Posts Tagged ‘journalists’

Comedy and Journalism

October 31, 2010

I went to Washington, DC’s famous Mall on Saturday, October 30, to witness the reaction of participants to the call by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to their rally to “Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive.”  Most press coverage stated that “tens of thousands” attended the event.  The amount of people attending was, undoubtedly, much larger.  London’s The Guardian newspaper estimated attendance at around 250,000.  I think that amount comes closer to reality.  Despite the lack of support for the Iraq war during President George W. Bush’s last years in office, there never was a protest against the war that ever came close to bringing so many people to Washington.  Some go further and say that as many as 500,000 attended the Stewart-Colbert’s event.

For those who are not familiar with Stewart or Colbert, we can call them the fathers of “fake” news shows that are designed from a comedic point of view.  They both work on the basic cable channel Comedy Central.  Their audience levels are quite high, as are those of another comedian called Bill Maher, whose show is broadcast on pay-cable’s HBO.

In the United States, all three are what are known as liberals or sympathizers with the Democratic Party.  In general, the target of their attacks and ironic comments is the Republican Party (and more recently, the new Tea Party movement, although they say that both are the same).  However, they also attack Democrats.  A recent example was when Stewart interviewed President Obama during his October 28 show.  Yes, that’s right; President Obama went to the comedy program and let himself be the target of Stewart’s irony and chastisement.  Why would a President do this?  First of all because he knows that Stewart’s audience is a friendly one and secondly, because he is very cognizant of the show’s power, especially among young viewers.  And those viewers translate into votes.

Stewart confronted Obama by basically saying that he had disappointed those who’d voted for him because the health care reform had not been sufficiently wide reaching and encompassing.  That it had been too timid.  The President disagreed with the term timid and responded by stating that “you’ve got thirty million people that will be getting health insurance as a consequence of this.” But the point is that Stewart, a comedian, has the power to have the President as a guest on his show and that he asked him questions of a level of irreverence that journalists would surely not dare ask.

Of course, Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist.  A journalist is not there to make jokes, but to find out information and later share it with the audience in a professional and objective manner.  Not to give his or her opinion.  That being said, if hundreds of thousands of people attend an event such as the one held by Stewart and Colbert and millions more religiously follow what they say on their “newscasts” on TV, it seems to me that the phenomenon goes beyond some well-written and told jokes.  It is a true sociological phenomenon.

The shows’ audiences tend to be progressive and fairly well educated.  Their guests include academicians such as economists and historians, as well as politicians and former presidents.  Many of them are conservatives as well.  People such as Stewart say that many of the so- called experts featured on news shows (be they liberals or conservatives) aren’t qualified to speak authoritatively about the subjects they discuss and, therefore, many of the shows where political issues are discussed end up turning into an endless stream of consciousness full of screams where very little objective information is discussed.

These comedy shows became very popular because of the war in Iraq.  Many people watched them because they say these shows were the only place where they could truly get the real story of what was happening in the war.  Many criticized traditional news media because it was not more critical of the government.  Both when it came to finding out the truth about the government’s accusations against Baghdad as justification for the war, as well as, later, the development of the war itself.  Especially, the human and financial cost of the war.  These critics added that the media had censored itself regarding important issues because it was wartime and it was not popular to criticize the government when US soldiers were dying in the Iraqi battlefield.

Whether or not these charges against mainstream media are true, the reality is that these comedy shows built a loyal and massive audience.  And whether the accusations are true or not, those who watch the shows believe that watching mainstream media they do not get the whole story that they need to find out what is happening in their country and the world.  For that they have to go to Comedy Central or HBO.

It isn’t true that there is nowhere in the United States where someone can’t go to get first-rate and completely serious news information.  The news programs produced by public television and radio (PBS and NPR) are an example of this serious and in-depth news reporting.  It is also true that many people criticize the verbal disputes and the level of entertainment on cable television, but they are the same people who are first in line to enjoy those dialectic matches.

However, it is also true that there should be many more options than PBS and NPR to get news in a serious and in-depth manner and that should also be the role of the mainstream media.  It is fine to have popular programs as part of a channel’s schedule.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be entertained, especially when the success of that type of programming is key to the general survival of those channels.  But it should also be an obligation to have a news department whose principal objective is not the audience levels, but to providing a public service to its viewers.

