Sweeps & MySpace, Olympics & Mardi Gras, The AP and President Bush & More This Week in Media

Every Thursday, we ask Poynter faculty, staff and online contributors for their impressions of the news of the week. What surprised them? What was overplayed? Underplayed? What does it mean for the media? What will they be watching for next week? You can find this week's answers below and answers from previous weeks here. To contribute your own thoughts on the week in review, click the "Add Your Comments" link at the bottom of a post. You can also subscribe to receive "This Week in Media" by e-mail: just click here.

For the week of Feb. 27 - March 3, 2006:

Sweeps, MySpace and How They Fit Together

Scott Libin
Leadership & Management faculty

Another television ratings period drew to a close this week. As Nielsen rolls out Local People Meters (LPMs) in more of the nation's largest markets, "the book" -- as TV types call sweeps weeks -- reportedly will mean less and less. Most people I know in television seem to think that's a good thing, potentially evening out some of the mood swings, staffing stress and on-air inconsistency attributable to old audience-measurement methodology. 

For now, however, Nielsen's LPMs are in only the largest markets. Most journalists and those they serve remain at the mercy of the mindset that produces both the best and worst of TV news during the key months of February, May, July and November. 

From my unscientific observation, the most popular "promotable" piece this time around was about MySpace.com. Poynter's Kelly McBride has a good look at the issue in her Everyday Ethics blog. In virtually every market, I think at least one station did a special report on the new online hangout for teens. The TV treatments I saw tended to focus on frightening elements of the issue, and there appears to be plenty to work with there, even for news organizations that try to take a measured, responsible approach. 

As a hot topic, MySpace.com beats by a mile some stunts of sweeps gone by: tainted tea, dirty hotel bedsheets, what your pets do when you're gone. Such ready-made ratings ploys of the past hardly appealed to the intellect or important concerns of most viewers. Understanding a legitimate phenomenon like MySpace.com has a whole lot more redeeming social value, in my view. But then, I have a 13-year-old daughter. 

The story also has almost perfect demographic balance, addressing the interests and habits of those elusive youthful consumers -- and the priorities of their parents, who actually watch television news  and sometimes even read the newspaper. It's hard to imagine an issue more timely, in terms of journalistic or commercial concerns.  

I think we'll be talking for quite a while to come about MySpace.com, similar sites and the social trends they reflect. The question is not whether journalists should be covering them, but how.

AP Makes Us Eyewitnesses

Jill Geisler
Leadership & Management group leader

The Associated Press demonstrated the power of broadcast journalism this week when it obtained and released a tape of a government videoconference about Hurricane Katrina planning. The tape makes us eyewitnesses to the story as it unfolded. It can be compared to the after-the-fact recollections of the participants, a rare opportunity and a genuine service.

The AP has not disclosed how it obtained the video, and that piques curiosity and raises questions. I imagine there is a great story there, one that includes not just who provided it, but why -- and with what, if any, assurances from The Associated Press. Other questions would include how AP verified that the tape was an accurate, un-tampered-with video and audio account of the gathering, and how they made certain that what they released was not only accurate, but contextually accurate with the entirety of the tape.

Will we see more? Will we hear from AP about the ethical questions and decisions involved in the acquisition and dissemination of the tape? I hope so. There are some great journalism lessons in this story.

Meanwhile, political bloggers are busy framing this tape as an exposé of an inept administration (Huffington Post: "AP Catches Bush in a Lie") or yet another example of the mainstream media debasing a fine administration (Rightwinged.com: "Media Goes Nuts with New 'Bush Knew About Katrina/Levees Video' -- Distorting All the Way").

Meanwhile, take a look at how CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post topped their stories, and you'll find they took thoughtful, even-handed approaches. The writing was expository rather than inflammatory -- more "what happened" than "gotcha."


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A newly released transcript from a video conference the day Hurricane Katrina struck seems to reinforce arguments that governments at all levels identified the potential dangers from the storm but were under-prepared for the devastation.

The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 1 -- A newly released transcript of a government videoconference shows that hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, federal and state officials did not know that the levees in New Orleans were failing and were cautiously congratulating one another on the government response.

