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In all of the news din – and amid the scattered and copious points of entry to media people have today – how is the media helping its consumers weed through the massive amounts of data at their fingertips to find what is most important for them to know as members of a community, a nation and a wider democracy?

Genesis of break-out session question

I had a conversation with my Dad a few years ago on the Watergate era (I was a young girl at the time and not seriously paying attention to the issue at the time). I remember him saying that only after the Washington Post’s daily hammering away at it did the average person’s interest get piqued.

The paper’s insistent focus acted as a ‘signpost’ of sorts (“If the WaPo felt it was that important, then there must be something to it…”), pointing readers’ attention to the facts surrounding an obscure little “third-rate burglary.

I wondered if this was even possible today.


Ilona Meagher (facilitator and note-taker) Jody Brannon (bumblebee) Sam Kimball, Reclaim the Media Paul Lowenberg, FastForward Communications Chris Nelson, Campaign Shoutin’ Communications Kim Lowe, MSN Kim Elliott, rabble.ca Tom Brown, HistoryLink.org Mike Kittross Assanta Ng, Northwest Asian Weekly Bob Payne, SeattleTimes.com Andrew Humphrey (bumblebee)


Our group was very lively and engaged in the topic, considering the question the full 90 minutes of the break-out session period. We used a variety of terms interchangeably for the concept of news producers pointing consumers to important stories: creating signposts, agenda-setting, and (the group favorite) ‘journalistic brussel sprouts.’

Brainstorming highlights:

Could our media be better at creating signposts today?

Hands down, break-out session participants generally felt that contemporary media producers were not doing a great job of connecting news consumers to the information they need to be highly-informed members of their community, society and democracy. Should our media even be in the business of agenda-setting today? Who decides what is important (and why do they get to decide)?

What can legacy media do to raise the bar, to create or at least point to signposts that bubble up from the collected din of information we are all producing/consuming?

Sam Kimball: “We don’t want to just tell people what they should read…”

(Culture) There’s been a change in what people expect as far as agenda-setting is concerned. “We report. You decide,” FOX News’ catchy slogan, is reflective of contemporary desires. The attitude starkly contrasts the traditional expectations of past news consumers and producers, when it was generally agreed by all stakeholders that producers had a watchdog role to fulfill (‘civic journalism’). Ex: Journalists such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and newspapers like the Washington Post, were expected to draw attention to what consumers most needed to know. Consumers relied on gatekeepers to point them to what they needed to know. Ex: “If the WaPo is still writing about the Watergate break-in, then I should pay attention, too.”

(Government) Civic responsibility journalism changed with the revamp of the Telecom Act of 1996; the requirement of producing ‘public service’ news was removed, and financial concerns were allowed to dominate the thrust of news production.

(Producers) In comparison to the independent press and lone blogger, legacy press (even amid the bloodletting and sure erosion of its power), still has a greater ability to dig down into the events of our day and report difficult and/or unwelcome stories. They have more leverage, sources, financial resources, etc. to do major investigative pieces (ala the WaPo during Watergate). How should this leverage be used? Where will resources be invested?

(Partnership) Rather than there being one gatekeeper, today there are partnerships between traditional media, independent media, communities, bloggers, etc. The collective can and should decide which stories get more coverage. The rub: How do producers poll or tap audience to best determine signposts? One suggestion: possibly using the way the Dept. of Homeland Security conducts risk assessment as a template.

How does one determine what is ‘important’?

• Recommendations by public (tips, press releases, etc.)

• Judgment of gatekeepers (editors, producers, publishers, journalists, etc.)

• Traditional market research (polling, ratings, etc.)

• New media “voting” (website hits, twitter/dig/technorati hash tag popularity, etc.)

• Blogger interest (can sometimes force traditional media to pay attention)

(Consumers) The Internet Age mantra: “Let the consumer decide,” is one reason why stories such as Tiger Woods’ affair, Michael Jackson’s death, etc. fill such a large portion of the news hole. Sensational stories garner the most consumer attention (via web hits, TV ratings, copies sold of magazines and newspapers).

