Ernest Dempsey — Media, especially electronic media, is one of the leading influences today in the way we learn about our world. Not surprisingly, media’s own credibility and neutrality are now frequently put to question over many an issue while the increasing popularity of blogs and social media has added an additional passage to the knowledge of truth – at the same time raising new concerns. How to gauge professionalism and credibility of media outlets in this multiplicity of varying, often conflicting voices?
Today, we have Gina London here to talk about professionalism in media. Gina has worked as a journalist for over a decade, including a job as an anchor at CNN, before switching to the field of PR and marketing. She currently is the Managing Director Europe at The Pincus Group. Gina has also completed her first book, a humorous memoire of her life after CNN and raising a child in Europe, to be published by Sakura Publishing in November this year.
Ernest: Gina, it’s a pleasure to welcome you at this forum. Please tell us briefly about your journalistic career.
Gina: Thanks, Ernest. Let’s see. I started out as a print journalist with The Orlando Sentinel. I later moved to Washington, DC, where I worked as a writer, field producer, and freelance reporter with the owned and operated Fox news station, WTTG. I split my time between working overnights with the local station and then taking the metro down to the CNN Washington bureau to write for its domestic and international newscasts. During the summer of 1997, I began freelance reporting for the ABC local affiliate as well. Some CNN producers noticed my on-air reporting and I was given the rare opportunity to freelance report for CNN. In 1998, I was made a full-time correspondent for CNN. I covered mostly breaking news and politics. My stories ranged from impeachment of President Clinton; the controversies during the Presidential race between Bush and Gore; hurricanes and tornadoes; profiles of political candidates; the terrorist attacks on 9/11; and hundreds of stories in between. I left CNN in 2003 and am now an international communications trainer. I have worked with Parliamentary candidates from Iraq and Macedonia; Indonesian political activists; Egyptian opposition parties during Mubarak’s regime; SAP vice presidents from Germany, Paris, and Rome; La Pasteur Institute in Tunis; and hundreds of others.
Ernest: In our times, say over the past 10 or 12 years, how would you comment on the influence of electronic media in steering public opinion?
Gina: Public opinion and the “electronic media” are so intertwined these days, it’s tough to say which influences which the most. In the past 10 or 12 years, the term “electronic media” has expanded to include blogs, twitter feeds, and e-zines. To me, this is a good thing, because the media spotlight can be shined on issues that regular people can bring to the forefront by amassing. It’s like David v Goliath through social media. Take the revolution in Egypt. It was largely fueled by unstoppable tweets and facebook pages. Mubarak’s machine couldn’t stop it and the mainstream media outlets began covering the momentum. Or Syria, for another example. The regime didn’t want the atrocities against civilians to be known, but brave individuals posted cell phone videos on YouTube, etc. in defiance. I think this is a great time for grass movements. By using social media effectively, a group may get the attention of the bigger news outlets and get their voices heard more readily. The challenge, I think, is that to stay informed on issues, a person can no longer rely on only one or two outlets (like a single paper and a single news station – although maybe that was never the best idea) to deliver information on a topic. Better now to seek out a range of voices – through online journals, niche blogs, hashtag searches on Twitter, etc. The information landscape is changing very rapidly.
Ernest: Politics, crime, sports, and showbiz – we see that these still dominate most of the TV channels and other mainstream media outlets. Do you believe these sections of media really deserve the extensive coverage we see they get worldwide?
Gina: This is the eternal “chicken and the egg” debate in news. Which comes first – the appetite of the viewer or reader, or what’s being fed by the mainstream media? I contend it’s a mix of both. News outlets are businesses. They must attract viewers to attract advertisers. What gets our attention? Usually, no matter what topic it falls under – politics, crime, sports, showbiz – there must be some element of human interest. Not just the policies being debated, but the emotion or human success or foible angle around them. Not just the sports scores, but the personal triumphs or defeats. Not just a new movie, but the celebrity couple under the public spotlight during an all-too-human divorce. Crime, at its most dastardly – not just the routine – because we’re horrified and attracted to the worst that humans are capable of.
