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April 26, 2007

What's in a Headline?

Today's editions of the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press present an excellent oppourunity to understand the value of a good headline. I would argue that headlines are perhaps the most under-appreciated part of print journalism, but indeed are an immensely important compenent in creating an well-rounded product of high-quality journalism.
Of course, a good headline means very little without a quality story attached, but conversely, a good story can go overlooked when it lacks a headline that successfully engages the reader.
In today's editions, for example, both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press prominently featured the same Associated Press article on their front pages, but with significantly different headlines.
The Star Tribune headline read, "Ignoring veto threat, House passes bill to pull out troops." Compare that with the Pioneer Press' headline, "Withdraw deadline passes House."
The difference is clear. In this instance, the Star Tribune clearly succeeded in intruiging the reader with its headline by highlighting the conflict within the story. The Pioneer Press, on the other hand, failed to utilize its headline as a tool to clarify to the reader that this story is more just another boring piece of legislative journalism. I find it incredible that both papers share the same story, but that the Star Tribune headline manages to make the story seem so much more attractive.
The difficulty in creating an excellent headline is endless. Editors constantly have to toil with space limitations that prevent the use of certain words and syntax structures. Furthermore, the have to walk the fine line between catchy and corny, informative and wordy, and accurate and interesting. I would just about call it an artform.

It's About Time To Declare Imus Overkill

I can hardly bring myself to do this, but I have finally decided to touch on the Don Imus scandal. I thought I had successfully outlasted the "Imus Ordeal" takeover over of American media, but its seemingly inexpicable ability to remain "pertinent" news for two-plus weeks has proved too much for me.
On Wednesday I opened to the Arts section of the New York Times and found a frontpage feauture article discussing the Imus calamity and the changes it may/may not lead to in modern Hip-Hop. Apparently, among all the bonehead innapropriate things that public figures have said and continue to say, Imus' comments were the ones collectively decided upon to trigger a social discussion on indecency in public speech.
In truth, I am still conflicted about the ubiquity of the "Imus Ordeal" in the media, as well as how it has been augmented to encompass a deeper social concern.
One one hand, I am tempted to group the Imus story in the category of over-done sensational journalism — the Elian Gonzales saga, the Laci Peterson murder scandal, and Anna Nicole Smith's death immediately come to mind — however I do not discount that it does have some journalistic value. (My one gripe about this is that he was in fact a "shock jock," which pretty much means his job was to be controversial.) Nevertheless, he is a public figure and his blatantly sexist and racist comments in a public forum certainly should garner a certain level of media attention. I must point out, however, that former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway's recent anti-gay rant on a Miami radio station didn't make nearly as many headlines. Check out ESPN's coverage of that incident to compare its offensiveness.
Still, considering the interest the public has shown in the story, I must commend the New York Times and other high-quality news sources like Anderson Cooper's CNN program for resisting the temptation to beat the story into the ground, and instead opting to guide it into a more substantive arena for pubic discourse. The Times' piece on the double-standard in the use of language we offer to our rap stars is an excellent example of this.
Truthfully, though, I am ready for a new scandal to eat up the airwaves and columns so I don't have to see Imus' mug again for a long time. There is a reason, afterall, that he was in radio.

