Hidden ratings, hiding money

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suckers

suckers (Photo credit: reallyboring)

If you searched, say using Google News, for the company Nielsen ratings, you’d find the typical assemblage of stories about how many hearts the American Idols sang their way into or which broken-hearted Bachelorette attracted the most viewers.

Why?

Because these stories are the kind that advertisers want to hear, and they are the kind that media practitioners find easiest to report. If you really want to know about the week in TV, or in any other media for that matter, just visit the Nielsen data page, enhanced for ease of access.

Among the variety of reports, however, stands out one from the New York Times, headlined “In Networks’ Race for Rating, Chicanery is on the Schedule” (at least this is how it appears online).

The article uncovers just a few of the ways the big television networks have “rigged” their programming and advertising schedule so that post-hoc ratings will appear more favorable for a particular show or time period of television viewing. Every minute of watched television in America translates to cash in the networks’ eyes and increased exposure in the advertisers’, and considering how much television Americans watch, there is a lot of money to be had.

And a lot of money to be lost.

What is most surprising about this article is how sources at Nielsen, the organization surveying American households to better understand television watching habits, react to the public news that television executives are openly rigging the system in their favor.

A Nielsen executive, who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements with clients, said Nielsen did have guidelines for what could be done with shows, but recognized that networks would “format their programs to generate maximum ratings impact — call it gimmicks, or call it spin.”

Unless the gimmick results in something egregiously false, Nielsen does not step in. The worse that might happen would be a sternly worded letter.

A network executive interviewed for the story likened any discipline from Nielsen as a “slap on the hand.”

In light of this, it’s worth reading Nielsen’s “About Us” statement on its website.

As a global leader in measurement and information, we believe providing our clients a precise understanding of the consumer is the key to making the right decisions — decisions that can lead to profitable growth. At Nielsen, we’re always innovating to keep pace with emerging market trends and the increasingly diverse, demanding and connected consumer.

After nearly a century, we’re more focused and skilled than ever at providing the complete view of what consumers watch and buy through powerful insights that clarify the relationship between content and commerce. Whether our clients are in media, consumer packaged goods, telecom or advertising, our expansive data and measurement capabilities provide market context and confidence through our long history of innovation and integrity.

A long history of innovation and integrity. The New York Times piece seems to reveal that neither of these practices are in play with respect to the largest television networks. Perhaps its true that the television executives have found a way around the Nielsen system and, though Nielsen recognizes this, they are unable to innovate solutions at a pace necessary to keep up with what is happening on the side of television. This, of course, is no excuse for a loss of one’s overall integrity to the advertiser, who spends millions of dollars based on these somewhat dishonest approach to surveys and analytics.

On a more minor note, this also makes those of us who rely on surveys for research look like crap.

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Revelations

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I’m in the middle of  a research revelation and an ideological one, the two of which are struggling to meet in my mind.

First, the research. The movement known as Occupy is clearly not an isolated movement. It has attracted many people from across the world to act in ways that seem, even to those of us who are statistically part of the 99 percent. It is also salient because it came during a time when revolts and protests are not exactly that difficult to find in the news. For the second time this year, Tahrir Square in Egypt is full of citizen protestors. Two years ago, Iran made front page news as the first truly Twitter-aided election protests. The Arab Spring, as it is called, has thrust the importance of the Middle East in the West’s face, probably quicker than it was ready to accept.

So, it is no surprise that we have the Occupy movements happening now as well as the media’s consistent coverage of them. Because protests, revolts, and uprisings have becoming such hot news items in recent years, I wonder if this has always been the case throughout the history of news media. Have the media always covered protests with such fervor? Have they ever been biased in their coverage? What is the history behind the coverage of protests in the United States? This is what I think I’m after.

Secondly with my ideological issues. Last night, I watched Page One, a documentary about The New York Times with a focus on the faltering newspaper market. There is a point where media reporter David Carr admits how comical he thinks it is when people are both excited and scared to talk to him. I mean, he is The New York Times. He is part of the institution of journalism. But, he’s also a person doing his job. True, I’ve had people tell me they love what I do, but Carr operates in an entirely other universe, where even the people with the coolest jobs would take a pay cut and move to the Bronx just to set foot inside the Times building.

