The Newsmaking Machinery Behind the Popular Song

This last weekend, I had a tiny and depressing demonstration about the facile nature of local news – the news making machinery behind the popular song as the pop song used to go. I did local news-gathering myself as an in-house broadcast professional, doing a daily radio news program for Armed Forces Radio, Seoul Korea edition. I know how the pudding is made; have the basic framework for the story, go out and talk to people for the bits that fill in the story already mentally mapped out in your mind – and go and do it again the next day, and the day following. Daily news is sausage; stuff that casing with whatever the story requires, a judicious combination of meat or filler.

There was a house fire last Sunday afternoon in our neighborhood – the first I knew of it (since I was working the final edit of Luna City #9) was when the Daughter Unit flung open the door, saying that a nearby house was on fire, that the dogs from the house were running loose on the street, and could I bring some doggie treats and help everyone catch them?

It was a ruckus of major proportions in our normally quiet little patch of suburbia. The street leading up to ours was clogged with fire department vehicles – ladder, pumper, hose, and command trucks, even an ambulance, a couple of command trucks – all for a small house across the street and three down from ours. The parked FD vehicles filled the block and went down on either side for another half a block. There was evil-smelling smoke filling the air, gushing from the roof and eave vents – no actual flames to be seen. All the neighbors were out in front, or gathered around, wondering what-the-hell… Because this is a small and moderately cohesive neighborhood, nearly all residents are owners of modest cottages on small plots of land; working-class and military retirees. Most of us know each other by sight, especially since the Chinese Commie Crud has descended upon us. (We have seen more of our neighbors out and about in the streets, walking dogs, working out in their driveways or in their open garages.)

We retrieved one of the loose dogs from underneath truck parked in front of a neighboring house, someone else located a second runaway dog, but that still left three dogs missing. Meanwhile, the FD did their thing, and eventually the smoke diminished. The owner of the house on fire sat out with her neighbors from across the street, with her two rescued dogs and the Daughter Unit, waiting for the fire to be extinguished. It had started in the kitchen according to what everyone was saying and filled the house with smoke within minutes. The homeowner had been at the grocery store when the fire started – she had finished fixing tacos for Sunday dinner, put everything away, turned off the stove burners (this is an important detail) and ran out to the grocery store for fresh lettuce. The couple living next door had alerted her to the fire with a call to her cellphone. All the other neighbors on the street was standing around, hoping that the fire wouldn’t burn through the roof, because then it could easily move into trees, and to other houses.

When the FD got the fire extinguished, some of the firefighters went into the house – I did see that oxygen tanks were in play, which was routine and sensible. Three of the dogs were still missing at that point – and that was when the firefighters carried out two unwieldy and big dog crates. The two biggest dogs had been in the house – a big black and white standard poodle and a slightly smaller white malamute. I was standing with another neighbor in front of his house, and we were both horrified that the dogs had been inside the burning house the whole time. (They had obviously been frightened and went to hide in their crates) We were familiar with both; very friendly dogs, if a bit noisy. Two firefighters began doing chest compression on the unconscious dogs. After ten minutes or so another firefighter brought up the medical kit and began with oxygen. We had hope, but the longer they worked on the dogs, the more it was obvious that it was too late. But the last missing dog, the smallest and oldest of the lot was carried out of the house at that moment – still alive. He had been hiding under the bed in the master bedroom, and somehow escaped the worst of the smoke.

It must have been a rather boring and otherwise uneventful day in Greater San Antonio, because  camera guy and a reporter from the local ABC affiliate showed up; they set up on the sidewalk, not twenty feet from there the Daughter Unit, the owner of house on fire and a cluster of neighbors were also waiting. The camera operator and reporter spent all of about fifteen or twenty minutes on the scene. Honestly, it was not the least bit dramatic a fire – just lots of smoke, so really, as a news event, fifteen minutes was about all it was worth. In that time, the reporter spoke to a single firefighter, chosen at random, apparently. Didn’t seem to make any effort to approach any of the neighbors, dozens of whom were standing around, or the homeowner herself. Just a few words with the firefighter, some random footage, nothing more than that. But when the story was aired and posted later that afternoon, the cause of the fire was blamed on a pan left on an active stove burner. Which wasn’t the case at all; if the reporter had bothered to speak to the homeowner – who was standing no more than twenty feet from the camera the whole time, he would have found out that she had not left anything on the stove. She was done cooking for the day. The likely cause of the fire was that one of the electric stovetop burners had a short in it; and lately had begun turning itself off and otherwise functioning erratically. The house is still standing, by the way – from the outside still looks perfectly normal, but the interior will have to be completely gutted, and rebuilt. The homeowners’ insurance company are doing very well for her so far, salvaging what can be salvaged from the inside.

It’s the sheer carelessness of that brief reportage on the fire, and the very minimal effort put into it that has annoyed me and dismayed the Daughter Unit. Just a little bit of effort on the reporters’ part would have resulted in a more accurate story, and one which wouldn’t have made the owner of the burned house appear like an absentminded ditz to the public at large. A little thing – but telling. Discuss as you wish.

13 thoughts on “The Newsmaking Machinery Behind the Popular Song”

  1. Michael Crichton:

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

    In perusing the news about certain subjects I know something about- for example, the oil field and Venezuela- my reaction has been up and down. I found the Wall Street journals on the 2010 Macondo blowout quite informative and well done. As the articles described the events leading up to the disaster, they made it apparent to me that that the BP man on the rig didn’t follow accepted procedures for drilling in dangerous environments. There are times you do not cut corners to save money. Later articles indicated that was a mistake BP repeated throughout the word.