Toyota cruises to No. 1, Gives Motown a Hit to Ego

One story I found especially engaging Wednesday was the New York Time's coverage of Toyota's recent assension to No. 1 automaker worldwide, passing long-time leader G.M. The article was featured front and center of the Times' Business Day section, accompanied by a large photo and an emphatic headline, "Move Over G.M., Toyota is No. 1." Clearly, this was the biggest national business story of the day, and quite possibly internationally.
I found it interesting that at times the article read more like a euology than a hard news story, celebrating G.M.'s rise to the pinnacle of automaking and its 75-year reign as the world leader in this most American of industries, only to lament it's stumbles in recent year and resign G.M. as a fallen giant at the feet of a (Gasp!) foriegn automaker.
I really thought that this sentimental approach to covering the story was the appropriate choice. After reading about the real-life effects of the switch, which come later in the story, it becomes clear that this "passing of the torch" is really more of symbolic importance than anything else. Afterall, as I learned in the article, selling more cars doesn't necessarily translate to higher profit margins. The real story here is that G.M., and to a broader extent the United States, has to acknowledge that it finally has been out-performed at its own gig - carmaking - by a group of big thinkers from Tokyo, which also ties into the issue of a degrading Detroit.
My immediate reaction after reading the Times' article was to cross-examine it with coverage from a Tokyo-based source. Is the Japanese media hailing the news as a momentous occassion in automaking and a victory for Japan just as the Times has bemoaned it for the opposite reasons? Or is it just another meaningless milestone for the driven Tokyoites. Perhaps Toyota saw this day on the horizon for some time now, whereas G.M. failed to adequately use its rear-view mirrors. (*Note to the Reader: Please forgive me for all those puns, I couldn't resist.)
As a bit of a surprise, I failed to find much of any Japanese coverage on the story outside of the Associated Press version. (Of course, I was limited to exploring English-language sources, which could certainly account for the lack of findings.) Still, I have no choice but to assume that the news of the switch was a bigger deal in the States than in Japan. Perhaps it's because of America's long-standing cultural attachment to the auto industry that leads us to view this particular story through the scope of sadness rather than approach the story dispassionately like most business news. Regardless, it is interesting to observe in journalism how one story can be valued or ignored so unequally by the different parties involved.

April 5, 2007

Buzzbee Makes a Great Analysis Without Bias

By far the most interesting piece of journalism in today's Star Tribune was an analytical article on Iran's seizure of British sailors. The article, plucked from the Associated Press wire, finally provided some thoughtfull insight into the overall significance of the 13-day confrontation. Unbiased insight, that is.
For anyone who follows current events on a regular basis, this story has truly been inescapable over the past couple of weeks. It has filled America's front pages and dominated the news tickers. In true American media fashion, however, the on-going story has largely appeared to the public as a regurgitation of "official" statements. Yet in this instance, both London and Tehran were employing secret strategies and masking alterior motives, so it was understandably difficult to report anything other than the facts that were handed to the media. The point of this entry is not to berate American media for its quality of reporting, but to commend Sally Buzbee for offering a fresh and interesting angle to the story in the form of dispassionate analysis. She managed to perfectly tackle the question, "What does all this mean?" without inserting her own political leanings. Instead, she employed the thoughts of political and military theorists to gage how the conflict might affect future dealings in the Middle East and the foriegn relations among the involved countries. Like any good analysis, she also made room for various opposing possibilities.
She wisely steered clear of declaring Britain or Iran the outright "Winner." Not surprisingly, some of CNN's and Fox News' so-called pundits were not so reluctant to jump all over such a flashy word.
Buzzbee's reporting reminds me more of the way Edward R. Murrow and his foriegn corresponds (Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, etc...) reported during World War II. ***Note to the Reader: No, I'm not that old, I've just read a couple biographies.*** They always reported with one eye firmly fixating on where the story was going, keeping in mind the bigger picture. They remained unbiased, but weren't afraid to include commonsense observations. It is commendable that Buzzbee has followed in their noble vein of journalism.

April 4, 2007

A Balancing Act: Representing the Big Picture vs. Providing Details

Perhaps the biggest local story this week is the ongoing saga of 3M chemicals being found in area landfills and in some metro communities' tap water. In reading/viewing/listening to the various reports and articles on the issue, it is clear a lot of grey area remains. There still is a lot of information to be found and questions to be answered; most notably, how dangerous the chemicals really are. All this grey area leaves the door open to a large variance in the way the story is reported, and this is evident when reviewing the coverage from different local news outlets.
The Star Tribune today printed a frontpage article highlighting three more tainted landfills. It differs slightly from MPR's Monday broadcast of the saga in that it containts slightly more up-to-date information, but largely focuses on the same back-facts and information. I found it interesting to note the differences in the ways the two outlets reported the story. Firstly, as a radio broadcast, MPR's coverage was expectedly more conversational. It had more quotes and comments from officials and researchers, and also included the perspective of a mother of young children living in an affected part of the Metro area. This personal angle is definitly more indicative of broadcast journalism. The Star Tribune article, on the other hand, featured more scientific jargon and dampening facts. Yet, on the whole, I found MPR's broadcast to be equally informational and far more accessible. MPR did an excellent job with the difficult balancing act between sufficiently representing the big picure with facts and information, and clouding the situation with intricate details and scientific specifics.