Editor?s note: When Bill approached me with this topic I was immediately interested. I?ve long been perplexed at how the media beat a story to death, as if nothing newsworthy is happening anywhere else. And that makes me wonder – is most of the ?news? really even news, if it can be put out of sight to cover one of these major events? Just like the broader pop culture, the news media deal in shock value – it?s the ?currency? of their trade. They sink into overkill, speculation and even bogus coverage in the war for ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the motto. We sit in the middle, conflicted and confused – and then the media have us right where they want us. How much of these media events are real, and how much is window dressing designed to keep us tuning in? It?s a question each of us need to settle in our own minds. – Kevin
By Bill Andrew
You may be one of the millions of TV viewers growing weary of the wall-to-wall coverage of the missing Malaysia Air Flight 370. Every program introduces the latest reports and bizarre theories explaining the disappearance of the Boeing 777 with 239 passengers on board. Viewers complain, When will they talk about something else? Actually this is precisely what America?s media want and need.
The story is a tragedy
Disasters claim center stage for news editors. Calamities don?t happen every day but when they do the media pull out all the stops to show the public what they can do, and how well they can do it. Catastrophes are real-life drama; nobody is making this up. ?This is happening now!? – reality supplied drama, made to order for the media.
Nothing stirs the blood of a reporter more than hearing those five bells ring on a news ticker. Bored directors sitting in darkened control rooms bolt upright when the phone rings and a voice from the newsroom barks, ?We?ve got a bulletin. We need the air immediately.? Viewers – napping on the sofa – turn over and look at the screen when they hear that blaring emergency music or ?We interrupt this program ??
And that can start the cavalcade of all-day newscasts on the latest disaster du jour.
Tragedies mean a mass of human interest stories, interviews, and close-ups of the families? reactions. Instantly there are orphans to question, and grieving and puzzled spouses to face. Child victims inspire enormous sympathy and interest. These are the angles that anyone and everyone identifies.
Than out trot the ?what-if? and the ?near miss? tales – ?I had a ticket on that plane but I overslept?. Even as the developing details drag, sidebars fill inches of type and hours of airtime.
Speculation on the number of victims reminds readers and watchers of their own mortality. When the event is so total and sudden, the thoughts about how they would respond in such a crisis nags at the audience. And nothing communicates drama more than a voice dropping to a hush to say, ?The death toll is now ??
The prospect of mystery and danger
The agonizing wait for new details commences. Every minute one hopes for updated information. Reporter?s phone lines are left open, producers keep extending the time they want on satellites. On radio 70 years ago, nothing was more gut-clinching than, ?We delay the start of our regularly scheduled program to bring you the following special broadcast.? A hundred and fifty years ago crowds gathered in front of newspaper offices to read hand printed updates on battles and casualty lists. Drama builds as there is no closure – hour after hour.
When a news star steps on camera in a hard hat or rain-drenched parka, we get the message they are in danger. That they are willing to risk their life to bring the news tells the value of the story. Every sentence is in the present tense. There are references to ?behind me? or ?over my shoulder you can see,? drawing the viewer into the intimacy of the event.
If information is lacking, the speculation begins. Anchors talk of the cataclysm?s impact. Should there not be any obvious cause, the thinkers jump in with their guesses. Experts drag out statistics on this having happened and cite the ignored warning signs. Until the matter is finally and fully looked into, there will be no end to guessing what actually happened.
While there is no finite conclusion the story becomes ongoing. Readers buy the next edition and viewers sit through another hour wanting to know how things will come out. How long this this is parlayed into attraction depends a lot on how deep and dark the mystery. Until the emergency responders leave the scene and there is nothing left to show, the story is milked for every ounce of attraction.
Or at least until a more compelling story hits from a different direction.
