Behind the Scene During Breaking News

Current Events

Breaking NewsAs the situation on the ground continues to unfold in Boston, the phrase the “lamestream” media has popped up more than once on my Twitter feed in regards to the ongoing coverage by the networks and cable news channels. I actually made the decision to unfollow an actor that I like and have respected in the past because of his criticism of the media coverage. I think criticizing the way the media, especially the broadcast media, has handled this event since the bombing on Monday is completely valid. But then, said actor pointed his followers towards Alex Jones’ site. Yes, the Alex Jones site whose reporter started off the press conference about the Boston Marathon bombing by asking if this was a “false flag.” Again, criticizing the quality of the coverage is perfectly legitimate, but directing your nearly 175,000 followers to a conspiracy theorist’s website is irresponsible and, frankly, stupid.

Besides my friends and family, most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are journalists and bloggers. I’ve always seen and used Twitter as a micro news aggregator. During breaking news events, I’ve found Twitter to be a much better resource than cable news. The reporters on the ground are able to tweet bits of information as they receive it from officials. Twitter is also excellent during local news events, as local reporters have more knowledge of the area and more sources in the departments that matter. During the crisis in Boston, the Boston Globe‘s reporters have stepped up in a big way.

But the vast majority of Americans are still turning to broadcast media for their news and while there has been valid criticism of some of the coverage, I feel the need to explain what’s probably going on behind the scenes and commend the many producers, bookers, writers, researchers, directors, tape deck operators, etc. who are working incredibly hard to  get the right information out as quickly as possible.

I’ve worked on a lot of breaking news events and honestly, I don’t love it. Give me a special event, the State of the Union, election day, and I’m all over it, but breaking news is hard and I don’t envy my friends and former colleagues right now. One of the most challenging breaking news events I worked on was the Japan earthquake in 2011. On the second day of coverage, we first learned about the dangerous situation at the Fukushima power plant and when I walked into MSNBC  on Saturday morning, I was immediately tasked with finding nuclear experts to weigh in. No small feat on a Saturday morning. Especially when the other cable news networks are trying to book the exact same guests. At that point, my goal was to find someone, anyone, who could get to a camera and join us on air. Ultimately, the guests I ended up with were biased (for and against nuclear power) and, in an effort to finally book an expert from a non-partisan source, I was scolded for putting those guests on air, despite the fact that the organization I was trying to book was unresponsive to my requests.

Watching the coverage of Boston, I knew my former colleagues were dealing with that exact issue. You want the police chief on the scene to tell you exclusively what’s going on, but the police chief on the scene is too busy doing his job to take the time to join you on air, so you end up with a former police chief speculating on what might be happening. Is it the best coverage? No, but it’s coverage. You want to speak with victims and eye witnesses, but while the victims and eye witnesses are heading to the hospital and talking to police, you end up speaking with someone who was three blocks away and felt the explosion, but did not see the explosion. And you want to talk to reporters on the scene, but every minute they’re talking to you, they’re not talking to sources and every minute they speak to you means their information is a minute more outdated.

That said, there have been mistakes made during the coverage that are very simple cases of “you should know better.” We do live in a media climate where the goal is frequently to get it first, rather than get it right. The New York Post did a glorious job of wrongly reporting that an arrest had been made and falsely accusing a man who ended up being a witness, not a suspect. CNN jumped the gun, saying a suspect was in custody, only to backtrack within 20 minutes. We’ve come a long way from Walter Cronkite on the phone on air to verify information before reporting it to the public. And, not to pile it on, but CNN made a mistake commenting on the possible skin color of the perpetrators, implying that the bombings were undertaken by Muslim extremists when, at that point, no information had been released in that regard either way. And like I said, they should really know better.

But on the flip side, other media outlets and reporters are to be commended for their handling of the coverage. On NBC and MSNBC, justice correspondent Pete Williams has been exercising extreme caution during his reporting and hasn’t been afraid to say, on-air, “I don’t have an answer to that right now.” We should see more of that, but when you don’t have the answer, viewers may turn to someone who does, even if the wind up being wrong.

