Sunday, January 17, 2010

Daily Newscasts have become Daily Fluff-casts

In my last post I complained about how the news media often encourages a misunderstanding of the facts by the general public because of its insistence that both sides of every story be reported even if the other side is based on faulty science. The examples I included were anthropogenic climate change and the theory of evolution. Few legitimate climatologists debate that humans are affecting modern climate, yet the truth deniers on the far right get an equal voice in the media. And virtually no biological scientist disputes the fact of evolution, yet nearly half of the general population reject the science in favor of an ancient creation myth because evolution’s opponents have an equal voice in the media.

Well I’m not quite finished ragging on the news media, especially TV news coverage of hard-luck stories. I watch local news coverage on TV almost every day because I still believe the benefits of getting the information outweigh the sensationalism that is often intermingled in the reporting.

And it’s not just television news that is at fault. Newspapers over the last several years have followed the trend of filling up their front pages with soft news and human interest stories at the expense of real news that I prefer to read about.

Once upon a time if you opened up a newspaper to read a front-page story, all you would really need to do is read the headlines and the first paragraph and you were well informed of the basic facts. If you wanted more details, read the rest of the story. These days the headline often sensationalizes a minor point of the story and the first paragraph reads like the beginning of a novel. To get to the guts of the story, you have to read far down the page.

That style works fine for the entertainment pages or human interest stories that belong on internal sections of the paper, but not for the front page or the main news pages. These days, the front page of some newspapers is more than half filled with a huge color photograph of somebody doing something cute.

On television, stories that might barely qualify for news coverage are often expanded to include interviews of, not only any victims, but their neighbors or friends. Sad stories of people’s trials and tribulations that take up several minutes of air time dominate, highlighted by interviews of people breaking into tears on camera. Local news shows now last 90 minutes, so if there is not enough real news, they fill the airtime with fluff.

An example is a story I remember about a local woman who was partially disabled and who couldn’t afford to pay her heating bill. The story was generally about those who are forced to use space heaters in their homes when their gas has been shut off. Sometimes space heaters cause fires, especially when not used properly. So this poor woman had a single heater that she used to heat her living space. The woman was afraid to go to sleep for fear that the heater would fail and cause a fire.

The underlying story is legitimate. But it could easily have been covered by reading a paragraph about the situation in general while perhaps showing images of those, like the woman being featured, huddled around a space heater. But no. They had to interview the woman and I was forced to listen to her sad sob story while she broke into tears while the camera cut to the face of the reporter looking all concerned. The story went on like that for several minutes.

Then there are the disaster stories of tornadoes or earthquakes. In my region, a tornado is often the cause of a local disaster. And obviously if a tornado hits and causes damage, it is worth reporting on local TV news. But most channels don’t stop at simply reporting that a tornado hit and destroyed this building and that storefront and killed X number of people. They have to go in and find the poor soul whose house was just destroyed and ask him how he feels about the situation. And invariable, the man or woman being interviewed thanks God for allowing them to survive the catastrophe, never mind that their neighbor didn’t.

When I was the news editor of my hometown newspaper, readers could scan the headlines for stories that interested them, read the first paragraph, and be reasonably informed. Those who were interested in the story could read the whole thing. As Sgt. Friday was so often misquoted, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

That might seem like dry news coverage, but I say let the news itself decide how juicy the coverage is. A tornado is sensational enough; you don’t have to embellish. Besides, there are legitimate places to cover fluff, both in newspapers and on TV news shows. Fluff does not ever have to be added to hard news stories. To me, that’s bad journalism.

No comments: