The Way We Communicate

 

Symposium | “Community can only develop through the way people communicate with each other,” said the Annenberg School for Communication’s recently appointed dean, Dr. Michael X. Delli Carpini C’75 G’75, quoting educational theorist John Dewey. In October, more than 100 Penn alumni gathered in New York to talk about the way we communicate now—in print, film and television, and online—at the second Penn Media Summit.

As with last year’s inaugural edition [“Gazetteer,” January/ February 2002], volunteer David France C’89 took the lead in assembling four lively panels focusing on issues of commerce and communications, the writing process, news and journalism in the information age, and sports in the media. The sessions were held at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, with a networking reception afterward at the nearby Hudson hotel.

In his opening remarks, Delli Carpini also noted that as the field of communication continues to unfurl in the modern era, “the lines between journalism and culture are blurring”—a notion taken up in the first panel, “News and Journalism in the New Age of Information.”

Today, said Henry Schleiff C’70 L’73, chairman and CEO of Court TV, news is under pressure to be entertaining because, “It’s very much a business of bringing eyeballs to the set and providing them to the advertiser.” The competition for these eyeballs has been intensified by the sheer number of media outlets now available around the clock. Robert Zimmerman C’88, vice president of media relations at Fox News, attributes this media explosion to viewer lifestyle changes (“No one is glued to the evening news on TV at 6:30 anymore”). As a result, cable TV has grown six-fold since 1985 and now comprises over 44 percent of the TV-viewing audience.

Delivering news in an entertaining way has come to mean titillation, fluff, pre-produced freelance packages, delivery of anecdotes over exploration of issues, and, said Bobbi Rebell C’92, financial news reporter at Reuters Television, “a big black hole” in the coverage of flatter-but-critically-important areas like foreign news.

In selecting news to cover, media outlets take their cues from viewers, said Walter Updegrave C’74, senior editor at Money magazine. “In a sense,” he explained, “we’re led by the audience. But we also have an obligation to lead the audience.”

Ti-Hua Chang C’72, award-winning investigative reporter for New York’s News Channel 4, maintained that had news organizations taken this obligation seriously, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have been prevented. “If we had done more stories on Al Qaeda, it may have forced the government to focus more on Al Qaeda.”

Chang said that in the built-in conflict between quality journalism and dollars, the latter unfortunately wins most of the time. “[Journalism] is not just a business,” he said. “It’s also a craft, and I think we have to start leaning a little more towards the craft.”

Like news, sports coverage is plagued by bias as media organizations try to lure viewers and readers by editorializing, focusing on sports personalities, and reaching for extremes when characterizing athletes. The panel discussion, “Sports and the Media,” focused on sports as a pervasive part of our media landscape.

“When you factor in the money … TV … exposure … endorsements … race … and gender,” said moderator Stefan Fatsis C’85, sports writer for The Wall Street Journal and sports commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, “this is why sports has become a part of almost every issue in society, right down to politics.”

“The media thrives on extremes,” said Alan Schwarz C’90, senior writer at Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to Newsweek, The New York Times and ESPN.com. So do sponsors. “Corporate America has always sought to align themselves with athletes who are most in line with their brands—but they do this at great peril,” said Leland Hardy WG’86, agent to the tennis-playing Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and director of one of Wall Street’s leading boutique investment banks, Asensio & Company.

When athletes misbehave, the media pounces—as seen with the frenzy of coverage on the rape accusations against Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant.

Sometimes, said Kenneth Shropshire, sports expert and chair of legal studies at the Wharton School, the media disseminate racist generalizations in the process. For example, Philadelphia Flyers star Eric Lindros’ “boys were known in the media as ‘buddies from Canada,’ while [76ers star Allen] Iverson’s boys from Virginia were his ‘posse.’”

The viewer must read between the lines in sports coverage and choose which athletes to look to for valid political and social commentary, said Hardy, citing Muhammad Ali as a premier example of an athlete outspoken in his desire to make a social impact outside of sports. “On a case-by-case basis,” Hardy explained, “we have to have the discernment to identify which athletes we should follow in this way.”