We are dealing with very serious matters, such as the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the economic crisis.  Issues that affect, in one way or another, the lives of every person in this country, not to mention people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world.

I am a journalist and if our profession isn’t able to satisfy the public’s need for information to the point where millions of people watch comedy shows to find out what is really happening, I think we have a very serious problem.  I reiterate that these people don’t only watch these shows to laugh, but to find out information that they say they can’t find out anywhere else.  I don’t think it’s a good sign for my profession if a large portion of the public chooses a comedian instead of a journalist like me to find out what is going on.

These comedians are brilliant, make jokes and analysis that are truly hilarious.  However, if they become an important source of information to the public, and not only a source of comedy, there is a truly serious problem for our profession.

Do we clearly differentiate opinion from information?  Have we become activists instead of journalists? Are we not sufficiently aggressive when it comes time to make governments or institutions accountable?  Have many media outlets lost their vocation of public service?  And, have newsrooms become another way to raise audience levels instead of focusing on informing the public about issues of vital importance to them?  Why don’t politicians and institutions make it a requirement that to be able to secure a broadcasting license a channel must have professional newscasts that are not ratings-driven in its programming?

I love to laugh watching a good comedy show.  However, I fear that the success of events such as yesterday’s on the Mall in Washington, DC has a worrisome angle:  they are clear proof of our inability, as journalists, to do our job well.  And this isn’t because of lack of professionals who are willing to do their jobs well on a daily basis.  There are many who, day-to-day, show their worth as journalists.  Well-educated people, for whom journalism is a vocation and who work endless hours to inform the public about what’s going on.  Journalists who, in addition, have had to face enormous challenges to be able to bring quality stories on air.  The problem is that they don’t have the necessary resources at hand to do their job well.  As I said before, I love comedy shows, but I hope that, at least regarding news reporting, we can offer our audience what they need and that Comedy Central can be watched to laugh at reality, not to inform about it.

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10 suggestions to succeed in your relationship with the press

March 10, 2010

By Pablo Gato (published in the February 2010 issue of Revista Politics en español)

The relationship with the media is very important, it can often be decisive.  A bad interview can sink a political career. However, knowing how to deal efficiently with the press can raise your prestige and reputation exponentially.  Those who don’t understand the power of the press and the need to be well prepared for that relationship are bound to pay the price of their impudence, arrogance or ignorance.  And even though this may seem obvious, especially for professional politicians, the truth is that there are many in this field that are still not adequately prepared for this relationship with the press.  That relationship, by its very nature, is many times an adversarial one, but often it doesn’t have to be necessarily confrontational.  If you understand how it functions, what they want and how to help the media, you will already have won an important battle before it even starts.

Even President Barack Obama has said that not knowing how to communicate his message well has been one of the key factors in the recent and serious setbacks for the Democrats.  One of the most significant being the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts, which during almost five decades had been a bastion of the Democrats and, more concretely, of the Kennedy family.  This has brought about a quick demise of the President’s health care reform plan since the Democrats no longer have the 60 Senators needed to pass the bill, even with all the Republican members in opposition.  This problem that the White House is currently facing is not limited to its relationship with the press.  It encompasses a wider strategic communications framework.  Polls show that the majority of Americans do not understand the President’s health care reform plan or how he’s going to meet his economic plan’s goals.  Therefore, there is a structural communications problem.  Nevertheless, the relationship with journalists is an essential part of this communication.

First suggestion.

Take the media and journalists very seriously.  Do not underestimate them and do treat them professionally and respectfully.  Understand that they’re doing their job.  If you treat them with respect, they will do the same with you, something that will undoubtedly be reflected in how they cover you.  Unless they have been unprofessional when dealing with you, make sure you grant interviews to everyone.  President Obama has decided to ignore conservative network FOX and this is letting conservatives give their opinions without the Administration being able to respond.  That is, the White House is allowing its opponents to define the debate and the message in some forums.

Second.