    For a not-so-good example, there was a WaPo article on an electricity blackout in Venezuela several years ago. The reporter knew Mexico and Central America, but didn’t know Venezuela. She quoted Maduro to the effect that sabotage was behind the blackout. That’s fine to quote Maduro, but she didn’t evaluate what he said.Had she known Venezuela, she would have known that for the previous decade, Venezuela has had problems with electricity supply. Actually decades, as Hugo didn’t approve electricity investment plans. What makes this mistake even worse is that the WaPo periodically employed Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan journalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of Venezuela. She apparently didn’t consult him.

    In general the WaPo has had good articles on Venezuela.
    Bloomberg has had some good articles on Venezuela.

    Note that business media gets my approving comments.

  2. Primarily the problem is that journalists are innumerate, elitist, and sensationalist. But even within those terrible parameters, the journalism you describe is incompetent. A fire fighter EMT trying to rescue the dog?! What a great (sensational, emotional, unusual) story. Then interview the firefighters — does this happen a lot, do they usually succeed or not, is there a way for pet owners to train the critters, like we train our kids, to get outside at the scent of smoke and all meet at the mailbox, or whatever. Then interview the owner — biography of the brave dog who stayed on duty to the bitter end …

    Acknowledging all this as filler for the daily sausage, they could have done so much better.

    A pan on the stove is boring.

  3. Indeed, Pouncer – this would have been so much a better story. The firefighters were so dedicated, trying to revive the two dogs – they were at it for ages longer. The Daughter Unit remarked that they likely were motivated by being pet-owners themselves. And they missed when the one firefighter carried out the oldest dog – well, really at arms’ length. But the owner was so glad to have him back, and that he was OK.
    The reporter and the camera guy were just there to get visuals of the house on fire. Grab ’em and go.

  4. At one time in my life, I read 5 newspapers a day. The first thing I’d do when I’d move to a new town is find out how to get a paper delivered to my house. Now, I get my little 5-day-a-week (no Sunday or Monday editions) local paper which I can barely read most days. I only continue to get it because, due to a computer glitch, I am not charged for it. The only thing I detest more than the news media is politicians. Depressing times.

  5. As everyone has discovered since the explosion of social media, if you’re not paying real money for it you’re not the customer. Those reporters didn’t need anything more than some visuals to fill the time between the beginning of the newscast and the weatherman and sports girl, to make sure viewers saw the necessary number of commercials.

  6. When I was a kid growing up in Austin, we could (sort of) get two of the San Antonio TV stations. I was always amazed that the news showed lots of footage of car wrecks and other disasters–with lurid music added as a soundtrack!! Not a lot of actual reporting, just visuals. I’ve never seen that anywhere else and it tapered off somewhere in the late 60s or 70s.

    But I guess the spirit lives on.

  7. When I was younger I would visit my grandparents in a little Southern Illinois town. Every morning they would turn on the local radio station. The news include accidents (cars mostly), who was visiting from out of town (We were news everyso often), and other items of local interest. But what I remember most was the level of detail. For car accidents the gave both the makes and models, the location and amount of damage (front quarter panel and windshield) and some of the police report.

    All of this detail seems pointless, but it dramatically demonstrated that the reporter cared enough to get all the information. A simple car wreck blocking traffic, but in a little town it could have been a neighbor or friend. You were confident enough to feel that you got all the important news.

    This could be done at every level of reporting today, but reporters are either too harried or too lazy. They don’t feel any kinship with their public.

    For your story, how easy it would be to get the names of the dogs and describe their rescue or loss on TV. I think their owner would be quietly pleased and the public would pay attention.

  8. Indeed, DJG – it would have been a simple matter, likely have comforted the owner, and wouldn’t have taken the news crew any longer. But … grab the footage and dash.
    The aggravating thing was – everything was there, right in front of them, or just within reach: the firefighters trying to resuscitate the dogs, bringing the last one alive out of the house, the fire chief right there, and all the neighbors standing around. Were it still my job, I could have done it, half asleep.

  9. I’ve been either a participant in or witness to several “news worthy” events. I’ve been interviewed by “newspaper” and TeeWee “reporters”, none of whom could conduct a coherent interview (no footage was ever aired because I relentlessly made fun of their asinine questions).

    Never once has what I’ve personally been through or seen matched what was “reported” in any form of media. Never. Not once. I’m still not sure if this is due to pure laziness on the part of the media, stupidity, or actual malice. It’s hard to tell the difference since the end result is the same.

    Nowadays every single thing (up to and including finding a lost dog) must be fed through the political-correctness meat grinder, filtered to eliminate anything not sufficiently collectivist, statist and authoritarian, and then stuffed into the appropriate narrative sausage.

    The “news” media thoroughly beclowns itself every day, like the TeeWee “reporter” talking about “mostly peaceful demonstrators” while arsonists burn down a building directly behind him in line of sight of the camera.

    The Onion and Babylon Bee can’t make up satire fast enough before the media catches up with and then surpasses them.

  10. To echo Mark Twain, we can ignore the media and be uninformed, or pay attention to the media and be misinformed.

    Personally, I would rather be uninformed.

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