An open letter to the “media expert” online

Whenever something major happens, all the experts come out of the woodwork.

When a child falls into a gorilla exhibit at a zoo, it’s the parenting experts. When a gorilla is killed in that exhibit, it’s the animal experts. Today, it’s the political/foreign policy/religion/immigration experts.

The Media Expert

But there is one expert who is always out and about. It’s the media expert… and nine times out of 10, that person has never worked a day in the media industry. (That’s the funny thing about these self-proclaimed experts online. They don’t have any experience in their expertise.)

[Tweet theme=”tweet-box-shadow”]The funny thing about self-proclaimed “experts” online? They don’t have any experience in their expertise.[/Tweet]

Before I disappoint everyone with the lack of agenda setting and scheming that really happens in newsrooms, let me address the term “the media” because, well, I don’t really know who that is.

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Blaming “the media” confuses me.

  • Is that your local meteorologist?
  • The person who covers lifestyle news in the city newspaper?
  • The video editor at CNN?
  • The host of an opinion show?
  • Me writing this article?
  • You on social media?
  • Your neighbor who just started a blog?

See? I’m not quite sure who “the media” is (or are).

When people say news and media coverage is slanted and there’s an agenda, I really don’t see it. This is my experience as a TV reporter.

The Morning Meeting

In local TV news, the day starts with a morning meeting.

This is when potential stories are discussed between producers, reporters, editors, and others. Then, assignments are made.

I’ve never been in a meeting where phrases like, “Let’s spin this more liberally,” or “Make sure it has a conservative feel” or “Show this group of people in a certain way” are uttered. Instead, I’ve always heard, “Make sure you get both sides.”

Telling the Story

Sometimes, one side doesn’t want to talk… no matter how hard you try to convince them it’s vital to tell both sides of the story.

Sometimes the person who is talking to the media isn’t as well spoken as the person telling the other side of the story. Sometimes, the person isn’t available to go on camera, so instead, they send in quotes that will be used in a full-screen graphic or they assign a public information officer to speak to the media instead. And sometimes, people are just bad at giving soundbites.

Then, there are time constraints in TV news. Rarely does a news package last longer than one minute and 30 seconds – no matter what the topic is.

So, when I hear people say stories are one-sided or cater to one political belief system, I never noticed. I’ve come to realize that people think their opinions are facts. To take it further, people will describe a news story and read so far into it that they create the bias on their own. If you look hard enough for something, you’ll find it – regardless if it’s really there or not.

[Tweet theme=”tweet-box-shadow”]If you look hard enough for something, you’ll find it – regardless if it’s really there or not.[/Tweet]

When you see a story about Christmas shopping at the mall and the coverage is all about how busy the mall is with shoppers, some people could see that as a positive story because they love going out and being around lots of people in a busy mall around the holidays, while other people can think it’s terrible because they hate crowds and shopping.

So maybe the bias isn’t with “the media,” but with you and how you digest information? How else can you explain two people seeing the same thing and having a different reaction?

Photo Credit: Felix Castro

Here’s another example of what happens in the field that many self-proclaimed media experts don’t understand.

Once I was covering people signing up their families to receive Christmas presents from the Salvation Army. We were talking to people in line, getting video of the process, and calling the assignment desk to share what we had.

There was a problem.

Everyone I was talking to and getting video of was Hispanic. My managers told me, “You can’t show just Hispanics. You need white people. You need black people.” But there were no white or black people to talk to or show.

When the story aired, guess what happened?

The calls and Facebook posts were all about how we were so biased and obviously racist for only choosing to show Hispanics. Surely there were other people there too, but we wanted the coverage to look a certain way, so we only used certain sound bites and video. (Side note: I’m Hispanic.)

I’ve had many of my live shots drop while I’m speaking. That’s not because someone in the control booth didn’t like what I was saying and cut me off. That is technology. Sometimes live shots drop. Again, if you’ve ever set one up, dialed it in, hooked up an IFB (if you’re a media expert, you know what that is), you’d understand.

Once, I forgot where I was. I was on my fourth story in a matter of six hours and couldn’t remember what city I was in. I’m not stupid or uneducated or “don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” I just forgot where I was for a second because TV news happens fast. Sometimes, faster than I can think.

Imagine that… for every story you do. That’s what happens when you work in TV news. If people don’t like what they see, for whatever reason, they will find a way to blame “the media” for using its agenda to make a point. Again, these people making these claims have never shot, written, or edited a VO/SOT (there’ another news term.)

And just so you know, a reporter doesn’t write something and go on-air with it because it sounds good. The photographer is involved. A producer goes through it. Then, a managing editor checks it. Sometimes, even more people will sign off on something before it makes air. Trust me, there is a lot of diversity in newsrooms and that’s what helps tell a balanced story, even if it’s not what you believe.

Breaking News

I can’t end this post without talking about breaking news because this is when all the media experts crawl out of the woodwork with their expertise on how to cover a mass shooting 15 minutes after it happens.

Miami, FL

When breaking news happens, we usually find out by someone sitting at the assignment desk who heard it on the scanner. Sometimes a viewer will call the station. When that happens, a crew is set out the door to the location.

While the crew is in route, the assignment desk is making phone calls. Nine times out of 10, they don’t get a whole lot of information. Why not?

Contrary to what many think, when breaking news happens, most details aren’t yet known and a person isn’t chomping at the bit to tell the local TV station everything they know.

[Tweet theme=”tweet-box-shadow”]Contrary to what many think, when #breakingnews happens, most details aren’t yet known…[/Tweet]

Instead, the police are doing their jobs trying to figure out what’s going on, if they are in a dangerous situation, if there are lives to save, etc. Spilling the beans isn’t at the top of their priority list.

When a reporter and photographer arrive on the scene, police tell us to wait for the Public Information Office to arrive. (The PIO is the person in charge of talking the media.) This also isn’t immediate.

We can’t remain silent for hours in a breaking news situation, so we talk to people nearby. Witnesses who may have heard something or seen something. Sometimes their information is right, sometimes it’s not. There is no way to know until an investigation is finished… and we can’t ignore a breaking news situation for that long.

So, we go on-air and say, “A neighbor says he saw…” and follow it up with “Police are here and haven’t confirmed this, but we see…”

In a perfect world, we would roll up and the PIO would be ready with every piece of correct information for us to tell the entire story right then and there. (It’s shocking to see how many people believe this is how things happen.)

So yes, there is a lot of misinformation in breaking news situations. It’s called “breaking” news for a reason. After “breaking” it’s “developing.”

Back to the Media Expert

I could go on, and on, and on… but we all know you can’t possibly know all about how the media industry works… if you’ve never worked in it. I can’t sum up a decade of experience in one measly blog post or a Facebook comment, so I’ll just leave it here and have a chuckle when someone who has never worked in the industry tells me what they know (because they saw it on TV or read it online.) If that were the case, every Grey’s Anatomy fan or Web MD user would be a medical expert. (Have you seen the vaccination debates with these people?!)

But if you do want to learn a little bit about your so-called expertise, you should get a job as a reporter or field producer – someone who is out and about gathering information to share with viewers.

I guarantee you’ll be disappointed, at not only the lack of glamor, but lack of agenda “the media” is trying to portray on-air. The truth is, we don’t even have time to create an agenda if we wanted to… and if we found extra time, we’d eat!

Another version of this blog post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.