The Washington Post:

A newly leaked video recording of high-level government deliberations the day before Hurricane Katrina hit shows disaster officials emphatically warning President Bush that the storm posed a catastrophic threat to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and a grim-faced Bush personally assuring state leaders that his administration was "fully prepared" to help.

Daily recap: Olympics, celebrity deaths, Mardi Gras & southeast Asia

David Shedden
Library Director

Monday, Feb. 27:

The week began with the end of the Olympics. A couple of newspapers offering an Italian perspective on the Games were Rome's La Repubblica and Turin's La Stampa. (You may need to use a language-translation site.) Speaking of the Olympics, make sure to take a look at Kenny Irby's new Poynter Online story, "Olympic Photos: Picks from the Photo Editors."

Tuesday, Feb. 28:

The front page of the Los Angeles Times included an obituary about the newspaper's former publisher, Otis Chandler. It was one of the longest obits they have ever printed. Here is an excerpt from the story:

OTIS CHANDLER -- 1927-2006
A Man of Many Passions Transformed The Times

By David Shaw and Mitchell Landsberg

Had Otis Chandler never worked a single day, his would have been a memorable life. An Olympic-caliber athlete, a champion weightlifter, an accomplished race car driver, big game hunter, surfer, cyclist, antique car and motorcycle collector, Chandler, who died Monday at 78, was a man whose avocations alone were the stuff of legend.

But Chandler did work, and in a remarkable 20-year span as publisher of the Los Angeles Times -- from 1960 to 1980 -- he reshaped this newspaper to an extent that has few, if any, parallels in the history of American journalism.

(In addition to the passing of Otis Chandler, this week also saw columns, editorials, and television programs about the deaths of Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver. One headline: "A sad week in TV land.")

Wednesday, March 1:
The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported on the first post-Hurricane Katrina Mardi Gras. Throughout the week, there was a great deal of media coverage about Mardi Gras and the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

As the month of March continues, it will be interesting to see how much news coverage there is about Women's History Month.

Thursday, March 2:
President Bush's trip to Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan was covered by news organizations around the world, including Calcutta, India's newspaper, The Telegraph.

Friday, March 3:
Each weekday, Poynter highlights the front page of a newspaper somewhere in the world. You can view the current ones at Page One Today / March.

Katrina Follow-Up, Tension in Taiwan, Condeleeza Rice & Anna Nicole Smith, Document Reclassification and the Patriot Act

Casey Frechette
Interactive Learning producer

What coverage surprised you?

Among the many stories this week that focused on Hurricane Katrina, coverage on Monday's "NewsHour" struck me as especially insightful. The "NewsHour" story focused on struggles to provide adequate healthcare in the still-battered region, and particularly on the ongoing use of makeshift tents to care for patients. What surprised me about this coverage was how effectively it placed the effects of Katrina in a larger social and institutional context. We learned about how pre-existing flaws in the area's healthcare system hampered recovery efforts, and descriptions of current conditions were balanced with concerns over key challenges moving forward.

What was underplayed?

A recent flare-up in the long-contentious relationship between China and Taiwan was mostly underplayed this week, even though the U.S. is almost certain to become involved should any conflict materialize. The challenge in covering this story seems to rest in accurately capturing the seriousness of what's happened. The decision of Taiwan's president to abolish the National Unification Council seemed significant; so too did the reaction of the Chinese government, which characterized the move as "disastrous." Yet, put into the context of years of tense relations that occasionally simmer over and then subside, recent events seem less profound. I'm always eager to get some historical context with a story like this, and hearing reactions from within the countries involved helps a lot, too. BBC News did well on both counts, first by making available a resource with background information and also by publishing a rundown of the mixed reactions from within Taiwan.

What was overplayed?

It's a toss-up this week between Condoleezza Rice's exercise videos and the Anna Nicole Smith legal battle. A story involving Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anna Nicole Smith does have a certain "when worlds collide" appeal, but for an issue that boils down to how federal and state probate courts interface, this news item figured a little too prominently. As for Rice's workout regimen, I'd prefer to know more about her thoughts on the situation in Darfur.

What industry developments will we be talking about next week?