While a reputation for controversy can be an asset, speaking out on issues can negatively impact an athlete’s marketability. Hardy quoted the apolitical Michael Jordan’s retort, in refusing to endorse the Democratic candidate running against Jesse Helms in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race, that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

In the panel, “At the Intersection of Commerce, Culture and Creativity, Part II” participants continued a similar discussion from 2002 on how economic demands force media firms, from movie studios to ad agencies to Internet companies, to carefully—and sometimes precariously—balance the creative process with the bottom line.

In the film industry, said Julie Goldstein C’87, executive vice president for development and European production at Miramax Films, this means allowing movie makers to realize their creative vision while also addressing economic realities. “We try to make [films] in an economically smart way so that they have a fighting chance in the marketplace,” she said. The volley between creativity and profits, for example, led Miramax to shoot the 2002 film Chicago in Toronto and to feature rap-star Queen Latifah in order to, respectively, save money and broaden the movie’s appeal.

Producer Stanley Jaffe W’62, whose many films include Best-Picture Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer and Oscar nominee Fatal Attraction, concurred with Goldstein: “A lot of decisions made at the studios are first charted out based on profits.” He added that the studios are often so preoccupied with casting big-ticket stars that they lose sight of the fact that “it can lose money if it’s a bad film.”

According to Rich Ross C’83, president of entertainment at The Disney Channel, the creative process ultimately carries the day—and determines the profits. Using the example of sales of licensed products themed around Disney hits like Kim Possible, he noted, “If kids and parents don’t like the film itself, there’s not a lunchbox to be sold.”

Whatever the medium, the perennial conflict between creativity and commerce lies within the core of each, said Donny Deutsch W’79, chairman and CEO of $2.5 billion marketing communications company Deutsch, Inc.: “The definition of marketing is the opposite of the creative process. It’s about starting with a need and filling it.”

In the advertising business, the creative product exists solely to sell something. But, Deutsch said, the client and the creative people both want to make their mark on that 30-second slot of airtime. “The client might want to mention his name nine times, and the writers and art directors value their work as artists. It’s a constant yin-yang.”

Tina Sharkey C’86, senior vice president of life management, community and network integration at America Online, Inc., said that for her medium, the Internet, brand loyalty comes through honesty, respect, facilitation of access to information, and “listening to the audience, not preaching to them.”

At the heart of most media products is writing—words on a page, from an actor’s or newscaster’s mouth, or on a screen. The panel “Writers on the Writing Process” dealt with the mechanics of writing and the creative inspirations that ignite the process.

On the concept of writer’s block, Galina Espinoza C’91, deputy editor of Latina magazine, said, “There is something scary about looking at a blank screen or page and knowing that you are being asked to fill it.”

This fear can paralyze the writing process, said Leslie Bennetts CW’70, journalist and Vanity Fair writer. From her discussions with editors, she said, she estimates that fewer than half of articles are turned in on time, and of these many are submitted incomplete.

For Stephen Fried C’79, investigative journalist and author of The New Rabbi [“Coming to Terms,” September/October 2002], one of the main challenges is to stop reporting and start writing. “There are all these things you do in your life as a writer that keep you from writing,” he said.

Jennifer Egan C’85, who writes both journalism and fiction—most recently, the novel Look at Me [“Off the Shelf,” January/February 2002]—said her cue to stop reporting and start writing is when she reaches a “moment of clarity” about her subject matter.

Fried, also an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, discouraged outlines because, he said, “the creativity that comes out of the writing process is not something you can chart in an outline.”

Before writing, panelist Maci Alboher Nusbaum C’88, a lawyer and freelance writer, envisions her topic as a “conversation,” and mentally follows the arc of the story from beginning to end.

While Espinoza writes hasty first drafts and then gradually molds a finished product through rewrites, Bennetts takes regular pauses for reflection while writing. “It’s as though you’re a bricklayer. You need to lay one brick before laying the next. So with every sentence and every paragraph, I go back and re-read to see how far I’ve brought the reader.”

Egan said that when once satisfied that her piece is complete and well written, “Somehow the world seems organized, and I see my place in it.” —Joan Capuzzi Giresi C’86 V’98

For more information see (www.alumni.upenn.edu/pennmediasummit/2003).

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04


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