There has been much discussion today, after the mass shooting at Umpqua College in Oregon, about whether we in the news should report the name of the shooter. The sheriff in Roseburg would not state the shooter’s name and asked the media to do likewise, although, of course, we could not heed his call. We are in the fact business, however much many of us may have agreed with the spirit of his request.
There is a larger question here about what we choose to include in the news because it is, very much, a choice. I have never subscribed to the theory that news exists “out there” and we are compelled to go cover it and bring it to you on the radio, television, newspaper or web. There is no event, with perhaps limited exception, that MUST be included in the news. The news is, if you will forgive the tone of this statement, what we say it is. Or perhaps more accurately, what we think you want it to be. We do endless research about what you want to hear about, and then we give it back to you. There is a good deal of tail wagging the news dog, but that does not remove our responsibility, our moral responsibility, to own the decision. We decide what goes on the air, and we must, therefore, take some ownership for the effect it has on society.
The point I mean to make is this – we watch a half hour of news, scroll down 20 stories, listen to 20 minutes of news on the way into work, and on an average day what are we fed? Road rage, corrupt politicians, murder, hit and runs, children abused, computers hacked, armed robberies, people killed in all manner of ways. Oh, and the feel good story thrown in for good measure at the end. No wonder a considerable percentage of our society tunes out to the news in total, trying to protect themselves and their children from the filth and negativity.
When you ask news directors why we report so much crime and negativity in the news, most will tell you that the “news” is by definition that which is different, that which is unlike the norm, unlike the day to day, and these mass shootings and crimes are what is newsworthy, unusual, remarkable in that they are worthy of being remarked upon. That may be true, but the impression that these choices in coverage is leaving on our culture is that we live in a dark and violent place, that our children are not safe in school, that people are manipulative and not to be trusted. No wonder everyone wants to own a gun. We watch and listen and read and believe that THAT is the way it is because we forget what we are hearing does not represent the vast majority of daily life in America. The vast majority of daily life in America is not, according to the newsroom’s way of thinking, newsworthy.
Marriages work, but you don’t hear about those. Children go to school and learn and feel good about themselves, every day, and come home safely, but you don’t and you won’t hear about that. People get jobs and keep them and feed their families, but you won’t hear about that. Fathers and mothers find a way to take care of their children, and elected officials do the best they can to represent their communities. The people who run companies are usually hard working souls who care about their employees and are not embezzling money. Police officers are brave and kind and generous to a fault. And the same goes for teachers and the people who work the bank and car dealers and just about everybody else I know. I desperately want to end every newscast I read with something that sounds like this, “I’ve just informed you about the unusual events of the day, but please remember, they represent less than 1% of what life is really like. Don’t lose sight of what real life looks like. For most of us it is filled with abundance of some kind, material or otherwise. It is a good and peaceful world in so many ways.”
That is not Pollyanna. That is fact. It’s just not one the news will ever tell you.