Thursday, April 2, 2009
Monday, March 30, 2009
On September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded neighboring Poland, provoking a World War Two. Prior to that, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler issued the “16 points” memorandum, defining the terms for negotiations with the Polish government. As the word powers were still unclear about the conflict’s outcome, the international press closely followed the unfolding events, making note of every little detail that took place as the history was unraveling itself before their very own eyes.
“British Mobilizing; Navy Raised To Its Full Strength, Army and Air Reserves Called Up. Parliament is Convoked. Midnight Meeting Is Held by Ministers — Negotiations Admitted Failure,” is a September 1, 1939 front-page story from The New York Times. Combined of two reports — one from the Associated Press and another from a special correspondent in London, the story talks about German aggression, failed negotiations with Poland, British mobilization and evacuation, attempts to address the issue in the Parliament, and presents a detailed account of the events prior to beginning of war.
While the paragraph-long wire from the AP resembles the modern style (short, concise, and straight to the point), the second part by Ferdinand Kuhn, Jr. falls into the category of a narrative written like a police report: “About 9 o’clock yesterday morning M. Lipski had asked to see Herr Von Ribbentrop. The Ambassador had no response until afternoon, when he was asked by telephone if he were coming as Ambassador or as a plenipotentiary to negotiate. He said “as Ambassador.” He heard nothing more until evening, when he was summoned and was told it was already too late, as the time limit has expired.” This over-explanatory style, as well as a lengthy, descriptive headline suggest that the story’s aim was to appeal to the general population and not specific socio-economic class. Nevertheless, the language gets complicated sometimes, as if the writer were someone from the previous century: “that the British regarded them as artful went without saying, since they conveyed a first impression of reasonableness that was not born out by the terms themselves.”
Another distinction from modern journalistic writing is lack of direct quotes — not even once the writer quotes his sources, majority of which are anonymous officials. Moreover, the writer tends to put his own spin on the story by putting quotations marks around certain words — as if he tries to be ironic. He also speculates, as it becomes clear from this passage: “much might have been said about the German “proposals” here tonight if the government had not been so anxious to have the first decision to Warsaw without any prompting.” At this point, it is evident that the style of the article is determined by the trend in journalism of the pre-WWII era — an interpretive reporting.
Another prominent newspaper, the Washington Post, had also provided a detailed coverage of the war, beginning with British mobilization, reactions from the international community, and raids of Polish towns. Somewhat similar in style (very detailed articles with explanatory notes from the editor), the Post writers, however, presented the information more objectively; although the traces of opinion and speculation could be found in some news articles (14 stories were examined), they all closely resemble the modern AP style — short, concise, and informative paragraphs elaborating on who did what and what happened as a result. However, just like in case of the Times, writers did not use direct quotes, and even if they did, they often attributed them to “top officials” and “knowledgeable diplomats” with no names or specific titles. For example, in one of the stories (“Germany Blockades Gdynia; Orders Ships Out of Baltic,” Sep 1, 1931, p.1), the editor mentions “reliable diplomatic sources in Rome,” as well as someone or something called D.N.B. — a source of unclear origin.
What’s interesting is that the facts mentioned by Times are corresponding with those reported by the Post, which can be argued is the sign of accurate reporting.
Overall, close examination of the two leading newspapers has shown that although different from the journalistic attributes of the 1920s (lack of neutrality, believe that the facts could not be understood by themselves, and skepticism — as Michael Schudson suggest), the professional journalists of the late 1930s did not try to be as objective as they are today… In fact, the profession of the given time period was something in between — a participatory journalism and sharing of unfiltered information, which eventually paved a way for the “ideal of objectivity as we know it.” (Schudson, 120).
When it comes to deciding what is news, the industry’s decision makers tend to agree on key characteristics implying the importance and scope of the information that will make a headline. Such characteristics (timeliness, proximity, human interest/impact, prominence, etc…) often determine the place, or rank of the specific story in relation to the medium in which it is published or broadcasted. However, taking in consideration the fact that gatekeepers of the profession view the news through a prism of their own biases or lenses, it will be safe to conclude that this ranking is rather subjective — the notion of importance is a volatile abstract depending on editor’s own preferences and/or the very nature of a singled out medium. At this point, the same goes for the Newseum Top News Stories of the Century, for “even historians might argue about what’s most important.” Thus, it rather came as a surprise that sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic and assembly line creation by the automaker Ford surpassed such a major event of the twentieth century as the disbandment of the USSR, America’s number one nemesis that influenced the foreign policy of the latter for more than fifty years. Hence, intrigued by this order, I’ve decided to examine the coverage of the event presented by two very different, yet affluent American newspapers — the Boston Globe and The New York Times. Although this analysis cannot account for the mood of the entire US media of the time, it can, however, shed some light on attitudes of the time vis-à-vis the conduct and reporting style of the period’s mainstream outlets.