In short, what’s “sexy” is what’s interesting. And I don’t mean just sex, but alluring. What is beyond the norm is what gets most viewers’ attention. What doesn’t get covered typically then are stories that are considered normal, too-full-of-detail, or just plain boring. That’s why most people don’t pay attention to general economic stories, but when the European Union is at risk of collapse, or the US banks need a full overhaul, people may take notice.
Nowadays, when I coach clients on attracting the media, I always stress three things: Think about the human or heart angle; Focus on what makes your issue different or superlative; and be prepared to oversimplify to make your issue easy to digest and be understood by everybody.
Ernest: Working as an anchor, did you have to struggle to stay impartial on any issues which were expected to be dealt in line with the channel’s policy?
Gina: In my experience as a presenter for CNN, from 2000-2002, the writers and the anchors strived and were directed to always take a neutral tone. During the US occupation of Iraq following the 9/11 terrorism attacks, for example, our CNN internal style guide made it very clear that we never referred to “our troops” – overseas, but rather we referred to them as “US forces” or the like. The subtle difference is a big one, of course. The former implies the network considers itself part of the “team” and that creates a strong “us” v “them” attitude. While the latter descriptive term takes a “straight tell” approach without any ownership or relationship. By contrast, the Fox News Network during that time very obviously chose to refer to such forces as “our men and women fighting over there,” etc. In addition, at CNN, we never used the word “foreign” to describe a different country or its people. Our guideline directed us to use “international” instead as the word “foreign” can also denote a US slant. Now that I live and have worked so much outside of the US, I find these kinds of directives critical.
That said, I have noticed a trend toward more needless editorializing. Recently, I was at the gym and a CNN Headline News anchor was talking about a missing American teenaged girl. The anchor’s voice was talking while family video of the girl was being shown. The teenager was indeed blonde and pretty, but the way the anchor gushed describing the girl as “simply gorgeous” was disturbing. It seemed to imply that had the girl not been as attractive, the fact that she was missing and feared dead wouldn’t have meant as much. Needless. I believe that now, more than ever, as media outlets desperately try to compete for viewers’ attention, we’re getting more, not less, of this type of needless gushing and pandering.
Ernest: Recently we had this situation in Pakistan where a TV channel was accused of airing a “planted” interview with a real-estate tycoon. As a talk show anchor, do the ethics of this profession allow one to tell a guest on the show, during off-air breaks, what questions will be coming his way next; or letting the guest suggest what important questions need to be asked?
Gina: Without commenting on the Pakistan talk show interview, as I could not clearly understand what was at issue in the article provided and I don’t know the context of the show, etc, I am happy to provide a little background into what may go on behind the scenes during many live interview type news segments.
Typically, the first person to engage with an interview subject is the “segment producer.” This person deals with subject directly or with his or her agents or handlers. The angle of the story is discussed: why does the network want to talk to this person in the first place? Is there an ongoing scandal? Did this person do something great? Something questionable? What? If the subject agrees to be interviewed, the field producer often conducts a “pre-interview” of the subject to learn where that person may be coming from on particular topics. An “anchor packet” is then prepared for the anchor. In it is the background or context of why this person is being interviewed, a copy of the pre-interview Q&As and a list of suggested questions prepared by the segment producer.
The anchor can use this material as a jumping off point for their own interview. He/she may use the questions verbatim; but, of course, it’s better to prepare some questions yourself after studying the issue and to be prepared to be flexible and respond appropriately based on the person’s response. Never just stick to a script.
Sometimes a subject will say during the pre-interview –“This question is off-limits.” But most networks will not agree to anything like that beforehand. Once, when I was interviewing the wife of a Vice President, I asked the question she did not want asked. She refused to answer and we moved on. But I had to ask.
As for what’s said during the commercials, if there’s a break, it’s not unheard of to prepare the subject like, “when we come back from break, we’ll explore X…” And it’s also not unusual for the subject to try and direct the questioning to a topic or message point they prefer to get across. In fact, I know coach executives and other leaders how to make better control an interview situation by staying on message and not letting anchors stir them off their main points.
