A thing about encouraging the media to do better

Y’all see that Trump presser today? Where he threatened BuzzFeed, argued with a CNN reporter, and basically called everything that doesn’t praise him fake news? Meanwhile, reporters there to ask questions seemed flumoxed on how to proceed — asking too many things at once, allowing Trump to weasel out of questions, not taking up the deeply salient questions of a reporter when he was ignored by Trump, and struggling, often on whether to soften questions in hopes of potential increased access. A lot of reporters tried valiantly, but on the day after  a day with ninmajor breaking stories and with a confounding entertainer who does not adhere to U.S. political norms, it was sort of a hot mess.

And that’s just one day! How do we make sense of a news media that covered an FBI announcement about Democratic emails that amounted to nothing, but has seemed to go soft on Trump and Russia in the midst of an oft confusing and hostile relationship between intelligence services and and incoming administration? Everyone is screaming about Fake News, no one can keep up on the real news, and Americans have largely lost any understanding on what journalists can and should do (hint: when interpreting, interpretation should be clear; the ideal of neutrality is not a real thing; journalists are not stenographers but must contextualize facts; audience service does not mean providing audiences only what they want to hear). Journalism is a risky profession that helps to safeguard democracy around the world. Good journalism is aggressive in investigation, thoughtful on possibilities,  and cautious — but not timid– in conclusions.

Anyway, a friend just texted me asking how to encourage the media to do their jobs in a political climate that is rapidly violating all sorts of norms. The answer to that is really long and involves multiple types of action, so I said I would write this up.

Context to the below is I’m a former AP journalist, with a degree in journalism, who also has a day job related to media analysis. I speak only for myself.

What you can do as a consumer of news media without talking back to the news media:

1. Stop saying “Mainstream Media” when discussing news content. No one knows what this means anymore . Some people use it to mean liberal bias. Some people use it to mean print media. Some people use it to mean non-cable TV media. Some people use it to mean non-Internet media. No one can agree on what it is, so when talking about the media critically, don’t use the term, just define the specific media or category of media you mean, otherwise the stuff you’re saying isn’t super helpful.

2. Stop saying “Fake News.” Say what you mean — satire, propaganda (foreign? or domestic?), doctored email, leaks, rumors, lies, websites pretending to be for newspapers that don’t actually exist, opinion outlets, partisan think tanks. Be prepared to say why something is what you describe it as.

3. Get your news from multiple sources. This includes from multiple platforms – TV, print, internet, and as widely across the political spectrum as you can stand.

4. Read foreign English-language news about the U.S. and the rest of the world. This doesn’t just mean going to BBC.com, this means foreign language news media with English language editions. You can find these on every continent. I rotate through English language editions of papers in Germany, France, India, the Middle East, and Africa over the course of the week. Google is a wonderful thing. (If I make a list it’s going to be wildly incomplete and I don’t have time. Google. And if you make a list let me know and I’ll add a link to it).

5. Trace stories back to the original reporting. Okay, so you found out about something from a partisan newsletter, a friend’s Tweet, or even a Wall Street Journal article that references another media source. Google the original reporting and read that. Media can be a game of telephone. Get the first story. Read follow-on stories that go more in depth across other media, but don’t rely on tertiary sources.

6. Understand the actual media relationship with objectivity/neutrality.  Media in the U.S. are not legally required to be unbiased. In fact, the idea of “unbiased” reporting is a convention of network TV and big-5 American newspapers in the mid-late 20th century. Historically, and in the 21st century, American media and those in many democracies around the world have specifically been organs of particular viewpoints. For heaven’s sake, The New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton to talk trash about his rivals. Media neutrality is not, and cannot be, a real thing. What is the neutral viewpoint? That of a white straight cisgender Christian man with a traditional U.S. university education? Are reporters from other demographics less considered neutral? To consume and evaluate news you need to know: 1. Your own biases, 2. Our cultural biases in defining neutrality, 3. The actual objectives of any news organization which can range from “as neutral as possible” to extreme partisanship.

7. Bias your news exposure towards outlets that provide access to source materials/documents.  This allows you to evaluate news interpretation for yourself.

8. Observe and note patterns of portrayal Who discusses what issues on a given program? Are people impacted by a particular issue given the opportunity to speak to a particular issue. Is crime framed on a racial basis? Are women relegated to discussing only lifestyle issues?

