Friday, April 19, 2013

This Just In: Journalism in Critical Condition

There are many more tragic victims from this week’s horror.  But one certain casualty is our trust in journalism – for those of us who still had it.   I am one who did.

As someone who studied journalism and spent the first part of my career calling myself a journalist, I take the profession and its role in society quite seriously.   And while I am also not foolish enough to lump all journalists together, after this week it’s safe to say the profession as a whole needs a gut check.

The offenses since Monday have been too many to mention.  The first and primary offender was, is and will forever be the New York Post, which entered the week as a quasi-journalistic outlet to start.  The next time anyone has the urge to describe a New York Post front page scoop as news, they should get a second source – and not the National Enquirer.

But this problem goes well beyond the much-begrudged Murdoch tabloid.  Almost every major news-reporting outlet has taken their lumps this week.  CNN and AP reporting a suspect in custody was the second most egregious offense, causing all the other media outlets to scamper for the courthouse.

The Most Trusted Source In News...
The list of “news” that was subsequently revealed to be wrong is much longer:  The unexploded bombs.  The Kennedy Library explosion.  The picture of the man on the building.   The photo of the grocery bags next to the mailbox.  The Lord & Taylor video camera.  The first reports that police had “identified” the bomber, when all they had was a clearer image.  The erroneous reports of a suspect in custody.  The “bag men.”  All of these were reported and spread by more than one outlet.  Not to mention the endless “speculation” from experts about what this tidbit or that rumor could mean. 

The offenses continue, big and small.  And I think I know why.

Just this morning (Friday, April 19th) with one suspect dead and the other on the run, an MSNBC anchor interrupted her guest to read a tweet from the Boston Police Department.

She said, this tweet just in from the Boston Police Department.  Then she paused, as to show some level of journalistic concern about what she was going to read aloud to hundreds of thousands of viewers  -- MSNBC, so maybe thousands --  and she asked her cohost if the twitter handle was definitely the Boston PD.  He said, “Uh-huh.” And she announced, “Confirmed! This just in from the Boston Police Department.”  Then, she read the tweet saying that the Boston PD was going to detonate a device in a certain neighborhood, as a warning to residents.

Confirmed?  Is that how we confirm stuff? 

After she read the tweet, she went back to the expert guest to ask what this could mean.  He said that police were possibly exploding the car the two suspects had been driving.  And I thought to myself, that’s probably wrong. 

This minor scene was emblematic of the ones repeated a hundred times across all the networks, pretty much 24-7 since Monday.

Journalists used to wade through the sea of rumors and report what they knew was accurate for us to consume. They were wrong at times, but more often they were right.   Now it seems many outlets are content to report the sea of rumors first, and let us all wade through it together.

To show the truly sad state of things, internet sources like have taken up the role of debunking reports that are coming from so-called “mainstream” media.   That’s the state of affairs.  (And thank you Gawker for doing so).

Why are things so bad in journalism today?  Some of it is obvious.  For one, the need to scoop has outpaced the desire to be accurate.  And this is certainly not meant to apply to all journalists.  Most I’m sure, and I know quite a few, still want to be accurate above all else and are themselves sickened by the failings of the profession as a whole covering this story.  Yet, there is no doubt that the collective profession failed this week.

Why does it matter? We learned that today.  When it was reported that the City of Boston was ordered to shelter in place,  I didn’t believe it at first.  Last week, I would have.

The answer to the problem may be a simple one.  When I went to journalism school, we were told to double source everything.  Clearly, most offending outlets failed to follow this simple rule.  And all week, rumors led to speculation which led to headlines.  Before the CNN flub, a law enforcement "source" was the standard.  After the flub, that network at least started including the phrase, "sources confirm."  Note the plural.

And the answer may be a little more complex.  Maybe it’s time for an industry-created commission on the state of journalism.  I hate commissions.  But this is a case where one is needed.  The same way the major news outlets come together to figure out Presidential exit polls, maybe there is a need to set up and establish a new (or renewed) set of self-imposed industry rules.

To be fair and accurate, there have been examples of good journalism too.  Whenever I wanted to know what was actually happening, I turned off the television and went to the Boston Globe.  Maybe they had either better sources or better rules, but the Globe got most everything right and avoided most of what was wrong.

Few others devoting 24-7 coverage to this gripping story can say that.  And that should make all of us concerned.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Just One Chicken Finger Can't Hurt

Chicken fingers? Grilled cheese? Or the mac-n-cheese?

It’s the age-old question for kids when eating out.  Sure, there’s usually a hamburger, a cheese quesadilla, or even a personal “pizza” on the list, too.  And at Italian joints you can also get spaghetti (pronounced pis-getty), with red sauce or butter – lots of butter.  But the kids’ menu triumvirate is always there, and one of the three usually gets the nod from the hungry toddler.

As a dad, I prefer when the little ones order the chicken fingers.  It almost goes without saying, but these are by far the most easily snatched without the wife noticing.  Though, a hearty grilled cheese crust can satisfy after a meal as well as any cold chicken finger.

Don't do it.  Look away.  Abort. Abort!  ... Yumm.
For a long time we’ve known that these kids’ menu items – priced between $4.99 and $7.99 – were a total rip-off.  I mean, honestly, you can buy six boxes of Kraft Mac-n-Cheese for that amount.  But the kids rarely complain – at least about this.  So we’re just happy to have options that are less than the adult entrées.  (Is it fair to call it an entrée if it's ordered at Friendly’s?)

But now, a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows that these seemingly harmless menu items are also packed with calories.  Like, a lot of calories.  Like, more than 1000 calories for some of the kids meals in the study.  Like, Applebee’s Grilled Cheese on Sourdough with Fries: 1,210 calories. That’s not good.

Sure, the study’s results may be obvious to some.  After all, these meals are made with processed cheese, fried in fat and served with a pile of French Fries.  But these items are on the kids’ menu, surrounded by cute cartoon characters and served on tiny, colorful plates.  So, naturally, that means they can’t be that bad for you.

And while this study certainly has implications for issues like children’s nutrition and childhood obesity, yadda, yadda, yadda, the real news here is for dads.

We can think we’re making smart choices by ordering the southwest salad, which is deliciously smothered in dressing and covered with shredded cheddar-jack cheese; or by drinking the 16-ounce beer rather than the 20 ouncer; or by heroically skipping dessert.  But once we pick food off the munchkins’ plates, you can just forget those two days you spent at the gym last month. They’re gone. As is any hope of moving in a notch on the old belt.  All because of a few lousy, cold chicken fingers, a handful of fries, and one grilled cheese crust.

Just do the math.  Four kids.  Four Kids meals.  Eat just one-third of each kids’ meal, in addition to your own 1000 calorie salad, and you're sitting at 2200 calories.  If you ordered a burger.  Oh, man.  I just hope that was a light beer you drank.

Damn you, chicken fingers! 

If the results of this study hold up under scientific scrutiny, it can mean only one thing.  It’s back to the gym for us … starting next week. Maybe.