Traditional journalism feasts on misery: War, plague, famine, flood and deadly storms. We’re addicted to bad news. It’s our most pervasive bias.
Audiences love it. It’s generally profitable and a reliable career ladder.
Maybe it’s because outcomes are uncertain and that tension, so vital to successful storytelling, is omnipresent. That’s why we cover politics as a horse race rather than maintain our focus on the substance of candidates’ visions of what our nation should be.
The word “policy” often is paired with “wonks.” Wins and losses, even when they matter only in the minds of partisans and jaded journalists, are sexier.
It’s not all that crass. Our preoccupation with bad news also can be justified by the impact that foreign war, plague or famine and domestic disaster could have on home audiences.
Beyond human losses that wars inflict, we will pay for weapons, medical care for wounded military and veterans, and lifelong pensions.
Then there is the immediate cost of our food as famine relief draws down American farm produce and the instability created by millions of impoverished people fleeing drought and war-created hunger abroad.
Don’t forget what happens when pigs in Mexico or domestic fowl in Asia develop illnesses that create medical crises here.
I won’t even get into the eruption of HIV from sub-Saharan Africa where the virus continues to undermine national hopes and economies.
In short, bad news often matters in Cincinnati and no continent has provided so much cannon fodder for reporters and photographers as Africa in the past half century.
From the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, French brutalities in Algeria, civil war in newly independent Congo, and post-colonial war in Angola, to generations of white racism in South Africa, we were raised on a diet of Africa = misery.
In recently memory, systemic rape and slaughter in Congo, genocidal massacre in Rwanda and Sudan, famines in Ethiopia and Somalia, black genocide and racist murder in Zimbabwe, and gruesome civil war in Sierra Leone reinforced that African image for this generation. It’s not just “black Africa.” Even now, news from Arabic-speaking North Africa — Sudan, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt — reminds us how revolutions erupt and can go sour.
So it was no surprise when a brief note on The World on WVXU (91.7 FM) the other night reminded me of why the news media perform so badly when there is an exception to this dreary stereotype. It said challenger Michael Sata won the presidential election in Zambia. BBC World Service allowed two sentences. In neither case was there any indication that a correspondent was sent to the capital of Lusaka to cover the election or results.
Saturday, a month short of the 47th Zambian independence anniversary from Britain, The New York Times carried a story by its correspondent ... in Kenya.
The story carried the results, a quick profile of the winner as a sharp-tongue politician and former British Railways sweeper, and news that the defeated incumbent asked his backers to support Sata.
Every Zambian presidential change has come and gone without massacre, coups d’etat or generalized violence in this southern African country. That should be a story. Events that are counterintuitive often make good copy.
Albeit sparsely populated, increasingly impoverished under serially inept governments, hammered by AIDS, and bordered by endlessly violent Congo and Zimbabwe, Zambia has not suffered major political or tribal violence.
Foreign-owned for decades, the Copperbelt was a vehicle for urbanization, effective public health and education. Nationalization with its too-common mismanagement all but ruined Zambia’s once prosperous copper mines.
Today, Chinese ownership/management has further degraded those mines. It’s a story because there is a demand for copper as a basic material for munitions; think shell casings. There also is a civilian demand as economies of China, India and others develop and expand. That’s why scrap dealers pay for copper stripped from vacant houses here.
And there is growing concern for Chinese investment in black Africa and its accompanying political influence in so many nations with weak civil societies. That’s a story. So is the fact that president-elect Sata campaigned aggressively against Chinese control of the republic’s natural wealth.
Zambia was the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia since the 1920s. It was not a British colony like Southern Rhodesia, despite Wikipedia’s mistaken history. As a protectorate, Northern Rhodesia was administered by able officials sent out from London or recruited locally. Northern Rhodesia became independent Zambia without general violence. Its initial governments included university-educated black ministers. Whites didn’t flee.
It was a story that just didn’t grab the news media then as now. According to its archives, The New York Times didn’t cover the independence celebrations. The daily Zambia Times, which I edited from its first edition, covered that progress toward independence and the celebrations throughout the new republic with its black majority government.
The New York Times, however, carried an AP bad news story that some foreign guests at the 1964 independence celebrations got into a brouhaha with Rhodesian border guards when the guests wanted to cross into white-ruled (Southern) Rhodesia to see Victoria Falls from the Zambezi River’s south shore.
