A lousy news di­rec­tor

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Mike Master­son Mike Master­son is a long­time Arkansas jour­nal­ist. Email him at mmas­ter­son@arkansason­line.com.

Af­ter stints as the ed­i­tor of three daily Arkansas news­pa­pers over 46 years, I still would make a lousy na­tional broad­cast news di­rec­tor in 2018. I was re­minded just how bad in late Oc­to­ber fol­low­ing the ter­ri­ble mass killing where a de­ranged gun­man killed 11 and in­jured six, in­clud­ing four po­lice of­fi­cers, at the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh. This slaugh­ter of in­no­cents joins an al­ready lengthy list of hor­rors com­mit­ted by those whose el­e­va­tor to re­al­ity rises no higher than their ground floor. What makes it even more re­gret­table is this won’t be the last time we will learn of these kinds of ter­ri­ble crimes. To­day’s broad­cast and cable news cy­cles run 24/7, scream­ing to be filled every minute. I be­lieve that as a pur­veyor of news with an enor­mous staff of re­porters to rely upon, I’d ap­ply a dash of rea­son and con­text to how my imag­i­nary broad­cast op­er­a­tion would cover mass shoot­ings and other tragedies. For in­stance, since we live in a vast na­tion of 325 mil­lion peo­ple, my imag­i­nary news would re­port such re­gional killings ini­tially with as much in­for­ma­tion as avail­able. At the same time, how­ever, I’d ex­pect re­porters to con­tinue sup­ply­ing other rel­e­vant news of the day while break­ing in with up­dates on the lat­est break­ing news as ad­di­tional facts are dis­cov­ered. I would avoid repet­i­tive spec­u­la­tions by all the chatty “ex­perts,” ob­vi­ously used to kill time. As rad­i­cal as this may sound to some, I’d con­tinue pre­sent­ing the other sig­nif­i­cant news of the day, paus­ing for hourly up­dates for as long as nec­es­sary to re­port on valid de­vel­op­ments. In short, I’d re­struc­ture the air time now de­voted to pre­dictable sur­mis­ings from talk­ing heads, ram­bling com­men­tary by news an­chors, and con­stant rep­e­ti­tion to other rel­e­vant is­sues. In do­ing so, I’d give my au­di­ence a rea­son to rely on our chan­nel to cover many other sto­ries un­fold­ing that day. My the­ory is that while such a mass shoot­ing in a house of wor­ship is a ma­jor and tragic news event that must be ad­e­quately cov­ered, it’s also not one the en­tire na­tion nec­es­sar­ily wants to hear re­peated at the ex­pense of other cov­er­age over two straight days. That’s es­pe­cially ger­mane so near to a na­tional elec­tion and with so much else news­wor­thy con­tin­u­ally un­fold­ing. It wouldn’t be as if my sta­tion wasn’t keep­ing abreast of the lat­est news from the most re­cent shoot­ing. I just wouldn’t be treat­ing this sad de­vel­op­ment as if it was the only day’s event that mat­ters to my di­verse and wide­spread au­di­ence. The shock and sen­sa­tion of a mass mur­der pro­vides ob­vi­ous ma­te­rial to fill en­tire days if that’s a na­tional news­cast’s fo­cus and in­tent. There is the fa­mil­iar adage in this busi­ness: “If it bleeds it leads.” Yet I’d also ask my­self: “But wall-to-wall for two days?” And at what cost to a na­tional au­di­ence seek­ing to re­main widely in­formed, es­pe­cially should they have an al­ter­na­tive chan­nel avail­able that con­tin­ues to cover myr­iad is­sues along with the shoot­ing. Of course, lis­ten­ers and view­ers are free to shout, “Enough al­ready!” and find re­lief in turn­ing it off al­to­gether. In fact, I did just that last week. So there you have it, my friends, the de­tailed rea­son ol’ Mike would make a ter­ri­ble na­tional TV or ra­dio news di­rec­tor. Well, wait, there is an­other as­pect worth con­sid­er­ing. I’d not be im­me­di­ately air­ing ego­cen­tric blath­er­ings from on-air personalities and con­trib­u­tors about pos­si­ble mo­tives be­hind any killer’s mur­der­ous ram­page. There’d be no sur­mis­ing un­til facts are known, re­gard­less of what the com­pe­ti­tion might pre­ma­turely al­lege. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on shock at such emo­tional times to push a de­sired po­lit­i­cal agenda na­tion­ally is as bad as so-called news re­port­ing gets.

Still con­fused

Some­one asked the other day if I could de­fine an al­go­rithm. The word keeps pop­ping up in var­i­ous ref­er­ences, in­clud­ing a method so­cial me­dia like Face­book use to make de­ci­sions. So I went search­ing in hopes of clear­ing the fog that en­velops the odd word. What I found were ex­pla­na­tions that seemed, well, border­line non­sen­si­cal. One def­i­ni­tion: “An al­go­rithm is a fancy to-do list for a com­puter. Al­go­rithms take in zero or more in­puts and give back one or more out­puts. … The words ‘al­go­rithm’ and ‘al­go­rism’ come from the name of a Per­sian - - math­e­ma­ti­cian called Al-Kh­warizmi … .” “Zero or more in­puts” and “one or more out­puts” is as clear to me as a Fudgsi­cle. So I sought some­thing a bit more in­tel­li­gi­ble and dis­cov­ered this ex­pla­na­tion (Help­ful sug­ges­tion: First take a big swig of cof­fee): “There is usu­ally more than one way to solve a prob­lem. There may be many dif­fer­ent recipes to make a cer­tain dish which looks dif­fer­ent but ends up tast­ing the same when all is said and done. The same is true for al­go­rithms. How­ever, some of these ways will be bet­ter than oth­ers. “If a recipe needs lots of com­pli­cated in­gre­di­ents that you do not have, it is not as a good as a sim­ple recipe. When we look at al­go­rithms as a way of solv­ing prob­lems, of­ten we want to know how long it would take a com­puter to solve the prob­lem us­ing a par­tic­u­lar al­go­rithm. When we write al­go­rithms, we like our al­go­rithm to take the least amount of time so that we can solve our prob­lem as quickly as pos­si­ble.” You fol­low­ing this? Still awake? “In cook­ing, some recipes are more dif­fi­cult to do than oth­ers, be­cause they take more time to fin­ish or have more things to keep track of. It is the same for al­go­rithms, and al­go­rithms are bet­ter when they are eas­ier for the com­puter to do. The thing that mea­sures the dif­fi­culty of an al­go­rithm is called com­plex­ity.” Fi­nally a word I un­der­stand and can agree with when it comes to ex­plain­ing al­go­rithms.

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