But, Times reporters are just people. If you call their office phone lines, they may pick up. You can find them at local New York eateries or scattered around the globe doing their jobs. After watching this documentary, I’m reminded, as I often am, at just how much labor truly goes into crafting a solid front-page news story – or any story in the paper for that matter. They work long hours, are at the whim of their sources, wear their creativity on their sleeves proudly, and in the end are still dependent on their editors’ decisions as to the quality of their work.

And researchers are always digging through the archives with the intent of uncovering some sort of framing bias or support for some theoretical shift in the way journalism happens.

Therefore, I’d like to approach this project with a historian’s eye. No bias except probably one that allows me to respect the work of journalists.

So you think you’re a pro

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It’s 2011. Somehow we found ourselves in the middle of a social media revolution.

A recent article in the Journal of Sports Media1 spurred me to begin thinking more carefully about the connection of social media and the process of “professionalizing” journalism. Journalists and writers, it’s no secret, enjoy talking about journalism and writing. And, what they say about journalism as a concept is not altogether good: “clearly, at the start of the 21st century, many experienced journalists fear for the future of journalism” (p. 1).2

Generally speaking, popular effects research on the media tend to behave in a manner that posits the media as a negative entity that causes heavy users to behave differently and contrary to normal expectations. Think of Putnam’s Bowling Alone or Postman’s Technolpoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the most basic level, these books argue that something is wrong and that the cause of these social ills is the mass media.

However, in none of these accounts specifically, and in the larger world of research generally, do journalists, news-makers, or the news media (aside from complaints of bias against FOX News) act as a primary culprit in turning well mannered folk into norm-upsetting hippies. It’s always entertainment media or the overuse of new technology, etc. Yet, journalists are the most forward-thinking group of media-makers discussing the process of “becoming more professional.” This is, of course, an entirely separate conversation.

The question facing all journalists is no longer “should I engage with social media,” but “how should I engage with social media.” The “revolution” of social media has forced anyone with a voice needing to be heard to adopt technologies they do not necessarily understand and adapt their message these technologies, which do not necessarily fit the journalist’s method of communication.

Engaging with social media is a casual enterprise. The first thing I did when I logged on to Facebook was accept an invitation to be in a relationship with the girl I’d been in a relationship with for a couple of months. Without knowing it, my online destiny was sealed. My relationship became a “news” item.  In the world of the “news feed” professional news outlets now compete for attention among the myriad of content posted by individual users each day. In so doing, producers of content enter a realm outside of their control. At least when you print a paper or direct a television show or air a radio broadcast, you are in control of how your content looks, feels, and sounds. Publishing a website gives you a large amount of control over your users’ experiences, provided users can actually find and use your site. But Facebook, for example, renders each user, brand, news outlet, and log-on-once-a-month Larry as equals.

To become relevant in the social world, one must somehow become similar to the social world, but in a way that does not sacrifice one’s professionalism. This is no small feat. Consider how quickly you post status updates. Do you use as much effort source-, fact-, and spell-checking these updates before they go live? Have you ever had to delete a post or offer a correction to something you posted earlier? Has something you’ve posted ever split hairs within your organization while being well accepted by your audience? Does your organization have a “best practices” guide to social media?

And, questions of professionalism extend much further than merely what to post, what not to post. What I love about the Sports Media article is its focus on sourcing. Do you pull athlete quotes from Twitter and what’s the professionalism of that? Shouldn’t you be interviewing your sources for solid stories, not picking up stories from Twitter? The answer here is unclear. In fact, everything with respect to the relationship between professionalism and social media is unclear. As Reed suggests, when things begin to clear up, ” it will be up to journalists and the organizations for which they work to decide how to preserve credibility in this environment that arguably demands more of them” (p. 58).

Good luck. It’s been a difficult road to “professionalize” journalism until now. Social media is not making it any easier. But, if journalists can do what they have always done well and get ahead of the trends, they may soon be able to use the social movement to help shape what it means to be professionally social.

Notes

1 Reed, S. (2011). “Sports Journalists’ Use of Social Media and Its Effects on Professionalism.” Journal of Sports Media 6(2), pp. 43-64.

2 Ornebring, H. (2008). “The Two Professionalisms of Journalism: Updating Journalism Research for the 21st Century.” Proceedings from the 2008 International Communications Association Annual Meeting, Quebec, Canada.

You don’t need a big reactor to have a meltdown

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Every morning, as I’m pulling into the office, I hear Steve Chiotakis on the Marketplace Morning Report announce what will end up being the most bizarre thing I will hear all day. Thursdays are included in this statement, but only when I forget to listen to Wiretap on WBEZ at 11 a.m.

