used and the narrative adopted. With this in mind, it's probably not suitable to talk about objectivity anymore.

Ann Romney, wife of then-Republican Presidential
candidate Mitt Romney, hands out cookies to the press
on a flight to Tampa, August 2012 (Washington Post)
Part of the definition of 'objectivity' states "not influenced by personal feelings or opinions." Quite simply, there is not a person on this planet, journalist or not, who can 100% of the time be uninfluenced by their own considerations. Bush, Obama, and every other politician to ever walk the earth know this, and it's clear that in many instances they use it to their advantage with compliments and first scoops often exchanged with journalistic loyalty. If a politician knows they can rely on a reporter to convey the right message, it can become an incredibly powerful tool, particularly if that journalist is affiliated with an established and influential media outlet.

The cynic in us may well argue that the politician-to-reporter birthday cake practice represents nothing more a sugar-coated swipe at the reporters' shield of objectivity, a chocolate-filled attempt to secure the loyalty of a certain journalist.  Then again, like journalists, politicians are people too; perhaps they just want to wish someone a Happy Birthday or share their homemade recipe. I'll let you decide.

Friday, 15 March 2013

The rising impact of citizen journalism; why at least 47% of the population should be like Scott Prouty

Scott Prouty, the man behind Mitt Romney's 47% video,
 on MSNBC's The Ed Show, March 14th 2013
If pressed to identify just one of what proved to be an array of pivotal moments during the 2012 Presidential Election season, many would find it difficult to overlook Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s now-infamous remarks at a May 2012 private fundraiser. Speaking at a $50,000-per-plate dinner event in Boca Raton, FL, Romney was secretly videotaped claiming “it was not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and believe that they are victims.” You can see the quote below, or watch the full video on YouTube.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. These are people who pay no income tax.... My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. - Mitt Romney at the Florida fundraiser, May 2012. Source: New York Times

That Mr Romney was speaking off-the-record at a private event did not stop his comments from being recorded by an unidentified onlooker, and when the footage was published online by magazine Mother Jones on September 17th it spread like wildfire around the internet and the nation’s major media outlets. This week, the previously unknown identity of the individual responsible for the “47 percent” video was revealed as Scott Prouty, a Boston-born registered Independent voter who was working behind the bar at Romney’s Florida fundraiser.

Speaking exclusively to MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, Prouty described himself as a “blue-collar, regular, middle class, hard-working guy, with a good moral compass and a core."

“I felt an obligation, for all the people who couldn’t afford to be there”, he told Schultz. Stating that the American voter “shouldn’t have to pay $50,000 to hear what a candidate really thinks”, Prouty made it clear that he feels there is a lack of transparency surrounding modern politics. 

Romney would later go on to brand his "47%" comments
"just completely wrong"
It’s not the first time that a politician has come unstuck by knowingly or unknowingly confusing on-the-record and off-the-record. In 2008, whilst still at this point a Presidential candidate, Barack Obama at his own San Francisco private fundraiser accused small-town voters of “clinging to guns and religion.” In the same year, former President Bill Clinton mistook Huffington Post blogger Mayhill Fowler for an unassuming bystander before launching into a profanity-ridden tirade in opposition to a Vanity Fair article written about his family. Yet, what we can learn from Prouty’s decision to involve himself in ‘citizen journalism’, is that the process is continuing to have a growing effect on the bigger picture.

Whilst there is an argument to be made that Romney's comments were blown out of proportion (or reported only partially), and not ignoring that most Presidential candidates do receive between 47 and 53 percent of the popular vote, Prouty's observation that Romney's closest thoughts were only shared with those wealthy enough to be in his presence that evening, spoke volumes to voters about the circles in which Romney seemed most comfortable.

In an election cycle where he was constantly criticised for being out-of-touch, the gaffe was a damning blow for the Romney campaign in the area where they already faced the largest amount of scrutiny,  and it was this that stuck most strongly with the voters.

The ever-reliable Nate Silver noted how in the week following the video’s surfacing, Obama was able to increase his advantage over Romney in the polls from 4.1% to 5.7%, and amongst the various peaks and troughs for both men last year, it is fair to say that Mr Romney’s comments strongly resonated with both Democrats and Republicans alike; he was branded “arrogant and stupid” and as “an incompetent, rolling calamity” by individuals sharing his own political alignment. 

Today, we find ourselves in an age of sleepless media consumption and production, with its boundaries always expanding. Our culture seems to absorb its news through YouTube clips, 140-character tweets, short blog posts and user-based websites. Add this to fact that it’s never been easier for anyone to create, report, comment on, or even in cases like Prouty’s, break news, the power of the citizen has never been stronger. 

Besides the covert nature of Prouty's behaviour, we can also look back to May 2011, when Sohaib Athair (@ReallyVirtual on Twitter) unknowingly gave live updates of the U.S. operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. A normal, everyday citizen of Abbottobad, Pakistan, Athair was informing the entire world of what was happening, before major outlet reporters and conventional journalists were even aware of a story. In this respect, citizen journalism as well as uncovering hidden truths, can also allow the news to reach the world quickly, more effectively, and in the Bin Laden case, without hyperbole or framing. 

Citizen journalism is not without its critics, and many have contended that ‘@YourAverageJoe’ is not professionally qualified to report on news, nor is he necessarily objective or accurate. There is also the threat of the spread of misinformation, an issue which manifests itself in every modern crisis. We only have to look back as recently as the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings to see the droves of ill-informed 140-character outbursts, retweeted around the world without second thought because of the immediate fear and panic. When this happens, it only takes one reporter or news account to retweet or even acknowledge those tweets for them to go viral and spread like wildfire.