• The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press says that negative opinions about the performance of news organizations now equal or surpass all-time highs on nine of 12 core measures it has been tracking since 1985.
However, news organizations are more trusted sources of information than are many other institutions, including government and business. That ends up being bad news and bad news.
Pew says respondents rate the performance of the news organizations they rely on much more positively than they rate the performance of news organizations generally. “The public’s impressions of the national media may be influenced more by their opinions of cable news outlets than their views of other news sources, such as network or local TV news, newspapers or internet news outlets. When asked what first comes to mind when they think of ‘news organizations,’ most name a cable news outlet, with CNN and Fox News receiving the most mentions by far.”
People like sources that share their biases and apparently don’t test what they hear against reports on other news media. It’s a growing trend and an explanation of why Americans no longer have a common body of facts on which to build arguments over public policy.
Pew has been tracking views of press performance since 1985, and the overall ratings remain quite negative.
“Fully 66 percent say news stories often are inaccurate, 77 percent think that news organizations tend to favor one side, and 80 percent say news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations.”
Pew says “the widely-shared belief that news stories are inaccurate cuts to the press’s core mission: Just 25 percent say that in general news organizations get the facts straight while 66 percent say stories are often inaccurate. As recently as four years ago, 39 percent said news organizations mostly get the facts straight and 53 percent said stories are often inaccurate.”
• Students in my UC journalism ethics classes often struggle with the idea that an accurate story can be wrong. They’re not alone. Readers, listeners and viewers often wonder why “the media” can’t get something right.
The recent crash of the P-51 Mustang at the Reno Air Races illustrates that troubling image. Fatality reports accurately quoted authorities on the spot. That’s what we do: Go to someone who should know and tell you what they said.
Some initial reports said the P-51 caused 25 deaths, 25 critical injuries and another 25 less serious injuries that required hospitalization. As more information came in from first responders, fatality numbers dropped sharply. Within a day or two, it was three dead, including the pilot. Then, it was nine dead, then 10, then 11. In each case, the statement was authoritative, the reports accurate.
The first news stories were accurate in that they quoted what they were told accurately. In the same way, is there an accurate number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks? I doubt it.
At least in New York, there must have been people who were not counted because they were not employed in the towers or Pentagon, were not NYPD or FDNY, but were in the buildings or on the streets and had no one to ask where they were. Eventually, there is an informal consensus on numbers too large or confused to be accurate and true. In 9/11, it’s 3,000 dead in all of the attacks.
• The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that its Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz resigned last week. She told colleagues in an email, “In recent weeks, it has become painfully clear that my independence, professionally and personally, is possible only if I'm no longer writing for the newspaper that covers my husband's senate race on a daily basis. It's time for me to move on."
She is married to Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who will seek reelection next year. Conservatives complained that Schultz and The Plain Dealer used her column to support her husband's political career. The paper said Schultz and Plain Dealer leadership responded that she began writing about workers' rights and other liberal causes long before she married Brown in 2004.
• Streetvibes under its new editor, Jason Dean, appears to be regaining some of its spirit. A recent Page 1 connected the dots between what the Bengals stadium contract costs the community and the Hamilton County commission’s Republican majority desire to balance the budget by reducing health-care services for the uninsured. Impoverishing health-care for the poor isn’t just a classic GOP way to subsidize the rich. In our local case, it’s a way to pay for the Bengals’ playground.
• Then I read Josh Spring’s Streetvibes column with its oh-so-Sixties use of united states of america without capitalizing the first letters. It’s too subtle. Next week, spell it amerika. Josh is executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, which publishes Steetvibes.
• When will the news media can focus the same energy on lethal acceptable risks that it did commemorating 9/11? Those attacks were not an acceptable risk. We reacted by attacking two nations and pursuing wars for a decade at the costs of trillions of dollars. But every three days, tobacco-related illnesses kill more than all of those who died in the 9/11 attacks or Pearl Harbor. Tobacco deaths are so acceptable that money won from tobacco companies in major lawsuits often has been diverted from anti-smoking campaigns by state governments.
• Blame Hugh Hefner. If Playboy had featured naked human hearts beating beneath breasts, Americans might not accept the gory toll of heart attacks on American women. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart attacks kill five times as many American women as breast cancer. Hefner never would have made a living from the American male’s fascination with hearts.
• Editors must tire of people who campaign against acceptable deaths from preventable diseases unless a walk or run is involved that produces feel-good copy and visuals. “Race for Angina?” Naw.
