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Bad News and the Media

By John Fox · March 18th, 2009 · Editorial

News about death keeps piling up.

Anyone perusing the daily newspaper or the 11 p.m. TV newscasts lately knows about the 13-year-old SCPA student killed while jogging and the 11-day-old baby squeezed to death by his young parents in Batavia. My eye happened on a small item in The Enquirer about a 16-year-old in Over-the- Rhine arrested on suspicion of committing two murders 10 days apart.

Usually after a rash of bad news like this there’s a round of second-guessing about the media’s coverage of the bad news. Did TV and The Enquirer put too much emphasis on the deaths?

Why did the murder of Esme Kenney, the School for Creative and Performing Arts seventh grader, get front page attention while the double-murdering teenager rated a small “police blotter” listing on an inside page? Did the news coverage have to go into details about how Kenney died or how the parents abused the baby?

Did the media overdo it on non-stop coverage of the fire in Colerain Township in which two firefighters died or the death of little Marcus Feisel? Do the victims’ race and class impact which stories get featured and which get downplayed or ignored?

The saying among editors and reporters about breaking news has always been “If it bleeds, it leads.” Sensational crimes, fires and accidents get top billing in news coverage because that’s what you want to see.

Or at least that’s what TV station and newspaper honchos think you want to see.

We’re attracted to ambulances, fire engines and commotion, especially in our own neighborhoods. We’re nosy busybodies. We want a break from the routine. We have short attention spans.

It’s human nature, and the media exploit those aspects of our nature in order to attract our wandering attention. That’s how they build audiences, sell advertising and stay in business.

The unsolvable riddle, of course, is this: Do the media provide sensational news because that’s what we want or are we conditioned to want sensational news because that’s all we see?

Peter Block, the local author and consultant, has convened meetings to try to construct a different, more positive narrative about Cincinnati that the community itself could tell. He starts with the premise that focusing on random murders and house fires doesn’t make his life or community better, and making things better is what he wants to spend his time and energy doing.

Block isn’t looking to bash or bury the local media; he thinks the media can have a role in building this new narrative. He simply wonders if news organizations shouldn’t spend at least as much effort on solutions as on our problems.

I thought The Enquirer’s extensive March 15 follow-up story on the Kenney murder was a good example of the media serving multiple roles. It pinpointed the justice system breakdowns through the years that allowed the alleged killer to walk free and remain a public threat.

Now that we know who’s accountable for the breakdowns, we as a community have to fix the holes and try to make sure the problems don’t recur. That’s our job, not the media’s.

CONTACT JOHN FOX: jfox@citybeat.com



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