Fletcher Features

The Business of News: NBC's Sen. Dir. of News Standards & Practices Visits Fletcher

Where were you on election night 2012? In all likelihood, you were among the 68 million viewers eyeing up-to-the-minute coverage from one of the major television news networks, remote in hand, positioned to find which outlet would be the first to color Ohio, Colorado, or if you were really patient, Florida, blue or red on its newfangled electoral map.

Meanwhile, Marian Porges (J82) was holed up in the recesses of NBC’s newsroom until 3 a.m. as part of the network’s “Decision Desk,” waiting for the appropriate moment to call each state for President Barack Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Still buzzing from her Wednesday morning election hangover, Porges visited Tufts just two days later on Nov. 9 to meet with Fletcher students in a seminar-type setting as part of the Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs Speaker Series.

The globally-minded, media savvy crop that heard Porges speak engaged in vigorous conversation with her, centering on issues not only from Election Day, but also media bias and the business of news.

As NBC News’ Senior Director of News Standards and Practices, Porges fills a unique and vital role behind the broadcast scene as a key decision maker focused on ensuring “fairness and accuracy,” as she put it, in NBC’s news coverage.

“The goal is to be transparent, get out the facts, and let you be the judge and jury,” she said.

This casts Porges as one of the gatekeepers for what gets reported and what doesn’t. If your clicker brought you to NBC News the night of the election, for instance, just in time to witness Colorado wash from neutral gray to Democratic blue, you were privy to a decision Porges and a few of her select colleagues made only moments before. Porges said that such real-time decisions weren’t made lightly that night, and were only approved after scrupulous fact-checking, exit poll analyzing and the opinions of multiple analysts and statisticians were carefully discussed, considered and weighed.

It’s also Porges’ job to stay acutely aware of media bias. With the advent of social media, she said, information is now disseminated instantly and in myriad ways, often without the fact-checking and sourcing that are staples of standard news coverage. Given the lack of context the medium can convey (something that Porges emphasized as “so important” to news coverage in any form), social media has become a platform that challenges the vetting process of newsrooms. As NBC News continues to embrace social media, Porges and others must navigate a dangerous slope with respect to editorial oversight, something she said her industry is still learning how to do.

“Often we’ll put out a note that says, ‘not yet confirmed by NBC News,’ but we’ll alert people that something’s out there,” she said. “We’re trying to do what we can with the resources we have available.”

Touching on the International Communications class she teaches at Fletcher, Professor Carolyn Gideon, director of the Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs, also described the difficulty news outlets currently face as they try to balance newsroom ethics with ownership demands on profit margins. “There’s a natural tension between what’s good news and what’s good business; often, the top of the news organization is not a news person but a business person,” she said. “The business standard is get it out fast, while the news standard is get it out right.”

Porges spoke to the relationship between NBC News and its widely-popular sister station MSNBC, which finished sixth in election night ratings (NBC News finished first). Porges used the term “perspective journalism” to describe much of the cable giant’s news coverage. In trying to establish a separate “identity,” as Porges called it, MSNBC’s progressive bent is now aptly summarized by the slogan, “Lean Forward,” she said, noting the catchphrase also serves as a not so subtle hint to viewers. Despite this, she said, popular opinion tends to lump both networks together.

 “The difference is clear to us, but it can be nuance to the viewer,” she said. “And we’re still trying to figure out how to best convey that difference.”

Fletcher’s Artin Afkhami (F13), a former reporter, questioned the notion of whether “true impartiality” is even possible on a human scale. Another journalist in attendance, Mike Eckel (F13), suggested impartiality may simply be a construction – a product of the mid-century journalism establishment that has come to define, broadly speaking, hard news coverage in the post-war era.

“I think human nature forces journalists to write in ways that emphasize conflict, in ways that emphasize tension, in ways that emphasize negativity,” Afkhami said. “Human emotions are wired to the negative.”

“I think we’re just reverting to the norm of what had always existed before,” said Eckel. “News has become a commodity, and has lost value because you can get it in 20 different places. Where do you add profit? Is it in opinion? Is it in commentary?”

Porges closing response was more pragmatic than defeatist.

“People like what like-minded people have to say,” said Porges. “If people are interested in what Fox is talking about, they’re going to watch Fox. If they’re interested in what MSNBC has to say, now that it has an identity, more people will watch MSNBC. Right now, the ratings are saying that people want less news. Still, there are many places where you can find hard news.”

Despite her concession to the growing power of opinion-based programming, Porges remains a journalistic idealist, committed to holding her peers and her industry accountable. Think The Insider’s reading of Lowell Bergman, perhaps with a dash of Hildy Johnson-like chutzpah thrown in for good measure – a refreshing and comforting combination to witness in a newsroom veteran who remains among those calling the shots.

-- Story/Photography by John Ciampa

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