Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oversimplified Tuesday - 2

For a quick recap of what the heck Oversimplified Tuesday is, go here.

A funny thing happened on the way to simplifying a news story...I fell back into the same trap I would have as a reporter; answering questions by filling space but not necessarily giving the detailed facts. Ironically it's also the same thing we're trying to break down during the conversation: stories give you facts and comments and people have to try and figure out what the full picture is and what can be done about the topic at hand.

If only all reporters had someone like Sally to keep them on task.

Here now is an "oversimplied" conversation where I do stop trying to fill space and just answer the questions:

Sally: ok. the article i have questions about is here.

okay, so this is going to reveal what a complete imbecile i am, but i have no idea how government works. which means that this story means absolutely nothing to me. so, back to the article: my question is, when they say "The province unveiled a plan Monday to end homelessness in Alberta by 2019," does that actually mean anything? or is that the equivalent of me going to work and being like "hey, everybody, i think we should get donuts tomorrow."
does that mean i have unveiled a plan to get donuts?

Jeff: You are correct. Also, I want some donuts now. The plan has work behind it, people looking into the issue figuring out what the causes of (in this case) homelessness are and how things could be solved. At this stage though it's only a plan.

Sally: okay, so basically what happened, in my language is: (wait for it)
- i suggested we get donuts.
-then i did some recon to find out the cost of donuts, who gives us the most donuts for the least money, which are the best donuts. then i went back to work and was like "based on my evidence, i am sure we should get these donuts, from this place" and everybody went "okay!"

but nobody ponied up any money or took the initiative to get the ball rolling. so now we wait until the budget comes down to see if we can afford donuts.

Jeff: Yes. But you are in charge of the donut fund (as the government is in charge of the budget) so it's really your call as to whether or not it gets funded.

Sally: but the problem i have - and again, i am PARTICULARLY uneducated when it comes to government matters - is that i need that FRONT and CENTER! to me, the fact that this was a front page story suggests that this is urgent! that it's happening right now! that it requires my attention! but it doesn't. basically they did some research, they figure they have a plan, but no one knows if it's going to happen or not.

Jeff: Yup. The same (ok, similar) story came out from the City of Edmonton earlier this year. They had a look and figured they could solve the city's homelessness in the same 10-year timeframe for $1-billion. But most of that money had to come from the provincial and federal governments. Calgary also had a look and figured they'd need $3-billion. It was certainly front page in Edmonton when that story came out and it was even less of a certainty.

Sally: so i guess my question then becomes, WHAT THE HELL? i can see the argument that you would want to publicize this story now because, gee, maybe i want to get involved and offer up some ideas for this plan. but nowhere on this article does it say, "hey, if you have ideas, call or email so-and-so." but if you aren't going to tell me why i should care, then WHY IS THIS IN THE PAPER?????

Jeff: It's in the paper because it was a big announcement from the government and that's easy to cover and get reaction to.

Sally: but doesn't that pose a problem, in that dummies like me read the paper, and i figure "look, it's on the front page, it must be important." because arguably, this isn't terribly important. this belongs on a page 4 or 5.

This story does me no good if you don't add "say, if you like/don't like this idea, here's what to do about it..." or is that not the role of news? I always think of it as being like a junior high teacher. You should be taking the big complicated stories that are happening in the world and making them relevant to me. But I don't feel like that is happening here. Is that something reporters think about? Am I being unfair in expecting them to?

Jeff: I'm generalizing here, but reporters are thinking about getting a story done. They are thinking about taking the facts (in this case the highlights of the plan) and grabbing someone to comment on that. They aren't necessarily thinking about making it relevant to you. A story like this, because it involves an issue most of us encounter frequently, is assumed to be relevant simply because of that. They are boiling down the facts of the plan here, and not thinking (or not being provided space) to tell you what you can do about it. And because this is just a plan, not something that's guaranteed to move forward why would they (newsrooms and the government too) waste time soliciting your feedback if this is dead soon?

It's fair to ask what to do; it should be part of the story.

Sally: That's validating, because I often read stories of this nature and think, okay, what do i do now? Am I a dumbass because I don't really understand how this information is relevant to me?

Jeff: You're not a dumbass. People putting together the news are immersed in the stories they are covering. This story is going to be put together by reporters covering the provincial government and city beat, they talk to everyone involved in the announcemnent a lot, they have heard similar details before and they write the story that way. People producing and editing are in the same boat basically. The story gets written in a way that you need to already know where to go and what to do. If you don't, and they don't mention it, yes, you get a feeling it's being taken care of or there's nothing you need to/should do.

post-chat update:

If you want to see this kind of plan actually go somewhere or if you want nothing of the kind you should tell your MLA how you feel.

If you know who your MLA is go here to contact them. If you don't know; go to this website and find out.

* links added post-chat


JetEngineJesus said...

I may be off-base here, but newspapers are out to sell, um, newspapers. Catchy headlines and front page stories that have people talking about how there's now a plan to end homelessness in 10 years are going to garner a lot more attention (and, hopefully, a lot more purchases) that a front page story on how, y'know, 'hey, some people got together and said we should go and buy some (metaphorical) donuts'.
Maybe I'm generalizing too much, but most news outlets are primarily concerned with getting whatever stories to air/print which are most attention-getting. They're not concerned with making sure people truly understand the issues, or what sort of action the viewer/reader can take, as long as people have something they can easily digest and repeat to their friends. 'Hey, did you see that story in the Edmonton Journal today? No? Well, let me recount said story in three sentences or less.'

Jeff said...

JEJ, I think you're exactly right.

Newspapers do seem to be more about selling than telling a lot of the time. That may be part of the discussions we're going to have this year as "old" media tries to become "new."