The Silent Killer (Of Journalism)*

*Title and appropriate LOLcat via Matt.

My remarks at the panel on journalism can basically be boiled down to “never ascribe to bias what laziness and stupidity will adequately explain.” What I meant by laziness and stupidity is the tendency, all across the board, to embrace the easy narrative.

The easy narrative in the form of cheap sentimentality, as in stories about how to explain school shootings to your children, or stories about how 9/11 made you love your family and go back to church.

The easy narrative in the form of exploitation of fear. Matt and I spent some time talking about all the various things which were called “the silent killer” by newscasts, but it’s the false sense of urgency, and it’s a very short step from “YOUR MASCARA COULD KILL YOU” to “TERRORISTS COULD KILL YOU” and getting people caught up in the outrage of the moment such that everything is always at a fever pitch, making you ripe for whoever can best pretend to solve the crisis you’re not really facing.

The easy narrative in the form of ignorance and exceptionalism that audiences and readers are assumed to share, as in the difference between how a murder on the north side of Chicago, for example, is covered: “Oh my God, I thought this was a good neighborhood, things like this don’t happen here!” and one on the south side: “Feh. We call it Thursday.” It’s a lazy assumption about your audience, that they won’t be from the neighborhoods you’re dismissing as expendable, and won’t take offense. It’s a convolution, usually defended with the “man bites dog” analogy, that is rampant in national journalism and it’s tremendously damaging in that it allows us to dismiss what are real social problems by calling them predictable. Think of The Wire: “They were dead in the wrong zip code.”

The easy narrative in the form of identification with the powerful, which asSusie pointed out is as much emotional conflict-aversion as anything else, and takes it shape in reporters seeing nothing wrong with going to an off-the-record barbecue at John McCain’s house and laughing at the president’s little funny nicknames for them. To take it back to the local-news place, which is where I tried to stay since the punditocracy makes my brain hurt, it’s the way reporters drink and lunch with the mayor, and it’s a very, very easy trap to fall into; talk to your high school sports writer. You spend a lot of time with your sources; after a while, the lazy reporter can start to see them as the real friends, rather than readers, who are after all usually pissed at you.

Take all of that and throw in the financial decimation of newsrooms, which destroys the camaraderie that might lead some colleagues to keep each other in check. Susie brought this back to training, too, journalism as tradecraft learned via apprenticeship model and seeing oneself as part of the working class as opposed to celebrity journalism. A college degree is no guarantee you’ll be a moron, any more than it’s a guarantee you won’t be one, but I agreed in that I think the only way you fix this is to raise up a generation of journalists who don’t see themselves as part of the system. Think ofThe Paper: “We live in their world but it is their world. You can’t live like that. You’ll never keep up.”

Plenty of journalists are trying really hard to keep up, and we have only to look around for a minute to see the results.


6 thoughts on “The Silent Killer (Of Journalism)*

  1. I noticed a few years ago that any news piece with the words “Satanic Cult!” in it, no matter how ludicrous, got big play on the local news.
    As in:
    “Yes, Todd, local police said the grafitti on the bridge was possibly the work of a Satanic Cult!”

  2. My pet peeve in the way you illustrated with the murder in Chicago section is the assumption that all men are heterosexual, as in “No man alive would turn down a chance to sleep with Giselle Bundchen”. Um, I would unless she totally morphed before my eyes in to someone that looks like Jim Thome.

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