• Annual mortality numbers vary but a recent CDC fact sheet attributed 443,000 annual deaths to smoking and second-hand smoke. CDC said, “More deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined . . . Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.” Boring. We’ve heard it before.
• In addition to tobacco, we accept deadly risks from other preventable causes. Here are some older (2000) figures reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths), alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths), microbial agents (75,000), toxic agents (55,000), motor vehicle crashes (43,000), incidents involving firearms (29,000), sexual behaviors (20,000), and illicit use of drugs (17,000).
• A perfect conjunction of old and new media brought down fashion designer John Galliano. But for cell phone videos of Galliano’s anti-semitic and racist rants and a decision by London’s tabloid Sun to post one of those videos online, he might still be employed. He was convicted of violating French law against “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity” in Paris clubs. London’s Independent said the three-judge Paris court suspended his 6,000 Euro fine without jail time. That avoided a possible swoon when Galliano had to put on prison clothes.
To underline how special Galliano is in France, possibly only wine and denials of Vichy complicity during World War II rival fashion as national obsessions. Galliano wasn’t even required to be in court for the judgment.
One of the sentencing judges was quoted as saying Galliano’s absence was an attempt to keep him out of the media spotlight. I love that. He lived and died professionally by the media spotlight. Galliano was hot shit at Dior before someone recorded and shared his racist and antisemitic outbursts with the news media. The Independent said that “As the video went viral, the house of Dior took swift action against the man it had long treated as icon, sacking Galliano days before the label's fall-winter 2011 runway show in March. Galliano was also later ousted from his eponymous label, also owned by Dior's parent company.”
• In the United States, the kind of rants that brought down fashion designer John Galliano only briefly embarrassed Mel Gibson. A big difference is our First Amendment. With rare and extreme exceptions, people in this nation have no right to not be offended. Insults generally have to be taken in stride. This robust, vital corollary to free speech is a matter of curiosity abroad. Much of Europe disagrees.
Look at the French law under which Galliano was convicted. It’s typical. Many nations make it a crime to say that Germans and their collaborators did not murder 6 million Jews. In Britain, otherwise unoccupied police spend time warning Her Majesty’s subjects not to hurt others’ feelings. When that fails, they charge HM’s subjects with crimes arising from speech or actions to which someone took offense. Most recently, a suburban grandmother in a property dispute with a racially mixed neighbor couple was charged with “racially aggravated harassment.” She put a golliwog — grinning black face doll — in her window. Her black neighbor complained to authorities, according to the Daily Mail. A court will decide.
• In contrast to Europe or Britain, racist, sexist, and other bigoted speech — oral or printed — generally is not illegal in our country unless it calls for specific, immediate criminal violence. Then it can lose its constitutional protection, but prosecutions are rare because it’s tough to overcome our First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
• Nielsen, the audience tracking firm, says that Americans spend 2.6 percent of their Internet time on news, but 22.5 percent on social networks and blogs. Just about every category exceeded the time spent on news, even if some blogs could fall under “news.”
• Poynter.com quotes techPresident.com on this mind-numbing stupidity: “Aides to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., had claimed in their Twitter bios that their publicly viewable tweets should be considered ‘off the record.’ New York Times developer Derek Willis first noted the absurd disclaimer (#notquitegraspingtheconcept) in the profile of New Media Director Catherine Algeri, and the blog techPresident pointed out that Communications Director Seth Larson and Deputy Press Secretary Richard Pezzillo had similar disclaimers. All three removed them after the publicity spread.”
• Generally, people paid to do public relations are expected to make their employer or client look as good as possible. Then there are those who don’t quite get it. Poynter’s Jim Romenesko drew on The Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky Kernel for this monster of PR stupidity:
University of Kentucky athletics department spokesman DeWayne Peevy, who revoked a student basketball writer’s Media Day pass for conducting “unauthorized” interviews with two players, was supposed to explain his actions at a Society of Professional Journalists’ forum but canceled three days before the gathering. Veteran sportswriter Billy Reed said the athletic department PR man “is far exceeding his authority for setting policy on how reporters collect information for a story.” Kernel editor-in-chief Taylor Moaksays of the brouhaha: “For UK Athletics to tell us we can’t talk to another student, in essence because we’re journalists, I think that’s crazy. Any student on campus can go up and talk to them or Facebook them or tweet them.”