9. Make sure you consider local news too. I don’t watch a lot of local news, but I’ve started to recently. It’s helped me understand the sentiment so many people have of America facing lots of problems even as crime has dropped and employment has gone up. Local American news is about fear on every axis imaginable. Just like fashion magazines sell women products they don’t need lest they fail to get a man; local news sells us fears only they can solve. Yes, it’s true, “if it bleeds, it leads,” but news doesn’t have to be like this. I’d encourage you watch this video from Ulrik Haagerup on the “constructive news” approach he implemented in Denmark. Constant fear-based local news reporting in the U.S. contributes to the extreme polarization we face on race, politics, and the urban/suburban/rural divides, and it’s something we need to address.

10. Read journalistic review and criticism, such as Columbia Journalism Review to understand how the media is struggling with itself right now.

What you can do as a consumer of news media by interacting with the news media:

Okay, by now, both from reading this and your own experiences with the media, you probably have a sense of what you’re watching and what you want the media to do. But how can you encourage the media to do those things?

1. Social media makes news outlets and journalists accessible. Misleading headline? Tell them. Unclear writing? Tell them. Need more details on a thing? Tell them. Like their work? Tell them. Learned something new? Tell them. Have gratitude? Say thank you.

2. Most newspapers and broadcasts have a public editor or ombudsman, whose job it is to evaluate coverage and determine if the publication is meeting a public need. Think coverage is unclear? biased? or inadequate? Contact this person via email, phone, or snailmail. I have looked and looked for a comprehensive list of these people/contact addresses and can’t find one. If you’re aware of one or create one, please let me know and I’ll add a link here. If you cannot find a contact for a public editor then just contact a more generic point at the media outlet.

When contacting about coverage, be specific. “Your coverage is biased” is not helpful. “I watched the PEOTUS press conference today and felt your news outlet could have asked tougher questions” or “Many people don’t know what the Alt Right is, please make it clear in your coverage this is a loose affiliation of groups that support white supremacist agendas” is helpful. You must clearly articulate what’s wrong, what you would like them to do, and what action you might take (will you unsubscribe? will you subscribe if coverage improves? Do you own a business that might stop advertising with them? Do you teach a class that uses news sources in the curriculum and you might go elsewhere?).

Be aware that the contact that takes the most effort is the contact taken the most seriously. Email doesn’t take as much time out of an employee’s day as a phone call or paper mail.

3. Support media you like with $. Let them know why you subscribe and what you think they are doing right.

4. Are you an expert? Join the mediaI mean it. If you know about a thing, make sure you’re registered with a speaker’s bureau. Write and submit op-eds (you get paid for those, unlike letters to the editor). Realize expertise is a broad concept. Make yourself relevant based on demographics, where you live, your creative life, a thing hat happened to you, your day job, whatever. ACA saved your life? You’re an expert. Have family that has fled fascist governments? You’re an expert. Have a disability? You’re an expert. Been harassed because of your identity? You’re an expert. Scientist? Expert. Teacher of any sort? Expert! Religious professional? Expert. Author? Expert. Super into Star Trek? Expert on pop-culture and the future we envisioned vs the future we’re getting. Everyone is an expert on something. If you can’t figure it out, ask your friends, they totally know what you’re an expert in. Write stuff and submit it. This is another case of, someone else needs to make relevant lists here — let me know and I’ll update this document.

Got stuff to add? Or stuff that’s relevant? Comment/link and I’ll add as appropriate. Thanks!

 

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Ebola and the “good victim” narrative

When I write here,  I am almost always writing about entertainment content and rarely about news content. But analyzing the news is what I do in my desk job, and we’re all lying when we say the news isn’t entertainment anyway.  Information is entertainment.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am rather engaged with this Ebola story. Because news content in general behaves in a viral way (stories spread from nodes of information), it’s particularly interesting in an abstract, science-driven way when the news content is actually about a virus.

But quite outside of that very academic, numbers-driven interest, I’ve noticed something else: The emergence of the “good victim” in the Ebola narrative.

