Thursday, May 5, 2011
I love going to the movies. Nearly every Friday I zip out to see the latest and greatest from Hollywood. In addition I watch plenty of television – sampling virtually every show that’s out there and getting hooked on lots of dramas. I’ve also spent the bulk of my professional career working in and around media companies. I’m not unique – the draw of a compelling story has been part of human history from the beginning. It’s no surprise, then, that the modern news media uses the narrative of a good story to communicate the events of the day.
As a journalism student at Syracuse University’s acclaimed SI Newhouse School of Communications I was admonished to tell the “who, what, when, where and why” of an event. Opinion didn’t have a role in the strict telling of events, though it was always acknowledged that individual perspective shapes stories. The major news event of the past week is “Osama bin Laden is dead.” When a perspective is brought to the story the headline changes to “Osama bin Laden murdered” or “Osama bin Laden martyred” or any number of other adjectives. Just look at the range of headlines from around the world and in New York. “Balanced” reporting of the events is not having any perspective, but acknowledging that a point of view exists.
Nearly every major U.S. media network quickly put together graphics, music and a narrative to better tell the bin Laden story. The planning and assasination of bin Laden is being told on television and the Internet with thundering music and 3D graphics. It appears like the hot new video game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – using every available tool to effectively communicate the event is welcome. Less welcome is when the telling/communicating becomes more important than the facts themselves and when differing facts and points of view on the events are not included because they don’t fit with the slick narrative.
The bin Laden story is dramatic, exciting, compelling and resonates with people world-wide. The White House perspective for days has been the baseline for the vast majority of the American reporting with little probing of the fundamental philosophy and justification behind the action. Whether the attack was a triumph of American resolve or the desecration of American principles was explored in my blog “Gotcha!” the other day. It’s gotten more comments and discussion than nearly any other to date. I think this is because the media narrative has been ubiquitous and unanimous and legitimate questions that exist haven’t been explored widely.
There have certainly been discussions about whether a "proof of death" photo should be released or about the U.S. role in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq where differing points of view have been heard. The baseline of those points of view, however, have been the same: that the killing of bin Laden was legal and appropriate. The narrative stays the same - the plot points heightened for dramatic effect.
From May 1 to May 3 Washington D.C. was host for the first time to World Press Freedom Day created 20 years ago by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression.
The American and Western press have spoken with one voice on the bin Laden story while simultaneously celebrating and preaching the necessity of freedom of expression. That feels like story time. Where’s the popcorn?