Breaking news means very long hours with very few breaks. We expect a lot from the news media and the news media should do better. But it’s important to remember that covering breaking news is a hard job and, try as they might, mistakes will be made. And as I watch this story unfold, all I can say to my former colleagues is hang in there.

And if you really can’t take it anymore, check out The Onion. They’re nailing it today.

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The Legal Ramifications Catch Up to James O’Keefe III

Current Events, School

ACORNIn graduate school, I wrote a comprehensive analysis of the legal ramifications facing James O’Keefe III for his undercover “stings” against ACORN and National Public Radio. In both scenarios, O’Keefe’s actions and the heavily edited videos that followed resulted in the firing or resignation of employees at both organizations, and, in the case of ACORN, the dissolution of the organization itself.

My conclusion based on privacy laws was that the individuals that appeared in the ACORN videos certainly had a case against O’Keefe and his partner, Hannah Giles, but only as a violation of their state’s two-party restrictions on recording. Due to the fact that none of the individuals featured were being targeted directly by the videos, it was ACORN itself that was the intended victim, the likelihood of proving “actual malice” in a defamation or false light case was slim.

Today, nearly three years after ACORN employee Juan Carlos Vera lost his job due to the misleading video released by O’Keefe, a settlement has been reached. Originally reported by Wonkette, O’Keefe will pay $100,000 in damages as part of the settlement, which was decided solely on the grounds that the surreptitious recording violated California law. It’s important to remember that O’Keefe and Giles were both immune from prosecution, because they handed over their unedited recordings to then-Attorney General Jerry Brown as part of his investigation of ACORN. Had they not received that immunity, both could have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor.

And the Vera part of the story is particularly frustrating. O’Keefe and Giles went into Vera’s office with a sordid tale of trying to bring underage girls across the Mexican border. Vera kept the conversation going in order to obtain as much information as possible before calling the police. The edited version of the  video seemed to imply that Vera, and as a result ACORN, was offering sex trafficking advice.

Frankly, I don’t think $100,000 is much in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account the fact that O’Keefe made $65,000 on the ACORN videos.. Vera lost his job and his reputation certainly took a hit. But if I’m reading anything into the settlement it’s that Vera probably couldn’t afford to keep fighting the battle. It’s the primary reason the case was only brought on the specific charge of invasion of privacy based on the California law on recording. Had Vera had the time and resources, he could have gone after O’Keefe for defamation and/or false light. However, going up against someone with significant backing in Conservative circles would have been a costly affair.

I think there is a time and place for undercover reporting, but O’Keefe’s stings are rarely the appropriate time, place or subject matter. His methods are dishonest and his final products rarely tell the full story. Ultimately, though, it’s the media that is more to blame than anyone else. After learning more about the truth behind the ACORN and NPR stings, the media really should know better than to trust anything produced by O’Keefe or his organization, Project Veritas. Thankfully, while O’Keefe has continued to work, none of his operations have popped in the same way that the ACORN or NPR “investigations” did. Has the media learned its lesson? Let’s hope so.

Will a Record Number of Women in Congress Make a Difference?

Work

Check out my latest post for InPower Women!

With the Inauguration in the rear view mirror, it’s officially time for the 113th Congress and President Obama to get back to work. Women were big winners in the November elections and the current Congress set a new record for female members when officially sworn in earlier this month. That’s the good news. The bad news is that new records means that female representation in Congress jumped from a high of 17% to a new high of 18%.

But it sounds more depressing than it really is, as these infographics from Mother Jones indicate. Some fast facts:

  • 1 in 3 newly elected members is a woman
  • 184 women ran for Congress in 2012 and nearly half were elected
  • The state of New Hampshire will be sending an entirely female delegation to Washington with a female Governor at home
  • Four states are sending their first female Senators; Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin

And let’s not forget that there are now 20 women serving in the Senate, up from 17 in the 112th Congress.

Read the rest at InPowerWomen.com!