Yet despite this, is Prouty not right when he suggests that the everyday American should know how a Presidential candidate truly thinks about the everyday American? Anyone investing one of their most-heralded constitutional rights in a candidate probably deserves to know exactly who they’re voting for, and it should matter not who is responsible for conveying this, be it Scott Prouty, Anderson Cooper, or the 18-year-old freshman who overhead something they shouldn’t have done. As the Washington Post notes, the ever-widening possibilities of modern media and the ever-decreasing gap between the public and the politicians, means that the cloak of privacy doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as it once did. There is a true onus on the public to share what they see, and whilst it may make those in Washington squirm, it’s ultimately more beneficial to the people who really matter; the voting public. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Why We’re Not All Like Piers Morgan: An outside offering on America’s Gun Control Debate

Residents of Newtown, CT, march on Washington DC in
favour of gun control. Credit: Elvert Barnes
If there’s one thing I’ve learned regarding the issue of American gun control, it’s that speaking out as a British person I expect to face some backlash. One only has to look at the fierce and scathing reaction to Piers Morgan’s decision on numerous occasions to open his mouth surrounding gun control, most evidently seen in the 100,000-strong petition to the White House calling for his deportation and accusing him of treason (it is worth noting that Morgan could not be guilty of treason for he is not a U.S. citizen).

The problem, however, is that on his nightly-airing show Piers Morgan Tonight, he has taken an incredibly firm and often bigoted stance on the issue, unsurprisingly causing quite a stir. There is no doubt that Morgan is an obnoxious bully, rarely giving guests of his show a chance to even respond if they disagree with him (see him call Larry Pratt, Executive Director for Gun Owners of America, an “unbelievably stupid man” below).

In reality, Morgan’s stance is not really any different to that of President Obama; ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, close loopholes surrounding background checks, make schools safer and improve the accessibility of mental health services. Yet, I think the point of contention for Morgan, is the intrusive and intolerant delivery of his opinion and a complete disregard for alternative viewpoints. 

Perhaps that's why he has a job though. After all, Morgan is CNN's 'resident Brit', the outsider from across the Atlantic who is employed to be argumentative and narrow-minded, like we all are. His investigative days as Editor-in-Chief of the Mirror are long gone, and having since made appearances as a judge on Britain's Got Talent, Morgan has become more of a celebrity journalist than anything else. Usually reporting on soft news and emotional stories, it's possible to say that the tragedies of Newtown represented a departure from the news that he is more accustomed to reporting, and as a result his professionalism went out of the window. He is personally outraged by the shootings and we can't really blame him for that, as most of us are too.

Yet because with CNN he has a primetime slot on a major news network, Morgan’s “la-la-la-la I’m not listening to anyone else” persona is unfortunately leading to the perception that he speaks for more than just himself on the issue. You only have to head to the comments section on some of the countless YouTube clips from Morgan’s show to see that although only a few extreme comments, there's a danger that Morgan is allowing all Britons to be painted with the same brush (warning: explicit content):

“Piers Morgan is a ****** ***** and needs to go back home!!!” - Source: YouTube  
“**** off Piers you British *******! Go back to England!” - Source: YouTube 
“why do people in the UK even care??? This is not your land anymore, this is AMERICA!!! **** off.” -  Source: YouTube
What I want to make clear, is that many other “foreign onlookers” living in the United States, like myself, see the situation differently. We understand that guns aren’t our ‘thing’, and more importantly we know that it’s not an issue with our country. I would never wish to entirely concern myself with the technicalities of weaponry and firearms, nor do I try to sound like an expert on the topic; as Mr Morgan frequently does. We do not suggest America has no need for guns - fully aware of the United States’ fine shooting traditions, and often a need for self-defence, it is not within our purview.

Firearms and shootings aren’t really a problem we have to face that often in England, and we're not going to tell Americans they shouldn't use them. But that is perhaps why when these tragic American incidents make the news across the Atlantic in the UK, they shock us beyond belief and compel us to speak out. It may not happen on our shores, but that doesn’t mean we’re not affected by it. The problem with Morgan is that he is forgoing his position as an American based journalist, to voice his British opinion, something which comes across as incredibly unprofessional. With an evening slot on America's go-to network when big news breaks, this is a real problem.

From my perspective, the real injustice here isn’t the uncertainty over rights of responsible gun-owners or the effect that changes would have on the NRA. Nor is it about the inability for advocates of gun control to easily pass legislation. It is bigger than that. During Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama let Americans know that the victims of gun violence “deserved a vote”:
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote.” - Source: NBC News
A vote. A vote. Here is the President of the United States, one of the world’s most powerful and influential individuals, pleading with Congress to even consider the possibility of just a vote on gun control. Even in the two months since the tragic deaths of 20 elementary school children and 7 members of staff in Newtown, CT, over 1000 more Americans have died from the bullet of a gun. Yet, whilst Congress stumbles over partisan roadblocks and Americans continue to express their right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment, there seems to be a saddening indifference and lack of priority to the fact that hundreds and thousands of innocent Americans, young and old, are being shot and killed every day. What will it take for American government to put aside partisan beliefs in the name of national safety? That for me, is the major concern.

Monday, 11 February 2013

A Thought-provoking WSJ opinion piece on Gun Control

I read this interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning. David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman discuss Obama's skeet-shooting photo and the constiutional debate surrounding gun control.
President Barack Obama shoots clay targets at Camp David, MD, August 4th 2012
Image Credit: Pete Souza, via White House Flickr stream 
Could there be a better illustration of the cultural divide over firearms than the White House photograph of our skeet-shooting president? Clay pigeons are launched into the air, but the president's smoking shotgun is level with the ground. This is not a man who is comfortable around guns. And that goes a long way toward explaining his gun-control agenda.
Follow the link for the full article.

Source: The Wall Street Journal