Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Bludgeon" Journalism

Okay, here’s Johnny-Come-Lately, lagging behind the rest of the world with his two cents on the latest Issue. But I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that it has taken me this long to write on the topic. I needed time to ingest and digest the tsunami of information said Issue produced. The Issue? I have only to write three words: Virginia Tech shootings.

Now, don’t run away just yet. I’m sure you think you’ve heard all you need to hear about that horrible tragedy. You might think that this Internet yahoo can’t say anything more about this national nightmare than the educated professionals haven’t already said. I agree with you on both points. But remember, I said that Virginia Tech was the Issue—not the topic I was considering. That’s something completely different, and I hope you’ll stick around for it.

The topic? Bludgeon journalism.

I believe the term defines itself. It’s the reason you and I don’t want to hear any more about the Virginia Tech shootings. Or the late Boris Yeltsin. Or the blockheaded Don Imus. Or the Duke University lacrosse team debacle, Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove, poisoned pet food, ‘the Wal-Mart effect’, global warming, Prozac-popping dogs, anybody currently running for president of the United States, Barry Bonds, Britney Spears, Rosie O’Doughnuts, the guy with the weird hair who just got booted off American Idol, poor ol’ Anna Nicole Smith, et al.

It’s not that these topics don’t deserve media coverage. They all do, in varying degrees. They deal with important issues we all should spend time—more than we usually do—considering, if only to determine where we stand on them. How to prevent gun violence. How to help the mentally ill. Racism. Sexism. The environment. Government. The corporatization of our society. Food safety. The use and misuse of ‘wonder drugs’ like steroids and Prozac. These are all hot-button issues on which every adult everywhere should have informed opinions. These days, unfortunately, the only subjects that seem to get all-inclusive examination concern Britney, Rosie and the like.

Why is that? The ‘soft topics’ are simply more palpable than the heavier stuff. It’s just ‘funner’, dude, to discuss whether the next season of Paris and Nicole’s show will be titled The Simple Life: Incarceration or not. Gossip-wise, pondering what we’ll do after the last drop of Amoco Ultimate on Earth, anywhere, is sucked up and burned away—probably by a Cadillac Escalade shuttling Ms. Hilton to yet another red-carpet premiere— pales in comparison. Spend your lunch hour talking about how the authorities in and around Virginia Tech somehow managed to overlook a veritable parade of red warning flags around the shooter? Nah, doesn’t go well with a burger and fries. But how ‘bout that Bonds? I hear he’s gonna break Hank Aaron’s record ‘cause he’s mainlining Wheaties!

Maybe, though, we’d be more willing to give these heavier subjects the consideration they require if our noble news-dispensary, the media, presented them to us in a more even-handed way. The current method? Bludgeon journalism. For you techies, think of it as “the message board approach”. The Virginia Tech tragedy is a perfect example of this. Out of the blue, someone posts a new topic in the most sensationalistic terms possible. This inspires a feeding-frenzy of views and replies. The replies add further, often contradictory and plain erroneous data to the mix. More views, more replies, more claims and counter-claims. After a while, the facts and opinions start looking so much alike, you can’t tell one from the other. Finally, your head’s spinning, so you just log out.

Problem is, it isn’t a message board. With the news media, you haven’t that luxury. Well, you do, if you want to pitch your computer, cell phone, Blackberry, radio, TV, and all newspapers and magazines out the window. Then, all you have to do is shut said window, plug your ears with cotton and avoid all human contact for at least a week. I’m sure that’s what the families and friends of the Virginia Tech victims felt like doing in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. I can only imagine how chilling it must have been for them to have to see the killer’s face and listen to his voice, over and over again, on every channel. The media wouldn’t allow them to not do so. Their only recourse was complete isolation. Some were faced with a swarm of reporters outside their doors, so even that was impossible.

