Network Blues

––– OPINION/EDITORIAL –––

By Cary L. Tyler

It was not a good week for the networks, especially CNN and Fox.

The first, of course, is the colossal mistake by the two networks in regard to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), when both jumped the gun and stated the act had been struck down by the Supreme Court.

The Poynter Institute (a non-profit school/community covering journalism) breaks down this mistake in detail (http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/179144/how-journalists-are-covering-todays-scotus-health-care-ruling/), as well as the follow up egg on the face by CNN and pile on Associated Press reporters.

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CNN later responded by saying their interpretations of the initial information led to this error, though ABC’s news analyst Dan Abrams tweeted a few hours earlier that this very thing might happen:  “Beware of #media mistakes on #ACA ruling,” Abrams tweeted. “I remember how many got it wrong on Bush v. Gore.”

Abrams could not have foreshadowed this any better:  Any matter that goes to the Supreme Court most likely got there because of the various technical and legal problems that got them before the High Court anyway.  Yet, in the zeal to be first, CNN (which has been struggling in the ratings) and Fox (whose viewership is regarded as conservative) threw out a major error.

In the process, both became social media and talk show fodder for the masses, even for some of those who desired the ACA to go down in flames.

But it did not end there.

Just a couple days earlier, the Waldo Canyon Fire exploded out of control and rushed into Colorado Springs, forcing 32,000 people out of their homes in a frantic evacuation and would end up destroying some 346 homes.

As this drama unfolded, with homes burning live on local television, both CNN and Fox were silent. CNN would have something around 8 p.m. Pacific Time. The ‘story’ was simply a clickable hyperlink on the CNN website, containing little information.  There was no clear link on the Fox webpage for a little while longer. MSNBC, however, already devoted a dominate photograph and additional information.

People went out of their way (including myself) to click on the CNN link and berate the news agency for failing to address what was clearly the biggest news story of the day.

The public, displeased with two of the major networks, turned to Facebook and Twitter for information about the drama. Former journalists such as myself found links and placed them on our social media pages, including any live videos, out of concern for those who had friends and/or family in the Colorado Springs area (again including myself).

CNN released a statement on Google News (a news aggregation website):  “CNN.com delivers the latest breaking news and information on the latest top stories, weather, business, entertainment, politics and more.”  Their money was not where their mouth was.

I did not recheck Fox after 8:30 p.m. Pacific Time, but, thanks to social media I found what I needed.

Ignoring the magnitude of this fire is equivalent, if not worse than the ACA mistake. Lives were immediately at risk, as well as a major city that would face significant destruction. If one watched the live coverage closely, firefighters were actively engaging as many homes as they could despite the heat and very present danger. As one firefighter mentioned to the Denver Post, it was as ‘under-fire’ as one could get without actually bullets whizzing by the men and women.

Americans, who were not connected to social media, did not share in the in-depth perspectives being provided on sites like Facebook. To quote the vernacular: “epic fail.”

What is becoming clearer is that the networks are losing touch with what is important about journalism, as well as about what’s important to viewers.  They would rather work on “process journalism,” or publish what one has and then correct the mistakes later.

The problem is social media is unforgiving with errors of this magnitude. Once it is out there, it’s out there. One sees the mistake first. In fact, I saw posts on the Supreme Court mistake before I actually saw posts on the actual decision. Before CNN and Fox could take a breath, someone had already put Adobe Photoshop to work to create a modern version of the “Dewey Defeats Truman” with a photo artist rendering of Obama holding an iPad displaying CNN’s mistake.

To the average American, I think an extra few minutes to get it right would have significantly been more important than throwing the first thought onto a digital publication. There might have been a few rumblings, but none to the extent of this error.

Thanks to social media and the Internet, I was able to watch the drama unfolding in Colorado Springs.  I watched KRDO Channel 13 in Colorado Springs (discovered via a Twitter post), and in turn posted the link on Facebook. I actually took the post off for a half hour out of concern one might think I was morbid, but it became clear that people desperately wanted information out of concern for those they knew in Colorado, so I reposted the video link.

I realized that there was a need for information, a need not provided by stations that allege to provide breaking news.  Suddenly, social media, and a mistake, had opened up a major wound: a realization that, if handled well, people might not need the networks for important news; perhaps for the first time in broadcast history.

The public deserves well-placed, decently trained and objective people to help funnel important information. However, there is an inherent danger when anyone can post information, information can create panic, unnecessary discourse and uneducated speculation, and/or potential fallout.

We can and should expect more from these major news organizations. If they cannot or chose not to do it, then professional alternatives are needed. Educating the public on how to use these alternatives is the next challenge the industry faces.

Read more by Cary Tyler @ http://dothgrin.net/

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