Today's Guest Post once again comes to us from our friend in News Media, The Storyteller, who has chosen to share with us her first-person perspective of being a part of the Media. So please engage our guest in the comments below.
Welcome to the newsroom where everyone has an opinion, everyone thinks they’re right, and under the bus is a place you should get comfortable being thrown. Welcome to the newsroom where there are people who just want to be on TV, people who only want to tell good stories, people that only care about accuracy, people that only want to be recognized as local celebrities, people that pull the strings behind the faces you see, and people who do all of the above because they really care. Welcome to the newsroom.
I’ve been out of college for three years. I initially wanted to be a reporter, but I remember my teacher who was the anchor/Executive Producer (and is now the News Director) at the local CBS affiliate in Tallahassee said it’s easier to get a job as a producer than it is as a reporter. I applied for both types of jobs and the first one I got was as a producer. I’ve been producing ever since.
I began my career in market 131 in Amarillo, Texas. Where the hell is that you say? It’s in the Texas panhandle. Doesn’t help? Okay it’s the same place Oprah had to go when she was sued by the beef industry for her comments about Mad Cow disease in the late 90’s.
Amarillo is flat, desert like, known for tumbleweeds, wildfires, beef, wind farms and of course being Republican. News in Amarillo covers agriculture, crime (I remember a lot of child molesters), and of course a lot of weather; ice storms, rain storms, tornadoes, wind storms, you name it, Amarillo’s got it.
So what was it like to work in this environment? The racial makeup was mostly White and Mexican. There were four Black people, myself, an audio director, a photog (cameraman), and a production person who I became friends with that ended up getting fired. While working there, our station received regular greetings from the Klan, as in Ku Klux; they would send mail in plastic sandwich baggies weighted down by rocks. One time an assignment editor found a noose hanging at the desk of one of the reporters. He looked at me when he removed it. I was nonplussed; I hadn’t seen it.
On the political scene, Amarillo is, as I mentioned, Republican country all day long. As an Obama supporter I was in unfamiliar waters. It made for an interesting dynamic between my coworkers and I in the days after Obama was elected or during the entire debate over health care reform. I found myself in tense discussions with many just asking them to be tolerant even if they didn’t agree with his politics. I remember my mouth dropping when one of the weathermen compared Obama’s speech to school children to what the Nazi’s did in Germany. I didn’t run into any birther’s there.... that surprise was waiting for me at my next job.
Job number two brought me to Fort Myers, Florida. News in Fort Myers focuses a lot on the beach; erosion, sea turtle nesting season, tourism, and the affects of the Gulf Oil Spill even though it hadn’t reached our shores. We did plenty of stories about city council, a few corruption trials, and a few major murder trials. One of the biggest stories I remember is a teen bullying case that led to the suicide of another teen which the Today show picked up.
Racial makeup in this newsroom was pretty much Black and White with a sprinkling of Latino. With Florida being a swing state, politics ran the gamut of staunchly conservative to staunchly liberal and everything in the middle. One of the most interesting happenings in the newsroom occurred one morning when another producer (who was also from Chicago) and I were joking with the traffic anchor (who was from Detroit) about who had the best city. He said, “What is Chicago known for other than deep dish pizza.” We retorted, “Don’t talk about the Chi when Detroit started the recession.” We went back and forth for a while until the traffic anchor said, “Name something else good out of Chicago,” and I dropped that O word you know, as in “Obama.”
An eery silence came across the newsroom as everyone knew the traffic anchor was a conservative. What he finally said was something to the effect of, “I don’t even know where Obama is from. I don’t even think Obama knows where he’s from.” The birther had been revealed. I tried to dismiss it and say something to the effect of “Even if you don’t agree with his politics, having the First Black President being from the city of Chicago is a great thing.” He didn’t agree. I stopped talking as did my friend before we both went all the way in.
Between Amarillo and Fort Myers my conversations with coworkers on race were usually shrouded in conversations of politics. I had one coworker remark in a morning meeting about how she hated Katrina people. Both of my parents were born and raised in New Orleans which means many of my family members are Katrina people. My coworker hated them because they “ruined” her Houston neighborhood. I let her know that those “Katrina people” no longer have neighborhoods.
Between Amarillo and Fort Myers I learned that in a newsroom people will let their opinions, prejudices, racial biases, etc... be known because we’re in a news room and not on the air. It isn't until the lights, camera’s, and mics come on that the biases are tucked aside in the name of presenting the news. That news that is made is put together by someone like me. Everything you see, the way you see it, the way you hear it, and the commentary given is chosen by someone like me. That means whatever biases I have, or someone else has, may subconsciously play into the narrative. There will be managers who may question my judgment or think the narrative should be something else, but nine times out of ten if I or any other producer can strongly defend our decision then we can do whatever we want.
The key to local news is covering both local, national, and even the international news of the day. This means the stories that some may think are important won’t get covered while others that some think show one group in a bad light will. News judgment is often intertwined in personal judgment. Discussions of what will make a good story, what will make for interesting TV, and what do I want to run all run together.
In the end, I’d like to say that local news media is a reflection of local dynamics; whatever the racial tensions or political leanings of the city are will usually be reflected on your TV screen at 6 in the evening. News is supposed to be unbiased. Some see it as the fourth estate; keeping the government and its three branches honest. But unless you’re working at the network level which comes with a whole other set of dynamics (i.e. corporate influence), that whole unbiased position is just really not going to happen.
News is made by people; there are people who go out and do things in their life that someone like me will deem newsworthy, and because the distinction of newsworthiness comes from a person, whatever biases, prejudices, racial pre-conditions, political leanings etc. are inherent in me will become inherent in the news even as everyone in the business strives to be above them. What we are not above is telling a good story and sometimes the way we tell it is what is being called into question instead of the story itself.