For 72 hours after the last shot was fired, it only got worse. Sound-bites were recycled until they were almost threadbare. There seemed to be a rush to categorize this incident, a stampede to make the definitive call. “Experts” weighed in again and again, using a slew of words to say pretty much the same thing, over and over: This was terrible. It should never have happened. We can’t let it happen again. Truer words were never spoken. More familiar words, too. The same ones they said after the Columbine shootings in 1999. The same ones they said after the Hubbard Woods School shootings in Winnetka, Illinois, in which a madwoman shot six children, killing one, in 1988. Each incident inspired the same media outpouring, the same sentiments and then. . .nothing. Until, horribly, the next time.

Turn on your favorite news source today. I’ll bet you’ll have to do a little searching to find a story on Virginia Tech. In another week or two, you’ll have to hunt even harder. All the tales have been told, apparently. No more sound-bites or headlines to be found there. The media’s already moved on, you see. That’s because the media’s a cart pulled by horses called “the audience”, right? And the media believes that its audience has moved on. Tears cried, flowers sent, church attended. Next case.

Not quite. In reality, those roles are reversed. We’re all seated in a wagon that’s pulled by a team of Clydesdales called ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, among others. Take another recent “big story” as an example. How long after Anna Nicole Smith exhaled her last breath were you able to easily locate detailed analysis of every aspect of her sad life? Weeks. Coverage in minute detail, including her childhood, her personal and business relationships, her sex life, the top five possible causes of her death. Heartfelt remembrances. Considerations of her ‘impact’ on American culture. 1001 things that nobody wanted or needed to know about this actress/model, and not just from the tabloids. Why? Because it was a ‘juicy’ story. Good for ratings, for hits, for sales. For views, for replies.

A story like Virginia Tech doesn’t have such a shelf life. The public can only stand being smacked over the head with that type of horror for so long before it starts tuning out. And make no mistake; it’s this bludgeoning approach which causes the tune-out. Bludgeon journalism is good for the short term, but bad for the long. The recovery process, the impact on all the communities affected, the steps Virginia Tech and local authorities will take to prevent such an incident from happening again—the detailed info we need for intelligent consideration—don’t make for good sound-bites. So, next case.

The families of the shooting victims deserved a chance to bury their dead before being confronted by the electronic ghost of their loved ones’ murderer. America, in general, deserved some deliberate contemplation of this tragedy. We needed it, for too long. The type of copious study that fosters understanding, allows one to get to the heart of an issue. The kind of study which yields answers which will, finally, allow us to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Anywhere. Ever.

But they, and we, didn’t get it. We got graphic details, the ravings of a psychopath and well-worn platitudes, because those boost ratings, baby. There’s no place for measured scrutiny in our news media. Bludgeon journalism rules the day. Hit ‘em hard, hit ‘em often. And then hit the road.


Blogger Happy Villain said...

Very well put!

When Anna Nicole died, I was listening to the Steve Dahl show and Buzz Killman said that CNN had become a 24-hour softcore porn channel with their coverage of her life, which I think wrapped everything up in a nutshell. Whatever the event, we are inundated with coverage, ad nauseam.

The day after Columbine, I recall watching a national morning news program and the male host was broadcasting from one place while the female hostess was somewhere else, and they were both covering the tragedy. I'll never forget this. She interviewed the brother of a murdered girl, who watched the horror unfold, and his words shook me to the core and left me sobbing as I watched. The hostess said little -- it was all this incredibly brave kid telling an emotionally charged story. When it was over, she thanked him and "handed off" the camera to the host. He basically congratulated her on getting that interview. No messages of grief over the boy's loss or any comments on his bravery. Nope. All this schmuck could say, with a fair amount of jealousy, was some congratulations that his partner got the better interview.

Until the news is presented to us by real human beings, in a moderate amount that will not fry our circuits and cause severe detachment from humanity, I will live my television-free life in a state of ignorant bliss. Somehow I think it's better to not know about the tragedies than to become numb to them. EVERYTHING is not about ratings.

10:09 PM  

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