Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Outsourcing your coverage

American television viewers will note that American news crews are not being allowed in Gaza to cover the war there.

Last night, NBC announced that it had hired a local (meaning inside Gaza) journalist to provide video of the events. The network supplemented this work with a phone interview with the physician who was the protagonist in a story about the impact of the war on medical care, hospital care and emergency care for wounded civilians in Gaza.

What does this choice explain about television news and news reporting in general?

Journalists are biased toward information THEY discover--even if that information is not as good, complete or accurate as what might be available in other news outlets.

Part of this unadmitted but very real bias is an issue of quality control: news outlets that are serious about their journalism can fact check, examine, and just plain have time to think about stories that are produced in house--even under deadline pressure. That's a good reason to be biased in favor of the work of your own staff.

But, a less laudatory reason is ego. Rather than give readers, listeners and viewers the best available information--regardless of source--news organizations too often settle for the best information THEY can uncover, even if it is demonstrably inferior to what is available elsewhere. Journalists used to explain this result away by noting that competition, over the long haul, makes for better journalism even if individual stories are not always up to snuff. This was always weak reasoning, but in the age of the internet, it's absurd.

So, what choices did NBC have? Obviously, the choice the network made was to outsource some of its reporting--probably in an effort to maintain some quality control and the perception of objectivity.

Another option: spend the same money to purchase coverage from the Arab television networks--the only broadcast media outlets currently being allowed in Gaza. Why might this option be unacceptable? Because the networks may have reasoned that US audiences would find content generated by Arab-owned networks potentially biased and hence not meeting standards of objectivity.

Or spend the same money and purchase coverage from another US news organization--for example, the New York Times. This option would have deprived the network of compelling video--which drives television--but have told potentially the same story.

None of these choice is ideal from the networks' point of view. From the viewers' perspective--and thanks to the web--we can compare NBC's coverage with that provided by the Arab journalists and come to our own conclusions.

One final point: shutting down news coverage of this conflict is, long-term, not going to help the residents of Gaza or of Israel who have endured so much. What is needed is more journalism--and from lots of perspectives.

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