Women as Candidates, Women as Symbols

Extracurricular

I stole the title for this post from a recent event at the New America Foundation. If you haven’t been to their site or attended one of their event, I highly recommend. Not only are the topics incredibly thought-provoking (see: The Reoccurring Theme of Entitlement), but their panelists are terrific.

The most recent event I attended was their panel on Women as Candidates, Women as Symbols. The panel was moderated by Rebecca Traister, of Salon.com. While the event touched on a number of different issues about women in politics (and women as politics), the idea of women as candidates was an ongoing theme throughout the discussion. The panel was well-timed, too, happening shortly after the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic. The idea of women in high-powered positions was on everyone’s mind.

Again, the theme of entitlement came up as part of the conversation on why, when women represent 51% of the population in the U.S., the account for only 17% of Congress. GOOD put together the infographic to the right showing what Congress looks like now and what Congress would look like if it truly reflected the demographic breakdown. This is from 2011, so the numbers may not reflect the special election updates, but it’s a big majority of men. And a big majority of whites.

And a big part of that is not just that men feel more entitled to run for office, but that women feel under qualified and are under recruited. Michelle Goldberg, writer with Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and Jen Bluestein, from EMILY’s List, both mentioned the research of Jennifer Lawless during the panel. Studies have shown that when women run for office, they win at the same rate as men. One of the best known was conducted by the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1994 found that sex has less to do with the outcomes of an election than incumbency. And when women run for open seats, they are just as likely to win as a man. But they can’t win if they don’t run.

Lawless, along with her colleague Richard Fox, have researched why women don’t run for office. Their most recent paper, “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” highlights seven key factors in why women don’t run:

1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.

2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.

3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.

4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.

5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.

7. Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.

It’s a lot to tackle and Lawless and Fox do a great job of breaking their data. I highly recommend reading their analysis. There were so many great graphs to choose from, but the recruitment gap was particularly striking. Women are significantly less likely to be encouraged to run for office by political and non-political actors compared to men. Lawless and Fox surveyed men and women in positions that generally lead into political office; business leaders, lawyers, educators and political activists. Men were more likely to be recruited at all levels of government. 21% of men who responded said they’d been recruited for a local school board election, while only 18% of women had been recruited in similar ways. Get further up the government ladder, to statewide or federal offices, and the gap widens. Only 16% of the women surveyed had been recruited for state legislatures, while 24% of men had. And while 10% of men were recruited to serve in the House of Representatives, only 4% of the pool of highly qualified professional women were approached for the same job.

And recruitment is important, because even when specifically selected to participate in a survey because of their perceived qualification, women are statistically less likely to see themselves as qualified to run for office. One particularly amusing statistic from this study mentioned by Bluestein was that even among the men who did not think they were qualified to run for public office, “55% have given the notion of a candidacy some thought.” Again, that sense of entitlement.

While writing this, I mentioned the statistic above to my husband who suggested that perhaps it’s because young men grow up being told that they can be anything, even president. But while girls are told that they can have it all, family and a career, the reality doesn’t exactly measure up.

Closing the gender gap is about more than just increasing diversity in politics. It’s about issues that directly affect women being discussed and voted on by predominantly male politicians. Bluestein commented at the panel that “the safest time to be a women is when Congress is on recess.” She also mentioned that there has only been one day in this Congress where there have been no debates on “truly anti-women legislation.” I haven’t been able to find verification of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It seems nearly every bill up for debate has some sort of anti-abortion or anti-contraception amendment added. Recently, Senator Rand Paul stalled a vote on flood insurance — yes, flood insurance — in order to get his amendment on fetal personhood debated.

Sandra Fluke, who says she didn’t intend to become a combatant for women’s issues, made the point that the Republicans in Congress have managed to divorce many of these issues that directly affect women from women. Paycheck fairness becomes about tort reform. The Violence Against Women Act, which has been reauthorized and expanded twice since it was first enacted in 1994, has turned into a fight against gay people, even if the coverage is just as needed in the gay community as it is for straight women. And contraception and abortion are repeatedly turned into religious freedom arguments, despite the fact that different religions have different beliefs about abortion. (And, incidentally, the clip linked, of Michigan state Representative Lisa Brown, became a debate about the use of the word vagina, rather than abortion.)