Since Ebola arrived in the U.S. (which was always going to happen the second it reached a major city anywhere in the world in significant numbers), the media has become very interested in telling us how well-liked, church-going, or family oriented individuals who have been infected who get media coverage are. They assure us the first nurse in Dallas to get infected “did all the right things.”  They show us cute pictures of her with her dog.

Meanwhile, the second nurse, and the original man diagnosed with the disease here get a lot less coverage. They are blamed for travel, although they either did not have symptoms at the time and/or were given the go ahead by CDC employees. No cute family stories or dog pictures for them, nope.  Little coverage on how the man helped a dying pregnant woman who may have been the source of his infection (and whom he may have not known was infected).

There’s a clear racial component in this.  The African and African-American victims in the U.S. have received less overall coverage and more critical coverage when visible, much like the thousands of people dealing with the disease in western Africa itself.

The “good victim” narrative also interests me, because it — much like every overheard discussion on the New York City subway system for the last week — recalls the early days of the AIDS plague years. Then there were “innocent” victims who were such heroes because this never should have happened to them. They were largely straight, white, female, and young.

AIDS should never happen to anyone.  Neither should Ebola.  And yet they do.  And the good and bad victim narratives — which I thought might be avoided this time around because of no overwhelming focus on a sexual component of the disease — is incredibly dangerous because you can’t stop an epidemic when you only care about protecting some people from it.

Case in point? AIDS rates amongst blacks in the U.S. and AIDS rates in Africa. For lots of people the epidemic hasn’t gone anywhere but on and on and on. And how we talk about people with AIDS is part of how that has happened. We’ve never had the same urgency for everyone. And it’s resulted in a lot of deaths.

It is reasonable and wise for the news media to use personalization to cover Ebola. People often connect to stories better when they can engage with them as they affect singular individuals. But coverage that suggests only some people deserve that personalization increases danger, both from the epidemic itself, and from the hideous fear-based non-solutions that people start shouting about when there are “good” and “bad” victims of a disease.

Travel bans, camps, euthanasia. We’ve heard all that and more out of politicians’ mouths in the last week. For those of you who weren’t there, we heard the same things in the 80s about AIDS.  We even made miniseries about some of those ideas. And that they were talked about so seriously, that they were so terrifying to me in my childhood, is why I name none of the people diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. here.  I’m not a news source and I don’t wish to contribute to risks they face from stigmatization of those with Ebola (although I also acknowledge that not naming names may actually increase stigma; it’s a hard choice).

But clearly, that cautionary entertainment in the 1980s (and fictional media about epidemics is entertainment no matter how cautionary, just as news is entertainment no matter how fictional) has taught us nothing. A recent spate of period pieces about the plague years haven’t reminded us of past mistakes either.

Instead, we’ve got a media banking on fear and an overly frightened American populace being taught that only some people don’t deserve to get sick (being female, light-skinned, and godly seem to help individuals get placed in this category), and that it’s perfectly fine to ignore everyone else. Even if it’s a lie, and even if that act of ignoring is what helps epidemics spread.

While it’s likely there will be no further transmissions in the U.S. from this set of cases, and despite all sorts of actions being taken out of an “abundance of caution” — some of which have made no sense at all; can we really sustain national panic attacks over every case of morning sickness or food poisoning? — it’s fairly likely that another case will show up in the U.S. because of the current nature of global travel and the incubation period.

So right now, the news media needs to make the choice to be one of the tools that helps to contain Ebola in America and globally.  Dispensing with “good victim” rhetoric is a key part of that.

Pop-culture, witches, and fame @ The Bell House, October 13, 2014

witches

This coming Monday, I’ll be one of the presenters at  BONNIE & MAUDE PRESENTS: ALL OF THEM WITCHES, a live podcast recording and variety show at The Bell House in Brooklyn.  I’ll be talking about American Horror Story: Coven and what is has to say about notorious women, witchcraft and fame.  (Hint: Fame is the worst).

The event has gotten some press on Gothamist and other high-traffic sites, so I do recommend getting advance tickets.  While this is not at all a book event for me, I will have a couple of copies of Starling on hand in case anyone wants to grab one after. If there’s something else from my catalog you want, please drop a comment here so I know to bring it with me.