Today’s episode of Wiretap will be up against some stiff competition.

CNN.com - Large mushroom cloud

That's a big mushroom - via cnn.com

Although the story has been in the news for a couple of weeks (it having happened, according to the protagonist’s blog, on July 20), we’re just now hearing about the homemade Swedish atom splitter. As the story is told, a Swedish man, who though it would be fun to see what it’s like to split an atom, was arrested only after calling that country’s Radiation Authority to confirm whether his activities were safe.

So how big of a deal is this? A few of the mainstream news outlets, including Marketplace, are reporting it in tongue-and-cheek fashion – the photos here were included in stories published by CNN and Fox News. Others are reporting with some semblance of seriousness and brevity (see New York Times and The Examiner (San Francisco), pieces).

simpsons radioactive

Homer Simpson - via Fox News

However, I sat up after taking a quick pass at the Swedish man’s blog, on which he has been documenting his activities since May. The pictures, instructions, material quantities, even the overall look of the blog are, well, eerie.

This guy may not be the next big terrorist leader, but I’d really like to know why Blogger hasn’t pulled Richard’s Reactor from its public archives.

Ethics decisions following bin Ladin’s death

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Whether you agree with the domestic results of Osama bin Ladin’s death or not, the truth is that out of a supposed American triumph, partisan politics is again becoming one of the week’s leading stories. Was it legal or not? Should his photo be released? The most interesting, is Obama claiming too much credit?

Theoretically, these questions are intriguing and they give us – and the media – many great stories to talk about. While we could argue our opinions until kingdom come, in this case it would be wise to consider some ethical boundaries before jumping off the deep end. We should also remember that before we had any of these questions, so did the President and his colleagues. My guess is that these have been answered for a long time, and decisions that are made are highly unlikely to change.

In a renewed spirit of ethical decision-making, I’d encourage you to look over the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics. With these in mind, you might also consider reading over this article, specifically formatted for the current situations by the folks at RTDNA.

Finally, many people are saying, possibly prematurely, that, “You will always remember where you were the day you heard about bin Ladin’s death.” But will we? Again using the media as an example to reflect our own actions, most of the umph behind stories of great value has often fizzled out around 12 days after the event has happened. The following is from On the Media:

The first few days are spent reporting breaking news and casualties and destruction. Around day five, the late miracle story in which search teams find an improbable survivor amidst the rubble. Day seven brings the interpretation of meaning story, with religious overtones. By day 12, it’s essentially buh-bye for now.

If the media or politicians want to keep an issue before the public, they must therefore continue to advance reasons for the public to remain interested – such as debating the legality of a killing that has already happened and, even if found to be illegal in whatever hypothetical court would be used, would not result in disciplinary action toward the offending party. If the death photo is released, the natural next step would be to gain public access for the video watched in the White House Situation Room.

These actions would provide some immediate sense of gratification, but, in the end, conspiracy theories would still exist (The Telegraph calls this “the gift that keeps on giving to conspiracy theorists”), people would still be disgusted with the images, and questions of good/bad, right/wrong politics would still be among the top 5 stories on every news website.

Some closing thoughts. SPJ’s ethics say a few things about conflicts of interest and lurid curiosity. Some wise reflection on these topics would do us all some good in approaching the public nature of this story. And, just in case you’re sick of all the “too-serious” conversation surrounding this issue, use this video to lighten your mood.

Free speech in opinion expression on air

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If the First Amendment right to free speech has made you famous, should you still be allowed to act on this right in the public square once you are famous?

Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN.

NPR’s scandal made national headlines just weeks ago.

Fox News is constantly in the crosshairs of “liberal” media folk.

This post will explore some of my knee-jerk normative assumptions about volatile opinions among popular media folks.

There is some research to back up the belief that individuals will choose to use news media they feel most accurately represents their ideological commitments. This particular paper uses the selective processes as a primary theory. This is very important as it seems the concepts of cognitive dissonance and consistency have experienced a sort of rebirth in modern scholarship since the mid-1900s. The authors attribute this revival to the influx of new media choices, not the least of these options being a plethora of cable news networks (Fox, CNN, MSNBC, etc.). The line of thinking goes: more choices are the result of more niche markets, and people will be more likely to seek out only those sources of information they feel support their typical worldview.

