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Bad News, Good News, and the Media

One of the big debates in the blogosphere has centered on the notion that the media is to blame for the Bush administration’s falling approval numbers and the growing dissent about the War in Iraq.

Specifically, there’s the age-old assertion that the media only focuses on bad news, and thereby, gives people a skewed look at reality.

Let’s consider that contention a little more closely with a hypothetical situation:

A woman works 29 years at your local bank. You see her every week when you go there to deposit your paycheck. You know that she’s active in your church and that she’s generally a very nice lady. She tells you on one visit that on her 30th anniversary with the bank, she will retire. She’s looking forward to all of the cookie baking and spending time with grandkids that you’d expect such a kind lady to be interested in.

That’s news. But it’s news to her, her family, and a select group of friends. The rest of the world isn’t going to stop what it’s doing to take an interest in her retirement because other than her devotion to her job for the past three decades, there’s nothing that far out of the ordinary about her and countless millions of other people who spend their time working towards that same goal. It’s not because the world thinks she’s not a nice person; we just don’t have time to focus on the life story of every individual person we share the planet with.

But wait. Suppose that on the day before her retirement, an armed robber breaks into the bank just before closing time, fires a single shot during the robbery, and winds up killing that teller. You can bet your local television and radio stations and the newspaper will mention that, because it’s a shock to our system. It’s something we’ll care about because it’s something that isn’t expected, something that could happen to all of us, something that causes an emotional response in us by shocking our sensibilities.

Yes, the 29 years this mythical worker spent in a job she loved was news from the standpoint that it was a current event that was going on in our world; but watching her doing what most of the rest of us are doing no differently doesn’t really tell us anything. There’s no real story here.

So here’s where you throw around that clever little rhyme. “Yes,” you say. “I know exactly what you’re saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.'”

That’s not really what I’m saying. That is such an overblown generalization that most of the people who can’t get their day started without criticizing the media would spend a week’s worth of ranting on any news organization that attempted to summarize a story they really cared about with such a cutesy phrase, even if they can’t wait to parade that one out themselves at every possible opportunity.

What I’m saying is that you have to think about what news is, and what it isn’t.

Let’s take a real headline from today’s paper. Right on page A1 of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I am met with the headline, “3 Cohorts of slain Va. hostage rescued.” The story is about the U.S. and British forces storming a house to free three Christian peace activists. It mentions that they freed the hostages without firing a single shot. The rescue provides hope for captured journalist Jill Carroll, who is still missing.

The story continues to page A9, where it adds the following facts:

“In a rundown of recent military activity, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the U.S. military spokesman, told reporters that most Iraqi violence was focused in three central provinces, including Baghdad.

“‘There is not widespread violence across Iraq. There is not. Seventy-five percent of the attacks still take place in Baghdad, al-Anbar or Salaheddin [provinces]. And in the other 15 provinces, they all averaged less than six attacks a day, and 12 of those provinces averaged less than two attacks a day.”

The story concludes with Lynch noting that the number of attacks nationwide there average around 75, which is a number that has generally been sustained since August.

So let us review: right on the front page of today’s paper, there’s a story about “good news” happening in Iraq; coalition forces are lauded for the rescue of three peace activists, a general states that there is not widespread violence across the whole country, and that the number of attacks on average is not growing over a span of seven months!

But wait…there’s more.

Also on page A9, there is a local tie-in story about friends of the slain Virginia activist who are elated over the rescue. It’s a smaller story, of course, but it talks about people in our area who knew Tim Fox, the man with whom the rescued men were abducted.

And below the rescue story, there’s this headline: “In Iraq, a quiet success.” Then, in smaller headline type, it reads: “But Bush wants to end private groups’ rebuilding program.”

This story reports that five “largely invisible” U.S. organizations that have played a key role in helping rebuild Iraq may lose the funding that has helped them complete about 1,250 projects in the Baghdad area alone, including the construction of health clinics, athletic centers, women’s centers, water-filtration plants, projects to improve water sanitation and clean streets. The reason? According to the article, it’s because the White House wants to end the three-year-old Iraq Community Action Program. The 2007 budget contains no new funding for the program.

Despite the potential loss of this program, the story does report that there are rebuilding efforts going on in Iraq. It’s good news that it’s happening and that the U.S. is responsible for it, but bad news that we may discontinue those efforts. But the bad news that this specific program might end next year doesn’t erase the fact that the story mentioned that the program is having an impact.

I’m sorry to shatter anyone’s sensibilities, but the truth is that one must actually read the stories to get those facts; skimming across headlines in the search for good news generally produces few results.

The question that remains is, why do we hear so much about attacks against our troops and (seemingly) so little about the progress happening in Iraq?

For one thing, it’s sheer selfishness. And let’s be realistic: we’re an incredibly selfish people. We want our information — and anything else — right this minute. I can recall a recent commercial in which a man who leads a fast-paced life passes by a series of businesses and says things like, “Fast Food? Not fast enough. One-hour photo developing? Too long to wait.”

Beyond our need for what we want arriving about six seconds before we realize we don’t have it, we generally aren’t worried about things that don’t affect us in our daily lives. Neither rebuilding efforts in Iraq or the loss of a soldier there might directly impact the life of John Doe in Lincoln, Nebraska: he may have no plans to ever visit Iraq and he may have never heard of the soldier who died.