Case 1: The Boston Globe
The objective, factual, and rather dry style of Elizabeth Neuffer’s “Republics dissolve Soviet Union. New commonwealth is formed” is a vivid example of modern day journalism. Beginning with a standard lede based on the five pillars of the contemporary news writing (who, what, where, when, why, how) followed by the inverted pyramid structure of the article’s body, Neuffer’s account presents the information at its rawest — no speculations, no opinions, and no sensationalism (despite the overall significance of the event) — just naked facts supported by quotes and materials from the relevant newsmakers such as heads of states, their spokespeople, and news agencies like Associated Press and Moscow- based Interfax. The lack of scholarly terminology and academic jargon and presence of scattered throughout the story bits of historical background and common knowledge facts (Russia’s transition from tsarism to communism, the formation of the USSR, the centrism and autocracy of the regime, etc…), suggest that the article was written for the general audience who might be unfamiliar with Russia’s cultural and historical specifics.
Mainly focusing on the newly formed commonwealth of independent states once comprised the USSR, Neuffer talks about the diplomatic recognition of the former, citing the key actor states’ policy makers — from George Bush’s White House to Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Michio Watanabe, not forgetting the newly emerged leaders of the day-old alliance. In doing so, the author presents contrasting opinions regarding the matter and the future of the new world order — yet another attribute of profession every reporter embraces since his or her days in j-school.
Issues such as democratization, liberalizations of markets, and nuclear disarmament do poke their heads throughout the article, depicting the top priorities of the American Foreign policy amidst the zeitgeist of the previous decade.
Case 2: The New York Times
Leaning towards the feature style of newspaper writing, Francis X. Clines’ “The end of the Soviet Union; 11 Soviet states form commonwealth without clearly defying its powers” is a 1,400-word article where the hardest of news meet analytical depth of high end, white-collar aimed publications such as Foreign Policy or Time Magazine.
Unlike the cool, concise language of the Boston Globe, The New York Times’ take on the unfolded event is portrayed through more sophisticated, intelligent writing full of witty adjectives that show author’s familiarity with the subject matter as well as the quality of education he received prior to joining the newspaper’s staff.
With great attention to detail and full of symbolic descriptions (“…small freshly-minted flags of their sovereign republics under a huge bronze-toned medallion that still bore the hammer and sickle of Communism), the article goes beyond the mere facts (who met who and did what) — it elaborates on a variety of complex issues ranging from the possible UN Security Council’s actions regarding the nuclear dilemma contrasting the new status quo, to long-lasting impact on micro and macro economic development the CIS might face in the future.
What’s striking about this article is that despite being a hot button breaking news story, it is rather abundant with hints regarding the author’s own views (neo-liberal school of thought), as he attributes the economic and political chaos to “seven decades of central dictatorship,” while acknowledging the common good of “free-market prosperity” via change of course to full democratization. Moreover, the streaks of author’s own bias shows through selected phrases and sentences, such as “the uncertain hands of the republic parliaments” or “the meeting today went a considerable step beyond, for not only was the new association enlarged and sealed with pledges of peaceful collaboration, but also the heads of state began settling some differences.”
With that being said, it is evident that although exceptionally well written, as a news story this particular article is somewhat inferior to the first one discussed, for the objectivity of the presented account is blurred by writer’s own “lenses” and visions.
Although very different in style and nature, both of the articles are nevertheless are the examples of modern journalism as we know it, for both of the stories are constructed in a familiar way relevant to the trend of the profession which remained virtually unchanged for the past two decades. First, they both begin with appropriate ledes (the 5 Ws) and present the information in the descending order of importance (the inverted pyramid). Secondly, the materials presented are accompanied by supporting quotes and evidence. Thirdly, despite the light bias of the second, both stories accomplish its main job, that is to inform the public by conveying facts corresponding to the event. And overall, they both reflect on issues that were relevant to the time during which the stories were written.
Neuffer, Elizabeth. “Republics Dissolve Soviet Union. New Commonwealth is Formed.” Boston Globe. Dec. 22, 1991, p.1
Clines, Francis X. “The End of The Soviet Union; 11 Soviet States Form Commonwealth Without Clearly Defying Its Purposes.” The New York Times, Dec. 22, 1991, p.A1.