But it’s also about more than just the issues that are being debated. It’s also about how things get done (or, in this Congress, don’t get done) and how successful the ultimate outcomes are. We can look at the business world for reference of how important it is to have women represented in positions of power. In 2012, only 18 companies in the Fortune 500 were led by women, the most ever. There has been a lot of discussion on why there aren’t more women leading companies or sitting on boards of directors, but there has been just as much research into how having women in leadership positions can affect a company. And the effect can be significant. InPower Women has put together an impressive collection of studies and research on women, leadership and business. For example, one study by Catalyst 2011 found:

Despite a rough economic period, Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in board positions created a competitive advantage over companies with no women on their boards in the following three areas:

  • Return on Sales: 84% advantage
  • Return on Invested Capital: 60% advantage
  • Return on Equity: 46% advantage

This study was conducted on financial results of 524 public companies, which demonstrated a sustained commitment to women in leadership, as measured by the presence of women on their boards for four of the five years analyzed. Previous studies in the series have also found a connection between gender diversity on corporate boards and financial performance.

Another really interesting study in the Harvard Business Review looked at collective intelligence and the number of women in groups. The graph below kind of speaks for itself.

Reading into the study a bit though, I found another key point from Anita Woolley, part of the team that conducted the research. She commented that social sensitivity is important in group performance and women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men. Having more women in groups leads to more listening, more constructive criticism and more open minds. Having more women in the political arena could lead to the same results, but rather than affecting a group or a business, women could affect change in their communities and the nation.

Looking at countless studies about the benefits of diversity, both gender and cultural, it’s hard to believe that more women aren’t inclined to run and more women aren’t recruited to run. But perhaps looking back at the second key point from the Lawless/Fox study, that the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin “aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena,” can answer more questions about why women aren’t more inclined to run for office. So much of the coverage focused on the fact that they were both women, rather than their qualifications (or lack thereof). Consider how frequently the press on Clinton mentioned her pantsuits or her laugh. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin’s legs were a constant topic of conversation.

In an article late last year, Christina Bellantoni wrote about Michele Bachmann’s primary run. Bellantoni highlighted the ways in which Bachmann’s campaign differed from Clinton’s or Palin’s. While Clinton downplayed her role as a mother, keeping Chelsea largely out of sight except for a limited number of tightly controlled events, Palin paraded her children out on the campaign trail. Bachmann spoke about her role as a mother to emphasize her strengths as a woman and as a candidate. In some ways, Bachmann’s campaign was particularly unique because a significant proportion of her press coverage focused on her extreme views and the crazy statements she’s made during her time in office and on the campaign trail, rather than the fact that she was a woman. Not to say there wasn’t sexist coverage, though perhaps it was a bit more subtle. For example, a great deal of attention was paid to her severe migraines. Replace migraines with PMS and we’ve heard this story before. Also, as Michelle Goldberg pointed out on the panel, Bachmann’s views weren’t that much more preposterous than Rick Santorum’s and he came close to nabbing the nomination.

In November, women will not be sitting this election out. More than 223 women are still in the running for Congress. If half of those women win, Congress will be nearly 21% women, a four-point gain. There are still a number of primaries to come, so the number of women on the ballot in November is certain to shrink, but we could see an unprecedented number of women running. Will we start seeing headlines about 2012 being “The Year of the Woman” like we did in 1992 or 2008? Unfortunately, it’s already underway here (and here and here).

While it’s encouraging to see coverage of the important issue of gender disparity in politics, most of the coverage sets an impossibly high standard for women. Not all the women running for office will win (especially since women are running against women in some races) and if women are just as likely as men to win elections, they’re also just as likely to lose. While we’re almost certain (I hope!) to see an uptick in the number of women serving in Congress, we’re still not getting anywhere close to equal representation. When that happens, write all the “Year of the Women” headlines you want. I’ll just be happy to see it happen.