But when it comes to attacks on our troops, the operative word is “our.” An attack on our troops feels like an attack on us, even among people who oppose the war yet worry about the troops themselves. I think most Americans do believe, whether they can cite specific examples or not, that the military is involved in helping progress happen in Iraq. That is to say, they’ve seen stories before in which our soldiers and our private citizens are involved in helping rebuild Iraq and restore some sense of normality to the Iraqi people. I also think that more people than you’d think really do believe that no matter how we got into this war, the soldiers that are there really do want the best for the people of Iraq.

Does everyone really need a daily affirmation of these assumptions when lives are being lost? And more importantly, when you do receive a reminder that positive outcomes are appearing amid the chaos, which stories are you more likely to remember?

If we lose several servicemen to a roadside attack, and in the same newscast or further down on the same page of the newspaper of a news magazine, it is mentioned that Iraqi children attend their first day of classes inside a rebuilt school, which story are you more likely to remember the next day? Which of the two more directly affects your own sensibilities? Which of the two are you really going to notice and recall longer? (The answer doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, any more than it means that the media is a vulture-like business that only looks for bones to pick clean.)

The evening network news runs about 22 minutes when you subtract commercials. There are 26 Million people in Iraq, according to a 2005 estimate. If an evening newscast devoted every minute to Iraq, which few of us would sit through anyway, we’d have to tell the stories of more than a million people every sixty seconds to cover everything that’s happening there.

Consider another story that got a lot of play last night and this morning: one man died of a heart attack during a cruise ship fire near Montego Bay, Jamaica. This is a news story because a cigarette is being blamed for a massive fire that scorched more than 100 cabins and injured eleven other passengers. If the cruise ship had made it to its dock without incident, you would never have noticed that the ship even existed, unless you happened to be a passenger.

I’m not trying to be facetious here. There’s an important point in these examples: news consumers seem to think that they can watch a thirty minute network newscast, or scan through their daily newspaper (which devotes on average maybe 10-15 pages) to world news, and somehow get a complete picture of everything that’s going on in the world. That expectation is far more irresponsible than any offense of which they think the news media is guilty.

The events that happen in your life in a given month could fill your own private newspaper. But what’s important to you might be the most boring fodder someone else has ever read. Multiply that by the five billion people in the world and perhaps then you can begin to see what every journalist in the world has to deal with on a daily basis.

Sure, I work in “the media,” so I’m sure you’d expect me to attempt to convince you that we don’t do as bad a job as our critics would have you believe. But I’m not arguing for a moment that we make no mistakes. I’m telling you that we regularly make mistakes when we try to judge for ourselves what you will and won’t care about. It’s impossible to cover every story every day. That isn’t a cop-out; it’s simple reality. We do the best we can to cover the stories that we feel you will care most about, based on extensive research we buy that includes interviews conducted with news consumers just like you. You may or may not agree with what that research says. But unless enough of you tell us where we’re wrong, all we can do is attempt to keep covering the stories we sincerely believe that you care about in the best manner we possibly can.

There’s great criticism about how the big media conglomerates are reducing the number of “voices” in the news. That’s true. But it’s also creating more financially-efficient news-gathering organizations that are able to provide more resources for their individual units. No, I’m not saying that bigger media companies are necessarily better. But I am saying that they’re not always a disaster.

When a bigger company bought up a station I once worked for, one of the first things that company did was outfit us with new and better equipment — and much more of it — so that we could cover more stories in our area. We didn’t get orders about what we could and couldn’t cover; we still made those decisions locally. But the point is, even with more resources than we’d ever dreamed of having, there still wasn’t enough personnel, equipment, or — most importantly — time in the day to tell every story that mattered to someone.

I’ve worked in television for almost 15 years now. Never once have I attended any kind of editorial meeting in which a story was killed because it might influence people’s sympathies for or against something. The only time stories are killed in newsrooms I’ve worked in are when we cannot obtain the “other side” or verify facts that we have. That’s not about influencing your opinion, but rather about just being fair.

What’s funny to me is that anyone might dismiss my position merely because I have a “vested interest” in your agreement with me that the media isn’t all bad. At the same time, some of those same people can’t seem to see that an administration that blames the media for the dissent over the war, or liberals who blame the media for not “fact-checking” thoroughly enough before the fact to prevent it from happening also have their own agendas for making you like or dislike the media.

We all have our motivations. If you’re going to be as fair-minded as you expect the media to be, you can’t ignore that basic truth.

This shouldn’t be ignored, either: to those who accuse the media of so effectively “brainwashing” the public, if we were really so good at doing so, why do you think you’d be aware that it was happening? If we were as brilliant at shaping public opinion, spoon-feeding our version of the truth and convincing a generally-innocent, unsuspecting public that we were always right, what makes you so perceptive that only you can see what you believe is “really” going on?

And as for any perceived motivation in trying to turn public opinion against the war, here’s a question: how could the same media be accused of both conspiracy to hide facts so that the war could actually beginand of telling only the negative stories from Iraq so that people would hate the war so much that they’d call for its ending? If our motivation had been to help get the war started, why would we then want to turn public opinion against it? If we benefit from either, why would we do the opposite?

It’s not like there isn’t plenty of other news to report.

1 Comment

  1. I can’t really disagree with anything you’ve said. I think most people understand what makes news and why, although the complainers about media bias are more vociferous. But I will say that the 30-minute network newscast you mention is really only about 22 minutes long without the commercials and that further limits news coverage. It’s no small task deciding what news to broadcast within that limitation.

    As for blaming the media for falling approval rates, that’s a bit like blaming the weatherman for bad weather. It is what it is. He just reports it. And we’re glad he gives more coverage to a pending hurricane than he does to fair skies. No, the Bush administration is responsible for its own failures.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.