It's a few days old now, but there's a chance that next week will bring more talk about a New York Times story, later covered on NBC Nightly News, on the reclassification of government documents. The story concerns a 7-year-old government program tasked with reclassifying documents, some of which have been in the public domain for quite some time. If nothing else, this seems to be an important freedom of information issue, and might spark renewed interested in how document classification and declassification are handled by the government -- and what it means to the investigative journalism process.

What will you be watching for next week?

The deadline to renew the Patriot Act is next Friday, and I'll be watching this ongoing story into next week. Within Congress, the Patriot Act has both strong support and a few fervent critics, but a range of opinions on its precise strengths and pitfalls seem to persist as well. Although overwhelming Senate approval on Thursday makes renewal almost certain, the Patriot Act remains an important focusing point for ongoing discussions on how to balance national security and civil liberties, making it a story worth tracking next week.

All About the Play
Bill Mitchell
Poyner Online editor

There was a time, not long ago, when subjects of coverage and others upset with journalists were cautioned to "avoid picking a fight with an outfit that buys ink by the barrel."

That's not as true as it used to be, thanks in part to the interactive and distributed nature of Internet publishing. Critics of the media may lack the traffic enjoyed by lots of mainstream publishing sites, but they sure can reach a lot more people digitally than they ever could with the dissident leaflets of yore.
Even online, though, the publisher holds the upper hand. Readers and/or subjects of coverage are invited to provide feedback to articles or blog items, but that feedback is typically relegated to the basement beneath the published article. In the case of Poynter Online, you'll usually find such comments listed under the "Add/View Feedback" or "Add Comments" links at the top and bottom of each article or the bottom of each blog item.

John Temple, who is editor, president and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, calls attention to another way of doing things in an entry posted on his own blog Tuesday night. When a reader or subject of coverage offers a point of view that challenges an earlier article or item, Temple suggests, why not elevate the play from the feedback area to the main page?

Temple has criticized Poynter's performance on various fronts, including this entry, which he posted on his blog Sunday. That a Poynter colleague comes in for some praise in Temple's latest posting matters less than his larger point that publishers share some of their best real estate with their critics.
Some newspapers have been doing something similar in print for years, of course, even devoting precious front-page space to corrections of articles that originally appeared out front themselves. But it's even easier to do in the Web environment. And it makes particular sense at a time when news as conversation should be fast replacing journalism as lecture. It doesn't make sense to do this in the case of all challenges from readers or subjects of coverage. But it's an option worth considering in the course of creating content that offers readers an occasional surprise along with the traditional diet of fair, balanced and filtered.

Mardi Gras, Six Months After Katrina

Karen Brown Dunlap

Mardi Gras pulled in media like a magnet. Journalists found two news story attractions: the big event, this time in the big naughty celebration, and the periodic marker, since Mardi Gras was six months after Katrina. Conflict enticed debate over whether New Orleans should have staged the celebration. Then there's the story element of overcoming the odds. That's the real story of real people struggling out of devastation.

I commend the media for not losing sight of the real story. During a week of Mardi Gras coverage, we saw the costumes, floats and bands and learned about the krewes, history and the costs, but there were other stories. A focus on soil told of environmental hazards before Katrina that are worse now. Six months ago, many predicted a new conversation on race relations as a result of Katrina. One report explored why that dialogue has not taken place. A number of stories moved from the parade areas to follow up with those seen six months ago. They told of rebuilding and loss.

The party's over, but the misery remains. There's so much more to tell, including some traditional story lines. Reporters need to keep following the money wherever it leads, and keep holding authorities accountable. Reports need to keep seeing the bigger picture -- that's the region, not just New Orleans. Casinos reopened in Mississippi, but has a way of life changed? A major city wasn't flooded, but communities were wiped out.

The stories are with the people, wherever they go. Six months later in Houston and Atlanta, in California and Kansas there are stories of their mental health, housing and education. Children are still lost and bodies go unclaimed. Periodic accountings ought to track the toll.

One story talked about Katrina fatigue, but the news media can't turn away. Relieve the fatigue with more stories of heroism along with the near hopelessness, with stories that show trials and victories across social classes. All tragedies aren't among the poor, and the well-off didn't escape trials. Keep telling stories that show societies coming together, not just those falling apart.

The parades are over, but the story goes on. This is a story about this nation without the masks. Stay with it.
  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.


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