Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bumper Sticker News Leads

I shouldn’t be amazed after the LAX fiasco, but it still astonishes me how fast the news media can “bumper sticker” something. One happened recently. A gentleman was murdered chasing after an armed robber. I assume someone in the media thought to ask “how many robberies have there been,” and the answer given was 70 since January 1, or approximately 3 and ½ weeks.

No one thought to ask if that was unusual for that particular crime, or if they did, it was swept under the rug because it would make the story less compelling. I prefer to believe the former. So the lead appears not only in that outlet but also is rapidly mimicked on television, radio, and many other outlets quickly pick it up, also not asking if that number is really news.

People get up in arms, fear they may be robbed anywhere, anytime, tie down huge amounts of resources in meetings, castigate the police right when they need every resource on deck etc. Others resort to extreme, hateful, racist rhetoric on posts or op-eds. (Sound familiar? Same hysteria fueled when the Raleigh paper so-called “broke” the LAX story.)

Well folks, 70 is less than 1 more per week more than the norm. Now in my mind, one is too many. And beginning a decade ago, I and others argued that the body count approach, which the news media fixates on with homicide, was distracting resources from a crime, robbery, where our community is inexplicably out of synch.

You see homicide is a horrible crime, but most often it isn’t random like the one committed during that robbery. It represents a very small number of crimes, and most often the victim and perp know each other. The way to cut down on homicide is to go after other crimes with intensity, the ones where criminals are graduating to that level.

But the news media, rather than doing readers a service and putting things in perspective and holding other outlets accountable, appears to fall all too often to the temptation of a great bumper sticker. I don’t mean to be so cynical as to attribute motive here.

Much of this problem is due to the fact that radical changes are taking place in the world of advertising. Ad revenue is what pays journalists. Journalists now have no time to do research or to even think and ask questions, let alone provide perspective. Journalism staffs are cut to the bone, everywhere.

The defense journalists often use is that they are alerting people to be vigilant, but while that is a noble motive, it isn’t how vigilance works. Making everyone afraid by writing about crimes as though they happen anywhere, everywhere, all the time just panics people, which leads to hysteria. Panicked, hysterical people become less vigilant, not more.

There are bad people out there, in every community. Some communities reveal that; others sweep it under the rug. But the news media owe it to readers to put things in perspective and to give readers credit. We’ll actually read something without having our “fear” chain yanked.

I believe USC professor Dr. Barry Glassner’s book should be required reading for all news professionals--The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

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