FLOTSAM & JETSAM: The media's obsession with bad news

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The media's obsession with bad news

Sam Smith - As I periodically checked in on MSNBC yesterday, I was struck by its overwhelming coverage of the tragic murders in a Pittsburgh synagogue. I found myself again troubled by the growing obsession of TV media with bad news, the leading example being our maniacal president whose every cruelty and absurdity seems to be broadcast at length.

It is not that bad news shouldn't be thoroughly covered, but TV news media are presumably covering America and not just a few of its nuts and evil souls. For example, I've been in this racket for six decades now and have never seen so much gratuitous air time given to a president's verbiage = including his ramblings walking to his helicopter - as is the case with Trump. It is almost like Trump is the only news save for the occasional mass killing. The Washington Post even reported in 2016:

Across the eight outlets, we found Trump’s name mentioned in a total of 14,924 article headlines from July 1, 2015, to Aug. 31, 2016. Clinton has been mentioned in less than half that amount. Both candidates’ mentions have increased over the course of the campaign, although the increase in Trump’s mentions occurred earlier and at a faster rate than Clinton’s.
Now a reader might note that the Review's headlines show a similar bias, and I confess to that but would argue that we are a journal for progressive activists, not likely read by anti-Semite killers or would-be Obama bombers. And I scan about 2000 headlines a day specifically looking for good news, news that accurately describes America, or good ideas for the country. If you go to this page you'll see some of the results of the latter. Further, we try to deal with what is happening and what could be happening and not, unlike mainstream media, spending a lot of time telling what those in power say about it.

What we have is a president who can lie hundreds of times while only being called out on some of it, typically belatedly so the lie itself is presented as unchallenged news. We have little coverage of alternative policies and programs of Democrats and others, little sense of what's happening good in the US, or examples of people resolving problems. There are a few exceptions - Lester Holt's nightly news with its reporting of both the good and the bad of America being a prime example.

The underlying danger was pointed out by Reverend William Barber who, reacting to the synagogue killings, remarked, "I’m reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: 'we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”

While progressives may listen to Trump with horror, anger and disgust, he is expressing  a philosophy that others such as the recent mail bomber found encouraging and justifying. Further the huge news coverage not only of Trump but of a bomber or mass killer could be an easy encouragement for others to follow course. 

This is not an either/or matter but rather that to report America primarily as a reflection of a Trump or mass killers is to leave out a critical part of the story. America is so much more than that and in that "more" lies much more news.

A good example is coverage of ethnic relations.  The media is happy to report ethnic conflict but other news is left uncovered. Thus both the complexity of multi-ethnicity itself and ethnic relations is largely ignored. Just a few random examples:
  •  In recent years 12-15% of marriages have been bi-ethnic.  One study found the figure much higher for black men. Why is there so little news coverage of our multi-ethnic families?
  • Near three quarters of NBA players and 65% of NFL players are black. Basketball and football are America's most popular sports. My theory is that sports, shopping malls and ethnic restaurants are good places to see inter-ethnicity that works. Why? Because everyone is getting a good deal. Why not more news on the multi-ethnicity of sports?
  • Our sense of ethnicity as a problem and not an asset is emphasized by news coverage that only talks about the former. 
  • The media reports cop abuse of minorities but much less time and space is given to better law enforcement such as community policing and restorative justice.
  • The differences in the way we handle ethnic issues varies by geography but this is rarely reported. For example, the Review keeps track of numerous rankings and major issues involving our states to compile its own collective ranking. Seven of the bottom ten states on our list are former members of the Confederacy. And only one senator who voted again Brett Kavanuagh's appointment to the Supreme Court came from the South.
So here are a few tips for the media to make it less likely to depress most of us or inspire the worst of a few:
  • Good news is just as much news as bad news. 
  • News is something that has happened, is happening or is going to happen. It is not what every powerful person in Washington says about it. 
  • News is also collective change. Changes in cultural status and statistics are more important than Trump's last tweet.
  • Don't over-simplify. Your best contribution towards better ethnic relations, for example, is to illustrate its complexities and not regurgitate its cliches. 
  • Cite and invite to your TV news panel not just the DC powerful but the national wise, usefully active and helpful. 
In short, news should help us move forward as a country and as people. It is there, to be sure, to warn us but just as certainly to help us learn ways to improve things without an anti-depressant pill or AR-15.