 

BONNIE & MAUDE PRESENTS: ALL OF THEM WITCHES
MON, OCTOBER 13, 2014
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:00 pm
The Bell House – Brooklyn, New York
$8.00 / 21+


Tickets available online and at the door

“All Of Them Witches” is the third in a series of live variety shows by Kseniya Yarosh & Eleanor Kagan, the hosts of the Brooklyn-based film podcast, Bonnie & Maude.

Sure to boil the blood and alight the brain, join us for an exploration of witches as seen in movies, television, and pop culture. From green-skinned, be-broomstick’d villains to benevolent sources of high female power, from goddesses of nature to Satan-worshippers, to actual practitioners of Wicca…celluloid representations of witches are contradictory, to say the least. Scholars, artists, and film enthusiasts from all walks of life will toil up some trouble, and revisit favorite on-screen moments of witchcraft in Bewitched,Buffy, The Craft, Hocus Pocus, Black Sunday, Suspiria, Rosemary’s Baby, and more.

Presenters: Tom Blunt, Lyra Hill, Eleanor Kagan, Racheline Maltese, Rosie Schaap,Tenebrous Kate, Cassie Wagler, Kseniya Yarosh

Music throughout the show will be performed by Brooklyn-based chamber pop singer AK, and the 8-piece, all-female a cappella group Femme Rhythm.

Catching Fire and the most unsettling sandwich advertising campaign ever

In 2012, the thing that most excited me about the then forthcoming film of The Hunger Games was the associated product tie-in advertising campaigns.  This year, with the release of Catching Fire (which is as compelling as the first film while being a lot more emotionally brutal), I’m stuck on the advertising once again.

A Cover Girl makeup collection with much higher visibility, than the makeup tie-ins of 2012 doesn’t surprise me in the least.  Nor does the luxury chocolate collection.  Sure, they’re uncomfortable, but affection for and playing at movie magic villainy is nothing new.  It’s just that the intense consumerism and reality TV horror strikes a little closer to home in the holiday shopping season and an economic climate that has been rough for a long time now.

What’s perhaps most surprising, however, is the Subway sandwiches tie-in, because while the other product connections arguably position the consumer as part of the wealthy and elite in the Capitol (regardless of what you think of the aspirational quality of Cover Girl as a brand), the Subway promotion explicitly positions the consumer as the resident of a District.

While the book series tells us some in the Districts live well and have enough to eat, the District narrative as we are exposed to it is largely one of struggle, starvation, injustice, exploitation, and poverty.  The Games are part of an abusive system that kills District children and also holds out that political ritual as a ticket to a better individual and collective life.

Everything about the Subway campaign is fascinating, however, in its sheer audacity, and at times, something that I think resembles a deeply unpleasant honesty.  That the sandwiches are touted as “What the Victors Eat” makes it clear that we all need fuel for our (possibly life and death) struggles to survive.

That’s grim enough, but that we’re supposed to be eager to participate in the restaurant-based game through which we can win our own “victory tour” is bizarre, considering how well that works out for Katniss and Peeta and the fact that Victory Tours in the book are about death and, traditionally, insincere mourning as a form of control.

That the promotion also seeks to raise money to Feeding America (by going to a Subway location, taking a photo of their Catching Fire-related promotions, and tweeting it to get Subway to “help donate a meal”) in a way where the effort/reward ratio seems unfortunate at best, also screams particularly loudly of the Capitol and coerced collaboration.

While I don’t think engaging with and enjoying marketing is innately evil even when playing at villainy, or that luxury chocolates, makeup, and unsettlingly marketed sandwiches are our biggest problems, I do think that there are ways to play in the space of The Hunger Games series that do a lot more good than tweeting photos of Subway sandwich posters. These ways include the Odds in Our Favor and We Are the Districts programs from The Harry Potter Alliance.

However, if anyone ever happens to see any industry press on how decisions were made in putting that Subway campaign together, please send it my way.  I’m desperately curious about the audacity vs. didn’t actually read the books/see the movies ratio.

Kindle Worlds: Not bigger on the inside

Today Amazon announced Kindle Worlds for Authors, which is a self-publishing tool to allow authors of fanfiction to monetize their work as long as it adheres to certain guidelines, including no porn, no offensive language, and no crossovers.

