The Daily Nightly from NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams

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The Daily Nightly began on May 31, 2005. As Brian wrote in his first post it aims to provide a narrative of the broadcast day and a window into the editorial process at NBC Nightly News. Brian weighs in every weekday and NBC News correspondents and producers post regularly.

Brian Williams became the seventh anchor and managing editor in the history of NBC Nightly News on December 2, 2004. Read his full biography.

When is the news real?

While Brian and much of the Nightly News team were in Torino, I was vacationing in Tucson, Ariz., riding horses on a ranch and making friends from all across America who had a lot of questions about the news.

My favorite question was from a young oil executive from Oklahoma. Over drinks at the nightly happy hour, he wanted to know: “is this bird flu thing for real?” We were joined by another friend, an emergency room doctor from Minnesota, and both the doctor and I quickly insisted that, of course, it was: my friend invoked the CDC statistics he receives each week, while I mentioned our own reporting, and journalist friends who have traveled to Romania and Italy to cover the story.  (All this transpired before this weekend’s news, where infected ducks and turkeys marked the arrival of the flu in France.)

But heading back to New York, I wondered: did the doctor and I properly answer the question? Our friend wasn’t asking whether the news media was making the story up, but whether avian flu, after all the media attention, really posed a health threat to him, to us here in the states.

His question reminded me that we face a constant challenge in journalism: How to report far-away stories when we have a natural tendency to care the most about what happens –- or we believe might happen -— to us. I vividly remember watching the Robert Altman movie “Short Cuts” shortly after my son was born and sobbing during a vignette about a couple whose son is hit by a car on his way to school, fully aware that I was personalizing a fictitious story. Many people experience news the same way, and who can blame them? It’s why we start a lot of reports about abstract policy issues with real people and their real problems. And it may explain why the avian flu, because it thankfully hasn’t hit our shores, or developed the deadly ability to jump species, doesn’t register as a “real” story with all of our viewers.

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I believe that the natural personalization that takes place when reading / watching / listening to stories such as bird flu is a prime example of what is being taken advantage of by the media. At the end of the day, news in whatever media format is a form of "entertainment". The more sensational, the more entertaining. Issues that invoke fear are by their very nature sensational. By personalizing what "could" happen with issues such as bird flu, the media has done its job by creating a sensational story that will bring in revenue due to the popular reaction (and subsequent better ratings).
What I find really interesting is, how can any sense of journalistic integrity exist when the primary driver is to create revenue generating entertainment. Just today, the 100th human victim of avian bird flu since 2003 was announced. When put into perspective, are there not more pressing issues to focus media attention on than something that kills less people than bubonic plague in year? An even bigger issue - Is the media creating the story in its pursuit of revenue generating entertainment, and will that story actually change public opinion, thereby having dramatic effect on governments and policies? I don't have any answers, just some (probably not new) observations.

Where is the "real" news about our ports? The stories being done are so superficial they are useless to us as citizens who are trying to form educated opinions. The stories merely report on the discussions going on, but where are the facts? There have been ongoing references to other countries "running" our ports, but no one has defined what that means. We are repeatedly assured that the U.S. runs security at the ports, but what does that mean? Where is the breakdown telling us port by port, who runs it, since when, and for how much money? What year did the first foreign country begin running one or more of our ports and what was the impetus?

A primary function of news media is to be America's surveilance system. The avian flu needs to be kept in the media, even if it hasn't reached a level of personalization with Americans yet. It is sad to think that Americans lack the judgment capabilities to determine what is important/real in the media and what is not. The media provides us the information to deal with such catastrophes, and gives us a call to action to protect ourselves. While the avian flu may not cause an epidemic on our soil, it must be tracked. I just hope that all Americans are keeping a sharp eye on the media coverage of a possible impending epidemic. This, however, doesn't mean that one should go overboard and let fear rule their day to day actions. Just stay informed and be willing to prepare.

I find myself wondering if bird flu is "real," but not because it isn't in the U.S. yet. I'm sure migrating birds will bring it here eventually. But what are the odds of a human epidemic here? There seems to be a cottage industry of books out there telling us that we are too panicky as a nation, and that feeds skepticism. Yesterday I noticed a book in the library called "False Alarm" by Marc Siegel that included bird flu among other overstated fears. (Just now I looked it up on and I see he's coming out with a book devoted ONLY to bird flu. Maybe I'd better sit up and take notice.) It's hard to report news of what may happen; you will turn out to be either an alarmist or a prescient sage. Such reporting is necessary, though. I pay close attention to bird flu news, just as I did West Nile virus. I kept my kids inside at dusk during that outbreak, and I want to be prepared for influenza.

I never thought about this before but it's true - most Americans do personalize the news. It's just natural for us to put ourselves in the place of the person experiencing whatever it is you are reporting about especially if we have felt their pain. Please keep reporting about real people and real issues. You do it so well! ;-)

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