Mainstream media organizations are two-faced beasts. Their public face is what readers and viewers see most of the time: a tightly written, competently edited print story; a smooth live report from the scene of an accident; an informative and polite interview in the studio. That’s how things are supposed to go.
Sometimes, however, news consumers get a peek at how things work behind the scenes, and the takeaway isn’t always terribly flattering. What if the TV producers strung some crime-scene tape in the background of the live shot, effectively fabricating a crime scene? What if emails show that the reporter had an extremely cozy relationship with the source? What if the top-flight TV news anchor gave large contributions to the charity of a top Democratic political family? The list is endless: Where are anonymous sources okay, when can you use footage of a minor in your newscast, when should you pull away from a live political event?
And those are just the ethical questions. News production entails a number of practical considerations that aren’t often explained to the folks on the receiving end. Why do news organizations spend so much time lobbying to get their photographers into the White House when there’s an official one already there? What’s a “pool spray”? Why do news outlets get exclusivity for televising primary debates but not general election debates? What’s the deal with “deep background”? Why does the media send hordes and hordes of reporters to the same press conferences?
In recognition that day-to-day coverage of the media very often glosses over these inscrutable yet critical aspects of newsgathering, we are creating a special feature titled “Dear Mainstream Media” (or “Dear MSM,” for short), a grouping of which The Washington Post is commonly identified as a member — many times in contexts that don’t paint this membership in a favorable light.
Read the first installment: How far should journalists go to get an interview with a president?