Do not repeat your talking points regardless of what the press asks you.  If you do so, journalists will think you think they’re stupid or that you have no idea what you’re talking about and this will be obvious in their coverage.  It is understandable for you to try to convey your “message for the day,” but you must be careful to do it in a smart way.  Using the appropriate techniques, but without ignoring the reporter’s need for information.  A good communicator will know how to convey his or her message effectively, regardless of what he or she is asked.

Third.

When you give an interview, be very aware of the audience whom you’re speaking and tailor your message to that audience.  The reporter is a conduit to reach that audience, not an end in and of him or herself.  Give examples about what you’re talking about to stress your message and make it credible.  Just because you say something doesn’t make it true.  Giving concrete examples does.

Fourth.

Simplify your message.  Don’t speak in a confusing manner.  Do it in a correct and clear way.  So that anyone can understand you.  Don’t use jargon or abbreviations unless you explain their meaning as well.  If the journalist covering your story is not an expert in your field, he or she could not understand what you’re saying and will probably misquote you.  If that happens, don’t complain because you were partly responsible for the misunderstanding.  You did not convey your message clearly and simply.  You did not make sure that you were understood.

Fifth.

Don’t improvise anything.  Practice.  Even the best communicators have acknowledged that their success has been based on practicing.  Former President Bill Clinton is among these.  During the Democratic Party Convention prior to his nomination to the presidency, Clinton received the loudest applause during his speech when he finally said “and in conclusion…”  People were bored listening to him.  He didn’t know how to communicate well.  He later became one of the Presidents who best communicated with the people.  Communication is an art and it must be practiced constantly.

Sixth.

Learn techniques that will enable you to answer any question effectively.  Any person in the public eye must take media training classes.  These techniques will help you to answer any question, regardless of how difficult it is.  When you practice these techniques you will not even notice that your answers are following a concrete methodology.  If you don’t master these techniques, your answers will seem mechanical and not truthful.   I am not talking of being manipulative but of communicating effectively.

Seventh.

Don’t lie.  Telling the truth about some subjects can raise many an eyebrow among some politicians, but if you lie, in the end, will make things worse.  If you make a mistake or there is a crisis, show your empathy and promise to learn from your mistake so that it won’t happen again.  If you lie and the media finds out, they will hound you and destroy your public image.

Eighth.

Don’t improvise your relationship with the press.  Don’t call reporters only when you need them.  You need to keep this relationship alive.  If the relationship is there, you will always have more access when you need them.

Ninth.

Understand the workings of the media.  They usually need access to you quickly and have a deadline to write their article or air their report.  You need to adapt to this or you will not be part of the report, which will make you miss the opportunity to convey your message to the audience.

Tenth.

Never say “no comment,” no matter how bad the situation.  This makes you seem guilty or like you’re hiding something, even if that’s not so.  Journalists want an answer to their question, but if for any reason you cannot answer give them something they can use.  If the press can get a quote, the pressure will diminish.

Obviously, these are just a few basic suggestions.  There are many more, although the most important thing is to learn the methodology in depth.

Sadly, journalism is becoming more superficial by the day.  It’s a daily struggle to see who is the most sensationalist.  That said there are still serious and professional journalists around.  You are under no obligation to grant interviews to those who are not, but if you do be extremely ready so that it is you who is in control of the interview.  The reporter can ask whatever he or she wants, but you control what comes out of your mouth.  Stay focused on your message.

Many times it has nothing to do with defending yourself from the press, but about understanding how it works and what reporters need.  Once you understand this and are thoroughly prepared, the benefits of maintaining a constant relationship with the media will be enormous.

You, your spokespersons or communications specialists must be trained to communicate well.  It’s not enough to think that we can communicate well or even the fact that we have been journalists.  The specific methodologies must be learned.  It isn’t the same to ask a question as it is to answer one.

Surprisingly, many well-known politicians and public figures never get this training.  Later, they pay the prices, whether during a media debacle or not knowing how to maximize the free benefit to their reputation that is provided by the media.  If you had to play a tennis match with Rafael Nadal, would you train ahead of time or would you merely show up at the tennis court for him to make mincemeat out of you?  It’s the same with the press.  You must be ready to ensure you succeed.

——– 

Pablo Gato is the CEO and founder of Gato Communications.  He has a 30-year long journalism career, with 22 of those years on television as a national and international correspondent, producer and news director.