You can also thank the Internet for this.

But the Internet may not be fully to blame either. The Internet differs from typical cable talk shows in that Web users have the opportunity to seek a variety of sources that are not politically volatile. Television users, on the other hand, have fewer opportunities to exchange talk shows for more “objective” news analysis. Instead, prime time entertainment opportunities abound that lend little to the current conversation.

By now enough scholarship exists pointing out political biases in the largest news media outlets (and this shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve read even one book on journalism history – this one on Pulitzer is a winner). Yet the outlets themselves do not take the critique seriously unless it is directed toward competitor networks – here’s one of the handful of opinion pieces from Fox News concerning the allegations of NPR’s liberal bias. Pieces like these, regardless of the network, that look not to point out but attack the doings of economically competitive enterprises are doing citizens a disservice rather than aiding in their ability to participate publicly.

With decently strong evidence in support of cognitive processing at the cable news media use level, ethical practice seems to dictate that opinion makers not use their platform to foster attitudes of disdain, especially toward others in the public eye who also happen to be citizens of the same country.

As with most ethical appeals, this is extremely normative, holding a strong belief that the community associated with common citizenship should be protected. It seems then that rhetoric and actions that divide the community are harming the country at its core. Disagreements and even heated debates are not negative but rather formative forces in nations where free speech is a founding ideal. But to focus on those disagreements rather than on the normative goal is a mistake that should be avoided.

Other research suggests that the heavy television users are more susceptible to the sort of cognitive processes that cause them to utilize the opinions of “unrepresentative exemplars” in their decision making than are newspaper users. Thus, while this could and should be followed up with research into how Op-Ed pages affect readers, I suggest that the bulk of opinion research be focused on television and new media due to the ease with which these enterprises can openly espouse controversial opinions to awaiting audiences.

Two truths and a (couple) lies

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There are loads of things interesting about the community journalism efforts of creative, driven writers blogging for their communities. There are also a lot of criticisms. Regardless of your opinion of these blogger-journalists, they are still plagued by many of the same hurdles that stand in the way of “traditional” journalists.

To gain credibility in news, writers must have credible sources who feed the story’s information and provide support for any claims made. Sources can help writers be more objective in their approach. And, even if the source selection process is biased, simply having a quoted source is enough for most readers – a sad fact.

Source inclusion for the community blogger can, at times, be extremely complicated, however. See this story from The New York Times about Daniel Cavanagh, a blogger who made more than a few community members sour with the investigative pieces he’d taken on. The following excerpt from The Times represents view points taken by both parties after Cavanagh exposed some illegal activity leading to the downfall of a local nonprofit.

To Mr. Taylor [nonprofit chairman], the posts were attacks on GB Cares [nonprofit] and a betrayal of the Beach’s culture of volunteerism. And he was furious that Mr. Cavanagh had not given him an opportunity to comment before the entries were posted.

To Mr. Cavanagh, the posts exposed how things had always been done at the Beach. He said he did not speak with anyone at the organization before posting the entries because Mr. Taylor had said his car “would end up in the creek” if he wrote about the project. (Mr. Taylor said he did not “remember anything like that.”)

At this point, readers should be asking two questions. The obvious is, Why did Cavanagh not seek out Taylor for comment? The author of this Times story did just that, and Cavanagh answers that he was threatened when he sought comment. The second question is, Who is lying and who is telling the truth?

It’s beyond any of us who have no access to the facts behind this story to actually answer these questions – most readers of the story are likely to answer them in accordance with the predispositions they bring to their reading. But, what’s important is not answering those questions correctly. It’s what we perceive in asking them. Cavanagh is a blogger, which means his source list is, well, short relative to the greater journalistic population. Therefore, he must build credibility through his writing. In this particular case, a potential source, most likely more well known in the community, is calling Cavanagh’s work unethical. The protection Cavanagh once had behind his blog has collapsed, and the burden is on him to prove his credibility and his ethics.

Most journalists working for a media outlet are afforded some protection by the fact that journalism is their job. Thus, they are free to use whichever sources are available to them at the time, without much personal repercussion for using, “So and so was unavailable for comment.” They are also free to select sources based on biases not readily understood by the reading public.

Source selection can both help and harm a journalist’s story, but the reading public should be informed about the facts and predispositions behind a specific piece lest the credibility of the source or the writer is is called into question.