The herd misses opportunities

Jeff Jarvis wrote this week that no one wants less reporting, and in his post he questioned the amount of reporting done and resources spent by different outlets all following the same stories. He pointed to the death of Anna Nicole Smith as an example of “wall-to-wall” coverage from too many journalists all saying the same thing.

I’ve been in the herd, more times than I’d like. I was one of the 1,400 journalists camped out on the lawn of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana for the execution of Timothy McVeigh when only seven journalists were actually allowed in the death chamber. Journalistically, what value was added for the viewers and readers with so many journalists feeding off of the same thin gruel? In one of the more embarrassing moments professionally, I remember how a few hundred anti-death penalty protesters were surrounded by three times that number of journalists. As about 50 protesters sat in circle for a silent vigil on the morning of the execution, a ring of photographers, TV camera men and women and reporters pressed in on them. A few protesters left, gasping and distraught with claustrophobia.

And I watched last week, as the herd jumped on a leaked cockpit video showing two American A-10 pilots mistakenly attacking a British light-armoured convoy in 2003. One soldier, Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull, was killed in the attack, and his widow was attempting to find out the circumstances of his death. The Sun had got hold of the video that British and American military authorities had said did not exist, and it was viewed more than a million times on their website.

Although I can’t claim to have followed the story exhaustively, I read several major newspapers’ coverage of the event and watched Sky. There was universal condemnation of the pilots with stories about ‘trigger-happy Yanks’, ranging from currently serving soldiers all the way back to British veterans who remember being mistakenly strafed by American pilots in World War II. The anger towards these two present day American pilots in the media seemed to feed off itself.

As an American, I found it difficult reading and viewing, especially because it laid bare the animosity that some in the British media and British public have towards Americans. Rationally, I can understand the source of some of that anger, but having strong ties to the UK and affection for the US, the deteriorating relationship is painful to watch.

As a journalist, I thought the coverage lacked balance. I found it long on commentary and woefully short on actual reporting. Moreover, I think when the media swarms it often does so in unthinkingly.

It misses many opportunities and, in this instance, I’ll point out one of them. My friend Chris Vallance pointed me to Joe d’Oen’s excellent podcast Fly with Me. Joe flies for a major American airline, but he used to fly an A-10, the same anti-tank aircraft involved in this incident. Joe’s podcast is outstanding, a really high quality piece of audio that would sit well in almost any professional broadcaster’s output. As a former A-10 pilot, he walked his listeners through the audio of the cockpit tapes with a calm professionalism and explains exactly what was said and its implications, giving the listener a greater understanding of the circumstances around the tragedy. It’s an excellent piece, and actually a more responsible piece of analysis than much of that published in the mainstream media. Why didn’t a journalist Google Joe and get him on air or get a quote from him?

The mainstream media believes that “user-generated content” has to come through their sites, their walled gardens of tightly controlled participation, so they miss the vastly larger opportunity that exists on the internet as a whole. But these missed opportunities by the media aren’t down to a lack of column inches or airtime. In this instance, there was an overwhelming amount of coverage on this story. Too bad it was all the same.

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