(Self-Interest) Consumers come to an issue with ‘Why is this important to me?’ Producers need a way of quickly explaining why a story is vital to their interests.

(Technology) We need to acknowledge the strengths and limits of various media formats, and how these factors influence what news editors believe is important. For instance, television news production has a unique driver: producers seek out stories with strong visual appeal. Those that can be filmed (or might include other images or video) are more valuable than text-heavy segments. Ex: A Florida teen was abducted at a local store; the fact that there was surveillance footage of the kidnapping likely moved the story up in importance for TV producers. In contrast, Watergate and other such stories, being complex and needing a lot of background detailing, shine in print rather than TV format. Other factors influencing the decision-making process in TV news production vs. other media formats are ‘time-to-fill’ (you have 30 minutes that must be filled every day, no matter what; print, on the other hand, can increase or decrease pages if needed) and cost (sending out film crews and reliance on expensive equipment) pressures.

(Accountability) The matter of press accountability seems to have been lost over the years. How do the media choose to cover the stories the finally run?

(Limitations) Someone in the group asked: “Is all of the news consumers need even going out there to them today?” General consensus: Absolutely not.

Subset question: When does local news rise to the national level?

(Competition) Jody Brannon used the example of the Chandra Levy story. It rose to national interest partly because of her connection with a U.S. congressman (who the media quickly painted as somehow possibly being involved in her disappearance and murder, which he was not); but, up tick in coverage was also a result of competition in covering the story, i.e., a “We need to cover it because CNN is…” mindset. Interest in the story – by CNN, FOX News or anyone else for that matter – stopped immediately when a bigger story came along: 9/11.

(Self-Interest) We also discussed another more recent news story, one that hasn’t appeared to pique the interest of the U.S. media: a neuroscientist has apparently successfully preformed a brain operation that shows promise in alleviating Multiple sclerosis symptoms. Apparently, the news has been picked up energetically by Canadian and British media, but little of it has been covered here as pointed out in a recent Huffington Post piece [1] on the matter.

(Competition) When discussing why this might be the case, the concept of competition and plain old self-interest came up. The term NIH, or “not invented here,” was tossed out by someone in the group. NIH, meaning if the doctor was doing this research in another country, some members of the U.S. press may think to themselves, “I’m not giving them any competitive advantage.” Another group member explained the credibility factor may have been a part of the story, saying, “If, as a scientist you don’t publish first in a professional journal, you are not considered to be as credible, etc.”

The two points were a bit of a surprise to me personally. While their reality didn’t seem to be too outlandish, I’d never heard about these types of U.S-foreign press rivalries.

Technically or visually speaking, where is it most worthwhile to place signposts to important stories?

(Technology) Chris Nelson tossed this question into the mix. The group talked a bit about a visual sidebar listing top stories. Often this is machine-driven, ala ‘most viewed’ or ‘highest-rated’ stories. But should producers also have a separate journalistic brussel sprouts section pointing readers to vital reading? Happiness index as template mentioned.

Other examples of producer/consumer-created signposts:

Kim Lowe: A few months ago, MSN.com launched its ‘online newspaper’ that aggregates news collected from a variety of sources. The news is broken down and tagged. Where a consumer is located determines the content or signposts delivered to their personal webpage (i.e., someone in Topeka sees a different page/different news story collection than someone in Seattle).

Bob Payne: Seattle Times has started displaying regional blog feeds on its website. This new offering provides consumers with more content and a wider variety of opinion; it also gives some reassurance that blogs, while independent, have been somewhat vetted by the paper. Payne said not all blogs are included; they do undergo a cursory review. The best result of the new collaboration: cross-pollination of ideas, stories, interest.

What about consumer responsibility?

(Consumers) Media literacy education was brought up (as it was throughout the conference in other sessions). The public needs to know about the above forces effecting news production. Ex: TV news stations can, at times, be passive in their newsgathering (i.e., waiting for info to come to them via tips, calls, press releases, police scanners, etc.). Consumers need to be more engaged in the process, and know that they do have power to help set the agenda – but they must decide to find ways to participate.