The setting is intriguing
People are fascinated by places they can?t get to immediately. Thousands of movies, television shows and radio plays have been built on adventures in foreign countries. A breaking news story of mammoth proportions overseas is an immediate attraction. The simple curiosity of a report from a location with a significant time difference builds the numbers. This is a place we can?t go to ourselves; we can?t jump in a car and ride to the scene. We depend on the media to help us see where the events take place.
Not only seeing sights only dreamed about and maybe learning of foreign culture and societal behavior is an attraction. Seeing something different, finding out about customs and practices in a nation other than their own drags in audiences. We see how grief is handled in other nations, and it allows us to reflect on how we deal with it ourselves. Governments react in ways unlike ours. These variations of doing things are engrossing and educational.
Death and suffering is universal; everyone will be touched by them. Seeing it happen to strangers can be comforting and instructive while not personally threatening. Borders break and a feeling of humanity is bred. Sharing in a tragedy may bring all civilizations closer together. As long as there is a shred of potential for this to be done, the story will be pursued.
Are you over Flight 370 yet? How long did it take for the extended coverage to get uninteresting to you? Or are you still hooked?
In this age of 24 hour news programs on multiple cable news networks, they must have something to talk about to fill the time. And you are right, sensation wins every time. My cynical nature says that they focus on the things they do because of 1) the ratings value of shock reporting and 2) their efforts to politically and or culturally influence the mindset of the viewers. By repeating certain stories over and over, they eventually sway the viewer over to their point of view.
Hi Kathy – I also believe that the media likes these kind of events because they’re cut and dry. It keeps them from having to report politics, which is like chasing your tail, or economics, which the media don’t remotely understand or know how to interpret. It’s amazing what the media doesn’t understand, and yet most of society relies on them to be the information source. That’s partially why people seem to be so confused.
Journo here: You covered it pretty well. It’s tragic, unusual, mysterious – all the exact reasons we as readers are soaking it up and can’t get enough. Everyone I know is tracking all the latest developments.
Yeah, we’re tracking it like it’s a mystery movie, but it’s a real situation involving real lives. I fear that we sometimes convert these situations into a form of entertainment. I hope I’m wrong about that. But when I see the media having a feeding frenzy with a human tragedy it’s more than a little disturbing.
I consciously tried to ignore almost all of it. Yes it is tragic and mysterious, but it’s largely a complete waste of time to fill your precious minutes of the day with something you can do nothing about or does not impact you directly or indirectly. It’s just a curiosity…
Hi Derek – I completely agree. I’ve paid only casual attention to it. I’m concerned, but I won’t obsess on it. As you say, it’s wasting precious time that could be spent on productive outcomes. We know why the media obsess on disasters, but my guess is that a lot of people do as a way of adding drama to their lives. It’s kind of the way people overreact driving in snow storms or rain.
If that all sounds insensitive, it’s just that there’s more going on in the world than any of us can or should process. We have plenty on our own plates, but I suspect that we often focus on these media drama’s as a form of creative avoidance – so we don’t have to deal with what we need to.
My thesis was confirmed through CNN. Once they saw their ratings jump up when they devoted all their airtime to the story, that was all it took for them to junk everything else. I understand that even when the president was making an address they would bail out after 10 minutes to return to non-stop MH370 coverage.
Now that the wind has gone out of the story — with no honest, real resolution but a decision to “move on” — the topic drops down to about the lower third of the content. The secret is not the reality of the story but how much pump can the media give the details.
But don’t imagine this is just us, today, and our reaction. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, CBS Radio began non-stop coverage at about 1:30 AM. By about 10:30 AM the steam had run out; there was nothing new to report. So, rather than re-hash everything over and over (as CNN story)did on the MH370 story) they went back to regular (soap opera) programming. The switchboard was flooded with demands for the news, even if it was repetitious. So, a little past midday, they went back to wall-to-wall coverage.
What happened with this story is very rare, but when it is triggered, better forget about finding the ball scores on cable news networks.
It’s the old story – “follow the money”. With the media, that means follow the ratings, which ultimately leads to the money. That tells you why we get the news that we do.