United Breaks Heads...and Guitars; Three Lessons about News Judgment

Anybody who has been close to a news story knows that “news judgments” are often wrong.  Making news judgments more explicit might be a step toward making them better.  The April 9th incident Dr. David Dao being dragged off a full United flight holds key lessons about news judgment.

Conclusion First: Bottom Line Up-Front

Current norms of journalism leave news consumers guessing whether outright omissions and varying weightings of facts are deliberate and motivated by reason, deliberate and motivated by an interest in spin, or not deliberate and simply reflecting ignorance. This problem is especially evident when big stories like "United Breaks Heads" are breaking.  Consumers could be better served by journalism that tells them the reporter’s conclusion up-front followed by supporting details and links to the depth of the journalist’s background work. 

Lesson One: 


Judgment Ain’t Fact - Even When It is Good Judgment

One sentence in a thought-provoking post on the United story by David Uberti, staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, stopped me cold, “The breadth of the Courier-Journal’s coverage doesn’t absolve it from the fact that Dao’s criminal history is irrelevant to this bizarre episode.”  Uberti’s piece otherwise highlights The Louisville Courier-Journal Executive Editor Joel Christopher‘s points in defense of The Courier-Journal’s widely criticized “breaking” coverage of  Dao’s “troubled past.”

Uberti’s “fact” is a figure of speech.  But those who chose not to report Dao's past left too much room for “alternative facts” in modern parlance.  Paranoid competing stories based on "alternative facts" quickly sprung up.  It is Uberti’s reasoned judgment, which he further defended in correspondence with me, that there was no evidence that Dao somehow contributed to the escalation or had any inclination toward violence.  Additionally Uberti expressed the concern that a news subject’s past could have unfair consequences for the subject and “shade the current moment.”

“There must be something more to this story,” was a natural news consumer reaction to United Breaks Heads.  Dao's prior experience with authorities is a reasonable line of inquiry.  What Uberti is really saying is that in his judgment, United’s, and more generally the airline industry’s rules and norms are what deserve the attention of the news consumer (Oddly, the conduct of the security officers in this incident has been judged to be of secondary importance).

Lesson Two: Journalists are in the Belief Business

News judgment renders facts useful to news consumers.  News consumers need to know what to think about events of the day.  Collecting facts is a small part of the value that journalism provides.  

News judgment weights facts to assemble a coherent story. News stories influence beliefs about matters of fact and values.  Beliefs are a key element of political economics. Beliefs are useful to all believers and to those who seek to influence the beliefs of others (grammatically dubious, but I might call the later "believees").

Beliefs are not neutral.  The power of the fourth estate is derived from people’s thirst for information independent of the coercive powers of government and the productive powers of economic entities (in this case combining forces to batter a hapless passenger).  

The passenger lives matter moment (see my blog about blank lives matter) was a teachable moment.  People saw themselves in the images of Dr. Dao being dragged down the aircraft aisle,  It was an opportunity for the fourth estate to assert its power.  Personally, I didn’t feel Dao’s past “shaded the current moment” as the story unfolded.  Others experienced the story differently.  I did wonder why so many reports failed to observe what I thought were the most egregious facts, available from some of the earliest reports.

Lesson Three: A Hot Story Requires More Explicit Judgments Not Less

The trope of how David can slay Goliath with social media was probably one of the reasons the Journalist-Twitterati jumped on United Breaks Heads.  The interest generated by social media postings of witnesses evoked the oft-repeated story of “United Breaks Guitars,” a great publicity stunt that musician Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, turned into a viral cyclone in 2009.  People seem to dearly love the notion that social media in the hands of the masses empowers the little guy.  What “United Breaks Guitars” actually proves is that the secret to going viral is to get picked up by big media

United Breaks Heads is a case study in what makes a story hot, why big stories just get bigger, and how the peculiar political-economics of information deliver almost unlimited returns to scale.  When a story gets big and hot in today's competitive, low-margin media environment, genteel news judgment cripples the news product.

“United Breaks Heads” has been great fodder for call-in shows, expert panels, interviews, talking heads, posts and front page stories, not to mention twitter and comment section skirmishes.  It is heartening how many different legitimate stories, considering aspects of finance, regulatory issues, corporate culture, algorithmic decision-making, executive PR crisis management, etc.  grew out of this one sorry incident.  And it is heartening to see that United and other carriers claim to have responded by reform.

However it was also disheartening to see how long reports persisted as if the incident arose from a typical overbooking situation, omitting the apparent facts that it was a desire to transport late arriving airline crew members needed in Louisville and the ensuing low-ball offers of compensation for volunteers that led to the demand that “computer-selected” seated passengers give up their seats.  And it was disheartening to see alternative stories take-off, blaming Dao or conversely claiming that he was the victim of mistaken identity by the media.

Conclusion: Make the Case for Your News Judgment

Again the bottom line for modern journalism is for reporters to lay out the conclusions they wants news consumers to reach and back up their propositions with the details according to the reporters' judgments of weight.  Over time the individuals and outlets that explain their conclusions well will earn trust they can take to the bank in reputation and revenue.  More importantly the fourth estate will continue to be a check on the powers of governments and economic interests, seeking to shape belief to their own ends.

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