It’s not the first time someone’s tried to make money at the corporate level off fanfiction and it won’t be the last.  As a big believer in the idea that creative people deserve compensation for their creativity and that as a legitimate form of storytelling fanfiction should not be considered a pale shadow of traditional professional writing, I’m not even, necessarily, inherently opposed to the idea.

But Amazon’s project raises a bunch of compelling questions that we’ve been hurtling towards for a while now, especially as fanfiction has increasingly received positive, mainstream, and significant news coverage in outlets like Time Magazine and a property of The Washington Post.

Question 1: To what degree does Kindle Worlds suggest that fanfiction can only be legitimized through the eradication of fan culture’s gift economy?

Question 2: Fanfiction has significantly changed our media culture.  Kindle Worlds isn’t just capitalizing on it, but arguably represents an attempt to shape it.  Is this a feedback loop in action or an attempt to stop the catalyst that is fan work?

Questions 3: The contractual terms of Kindle Worlds are the sort traditional professional writers would be strongly advised against signing on to.  Is fannish work worth less?  Should it be?

Question 4: Fanfiction has, arguably, always been about the option to use use all the tools, particularly those often discouraged by corporate content production (e.g., sexuality), to tell story.  If the toolbox is limited, whether a given writer would choose to use all the tools or not, is it fanfiction or is it some other form of derivative (vs. transformative) work?

Question 5: How will fan readers view/treat fan writers who use a tool like Kindle Worlds? And how does that impact our communities, hierarchies, and barriers to entry?

Please play in comments below.

Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012

978-0-7864-6549-1This snuck up on me because it’s been such a long process but Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012 is finally shipping from McFarland. I have a piece in it on “Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations and Marketing in the New Doctor Who,” which, because of the time lines involved in academic publishing, covers the ninth and tenth Doctors, most of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The whole collection is full of really awesome stuff from fans who are also academics/academics who are also fans, and I’m really excited to finally get to read it. While I wait breathlessly for my contributors copy, you can order it from McFarland’s website at the link above.

MASH 2013: Journalistic Artifacts, Transformative Works, and the Assemblage of Persona

ImageNow it can be told.  I’ll be presenting a paper at Mash 2013, the Making and Sharing Conference on Audience Creativity.  The event will be taking place over July 4 -5, 2013 in Maastrict, The Netherlands, and registration will open soon.  Meanwhile, you can see the preliminary schedule at their WordPress.

My paper, The Media Tells Me So: Journalistic Artifacts, Transformative Works, and the Assemblage of Persona, will be presented on the first day of the conference and the abstract is below:

 Many texts with significant fan communities utilize journalistic media as characters in order to enhance the believability of narrative and support and encourage the free marketing that often comes with ironic believer communities (“Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes: Mass Culture and the Re-enchantment of Modernity.” Saler, 2003).  Such narrative use of journalistic media is often taken up by fan audiences in response to source texts.  These audiences not only include news media elements in the transformative works they produce, but sometimes create journalistic media artifacts – newspapers, magazines, video and audio broadcasts and recordings – specifically as transformative works.

Such use of journalistic media to enhance both original texts and transformative community participation does not represent a dialogue that flows solely in one direction, or that happens outside of the gaze of the news media.  In fact, there have been multiple instances of fan-created, transformative, journalistic artifacts that have been picked up by news outlets as factual reportage.

This paper will examine the use of journalistic media as a character in subject texts and transformative works. It will also document the dialogue that occurs between fan communities and news media outlets when transformative uses of journalistic media styles are encountered by naïve believers (Saler, 2003) and subsequently reproduced as fact, transmuting fiction into reported truth. This will be achieved through a focus on the relationship between FPF (Fictional Person Fiction) and RPF (Real Person Fiction) fan communities. It will examine how texts use journalistic media content to acquire naïve, ironic and enchanted believers (“A Tangible Reality of Absence: Fan Communities and the Mourning of Fictional Characters.” Maltese, 2010), and highlight the role fan-created, transformative, journalistic artifacts play in the invention and reinvention of both fictional texts and celebrity personae.

Can you see me rubbing my hands together with glee on this one?  I’m always talking about how I want to do serious work regarding RPF fan-culture, but this is the first time I’ve had a good excuse.  Of course, I’ve already found multiple instances of fandom accidentally morphing media and persona truth for this, but if you happen to know of any, I would love to hear from you in comments and email.