The aim of a good anchor is to try to “break some news” or uncover something. The aim of an interviewee is to get their positive message heard and remembered by the audience.
Ernest: Gina, we live in an age wherein privately funded media have heavy commercial interests with huge revenues collected from ads. Does it not make it hard, for private channels particularly, to maintain independence and reflect it in its news programs or talk shows?
Gina: Yes, for sure, every commercial news outlet is a for-profit entity and that influences content more in the style and flavor of how stories are covered oftentimes, more than how far left or right the outlet may lean. The best thing a person can to stay informed and impartial, is to seek out a variety of news sources. But, of course, almost every person has their own individual leanings and so we tend to seek out the sources that reflect our own beliefs.
Ernest: Nowadays we hear of the unrest in Myanmar and some Muslim groups, like in Pakistan, believe that thousands of Muslims have been killed while other sources place the numbers at less than 100. How do we decide in such cases what or what not to believe?
Gina: Back during repressive communist governments, for example, people had no idea what really happened when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown occurred. The Soviet Union controlled the media and it took weeks before real news got out. Is the information coming from a questionable government spokesman? From an eyewitness on the scene? From a wire-service? When you hear reports of any event, consider the source. In rural China recently, people demonstrated against special treatment for some visiting government officials which closed off part of a wildlife preserve to regular visitors. Cell phone photos and videos were sent to blogs which were picked up my larger outlets. Certainly the Chinese government would never have reported this event, but this is another case in which social media has helped to open the doors of information.
Ernest: As we speak of Myanmar, one important question related to the incident is what kind of responsibility media bears while reporting on sectarian killings while the fear of stirring further unrest is constantly hovering above?
Gina: The word “media” is one that bears examining here. When I lived in Egypt (2006), for example, there were plenty of so-called media outlets that were basically another form of mouthpiece for the regime. We knew it. The Egyptian people knew it. Maybe some in more uneducated rural areas were not that astute and believed everything that was told to them, but the more progressive-minded people sought out the more independent outlets. So when “media” is covering an ongoing uprising like in Myanmar, some will have their own agendas in hand, while other outlets will strive to use non-inflammatory language as possible. These are the outlets that are operating responsibly and trying to disseminate only the news.
Ernest: How do you rate the invasion of social media and blogging as a means of disseminating information, often discredited as lacking professionalism, and influencing opinion?
Gina: It’s true that the term “journalist” as I knew it, when I studied at the Ernie Pyle school of Journalism in Indiana University, is not the same as it is now. Anyone with a smartphone can be a “journalist” if they’re on-hand during the right time. In terms of breaking news, I think it’s a good thing. Citizen journalists are exposing exploitive governments, documenting ravaging tornadoes, or catching a moment when a professional isn’t there. That, to me, is helpful in disseminating breaking news information and I think it’s a good thing. What’s clogging up and confusing issues often, however, are the number of citizen journalist “experts” out there – blogging or tweeting or YouTubing opinion disguised as professional knowledge. That can be dangerous. But as in anything, it’s the responsibility of the reader or viewer to not get sucked in. Again, consider the source and Caveat Emptor!
Ernest: For a final question, allow me to ask how you made a transition from journalism to public relations and marketing industry.
Gina: The life of a working television journalist is typically one filled with many hours away from home – traveling from news assignment to news assignment. For me, after almost fifteen years, I decided I wanted some roots and to have a family. The communications training or public relations field, in which I now work, is still one which explores the use of words to impart information and that I enjoy. It’s a pretty usual transition actually. Many journalists go from reporting to pitching so to speak.
Before, I reported on the people, issues or events that reach above the normal din. And now I try to help my clients ensure that their people, issue, or event is one of those “better than normal” things which deserve to be reported upon.
Ernest: Gina, thanks a million for sparing us your precious time and sharing your views!
Gina: My pleasure. It was a delight to share my experience with you and your readers. I welcome any and all sincere discussion upon anything that I may have said. Feel free to write me via my website at www.GinaLondon.com.