News Boos

News organizations are driving away the next generation.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech was only a few hours old – there was pandemonium, the bodies had not even been identified and what did our overly opportunistic news media give us?

A story of their own making – could the deaths have been prevented by Virginia Tech.

A casual viewer or listener might think that their favorite cable station or radio outlet was only trying to add perspective to the story.

But to me, they were actually following their instincts – to give the story legs.

Talk to young people about the coverage and they hold their noses when they respond.

Virginia Tech students interviewed on TV immediately after the incident were pushed with aggressive reporting on more than one outlet about whether their school could have done more to protect them given the time delay between the first shooting and the second. Most resisted going there.

A legitimate question, not a holy jihad, however.

And while some families of the victims were immediately calling for the ouster of the school president (another legitimate news angle), the audience saw that mass of humanity give him a standing ovation at the memorial ceremony.

I was on campus that day with my friend, the consultant Bill Tanner who was nice enough to work with a couple of my classes.

We followed the death toll and gory details with Bill’s Blackberry. When we walked into the first class the students already knew what happened even though events were just unfolding. They didn’t get their news from CNN or radio.

They have mobile devices, too.

Bill and I stayed updated along with the students through this class and another. Obviously, it was a story they had great interest in.

On the way from one class to another, we paused for a moment in front of a TV screen airing CNN. I said paused by the screen because we commented on the look of news instead of the substance.

Fox has blondes. CNN brunettes.

We moved along and stayed informed without traditional media.

Later the next day Bill sent me this audio – the intro to the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

No lasers, no catchy phrases, no hype – the news.

Now castigate us if you want about returning to the 60’s. We’re not saying that.

When all-news stations are cluttered with garden reports instead of news (because garden reports can find sponsors) you’ve given the Internet another reason to exist.

To report the news for people who actually want the news.

And, when NBC had its 15 minutes of fame on this story as the murderer sent video in a package to them exclusively, NBC went right ahead and played the video over and over on the network and MSNBC.

Newspapers printed pictures of the gunman with pistols pointed at the camera on their front pages.

Few, if any, news outfits showed restraint.

True, this video is also legitimate news, but replaying it endlessly is not necessary. In fact, it gives the murderer his final goodbye wish but obviously doesn't allow the 32 victims their chance to say goodbye.

Which brings me back to the next generation.

My students revere NPR. The other day when I asked if they listened to radio, only three out of 52 students said yes. When I asked, “what about NPR or KCRW?” almost all hands went up. One student clarifying things by adding, “I didn’t know NPR was radio”.

In the world of the next generation, they can go to YouTube and see the killer (if they want to) and hear his rant. They also don’t have to. And they have the option of watching just once and not seeing it over and over again as TV likes to do. You could argue that they can turn off their TV's. Do you really want to argue that point with this generation?

In the world of the next generation, they seek the news and get several versions of stories they are interested in before most TV news junkies can get one or two looks at the story.

In the world of the next generation, they can exercise the responsibility that traditional news organizations are not exercising. They have control. They are defacto editors.

The next generation doesn’t have “Uncle Walter” but it also doesn’t have to put up with news from the left or news from the right. Seek and they shall find NPR, news online, blogs and mobile updates.

The next generation can teach traditional media a thing or two.

First, the facts – just the facts.

Second, the conspiracy theories and pseudo-investigative reporting can be accessed in the blogisphere not on almost everyone's hard news coverage.

Ironically, news shops are caught in the same bind as the employers of talkers like Don Imus – they need edgy, racy material to get ratings. If they go too far, they can always apologize and/or fire people.

But this time they’ve gone too far.

They’ve alienated the good sense of the viewing public not to mention the families of the Virginia Tech victims.

They’ve even become the story. CNN by mid-morning Thursday rolled out Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz to address the topic (The WaPost also had the gunman, weapons drawn, on its front page).

I get the sense that these are the last years of an indispensable traditional media – and with it, news coverage we have come to know as "breaking news". The only thing they are breaking is the standards and practices that served the TV news business so well during Edward R. Murrow's day and many decades after that.

But not now.

They’re lost. They’re injured and desperate for ratings and revenue.

But in the end, we can see a glimpse of the future where a new generation literally has access to everything in the world on the Internet and their mobile devices and they become the filters.

They can decide which trusted sources to find and blend the news for them. Drudge, MSNBC or Huffington Post, for example.

They can see it video graphically or skip it. They can hear it when they want to hear it. Read it when they want to read it. See it in action when they want video – all on one device. After all, the next generation wants what it wants when it wants it.

New technology enabled this brash new generation, but the mistakes of the establishment are what fuels the growth of the new news industry where everyone is the ultimate editor and no one has to put up with shoddy reporting without their permission.

Traditional news media is acting irresponsibly – as CBS and MSNBC were in employing and rewarding Don Imus. As those who would curtail freedom of speech are doing almost every chance they get.

Censorship is not necessary.

Freedom of expression should be valued.

It’s broadcasting in the public interest that this is all about or to put it into one word – responsibility.

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