The Halo Effect

In an interesting behind-the-scenes post on the Associated Press’ web site, Paul Colford looks into some complaints about the heavenly glow that occasionally appears behind politicians’ heads. J. David Ake, the AP Washington assistant chief of bureau of photography, notes that this issues has been raised for years – and they’ve included previous presidents with the same glow behind them as evidence.

Mark Hertzberg posted a link to this on the NPPA’s discussion list and it has generated a bit of conversation over there, most of it centered on why we cover press conferences at all when they are, to paraphrase Sean Elliot, made for tv events to start with. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to never cover them – certainly, when a president speaks, we should be there.

But the trickle down effect is strong and that’s where journalists need to step in and ask themselves what’s the real story, where is this information impacting our community – and that is where we need to put our resources. News conferences are low hanging fruit – easy to get to, easy to understand and, for a while, they can satisfy you. After a while, though, you’re left craving something more nourishing and meaningful.

And, somewhere along the line we have shortened our reach to deleterious fiscal impact. As we moved to simpler coverage – the speech instead of its content, the podium instead of the people – we’ve left our audience wanting more.

It is, perhaps, heretical to say this, but aside from presidential speeches, when it comes to politics maybe we should stop covering the news conferences visually. We can ask for the comments in advance (usually, not always) and then illustrate that.

The danger is the politicians can control the flow of information at some level. They can release the talk at the same time it takes place or schedule it so there isn’t time to do the actual reporting needed.

Is that a risk worth taking? I think so. No one remembers who was first on most news stories (despite the repeated marketing cries of news organizations). I didn’t choose my news source based on who was first, I chose it based on who gave me the most useful information.

Senator so-and-so standing in a field doesn’t tell me much beyond what the field looks like. But show me what she’s talking about and then you’ve given me something useful, something I’m willing to pay for.

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