Watching the News
tom walsh

There's a study that I'd like to do one day, and if I ever have enough time, I'll do it.  The study will be quite simple:  I want to find out what percentage of our news broadcasts and papers are devoted to what percentage of our population.

Here's my hunch:  I'm pretty sure that I'll find that over 90% of our news--broadcast and print--is devoted to less than one or two per cent of our people.

I'll find that most of the space is devoted to very few people--criminals, politicians, entertainers, athletes, and victims of things like plane and auto crashes.

But is that stuff all that "news" consists of?

When was the last time you saw a headline like this:  "Forty-five Lives Saved in City Hospitals"?  Or:  "Teachers Help Blind Students Cope in Society"?  Or:  "Police Officers Prevent Bloodshed in Domestic Dispute"?  These things are news to me, the kind of news that reaffirms our humanity and our dedication to each other.

But news people put these things in the "human interest" category, running a feature article about something like this every once in a while.  But these are daily occurrences, not things that happen seldom.  We just hardly ever hear of them, because the news people decide just what we see and hear.

I recently watched a one-hour news program out of Boston, and by the end of it, I was convinced of two things:  nothing good ever happens in Boston, and I didn't ever want to watch the news again.  People dying, crime, hatred, anger, and sports and weather and entertainment.  Was there no uplifting news that day?  Nobody accomplished anything new or different?

I swore off the Boston Globe one Sunday morning, when the front page--the main story--featured a detailed article about a gory murder that had happened one year earlier.  The one-year anniversary was nothing more to them than an opportunity to drag out old news and display it as something new, sensationalizing a brutal, disgusting, horrible act and its consequences in order to get a rise out of their readers--playing with their emotions--under the guise of "journalism."  Not only did it not seem like news, but the fact that they made it a front-page story was appalling.

The journalists will swear by their old story, the one they fall back on whenever anyone criticizes them and their practices--they're just giving people what they want.  But I can't believe that they know what people want--people have never really been given much of an option, much of a chance to give feedback.  And if they do criticize, they hear the old story again.  I know that USA Today makes for interesting reading because of the diversity of the stories that they offer; it's also been quite successful.  They also spent a lot of time researching what people wanted in papers.  Readers Digest has been extremely successful while focusing on uplifting stories about everyday people and their lives.  Unfortunately, it seems that our news media are unwilling to follow suit and focus on the positive.

How many names make it into a major newspaper each year?  Even if the number reaches a million, that's still fewer than 1/2 of 1% of the population of the United States.  And how many column inches have been devoted to Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinski, to O.J. Simpson's trial, to the Columbine tragedy, and to other "major" stories of the last few years.  What percentage of the "news" did these stories take up?  Think of the number of individuals directly involved, and then think of whether or not that number merits the time given.

If just half of the time and energy that went into covering the Clinton debacle or the Simpson trial had been devoted to positive, uplifting news and "human interest" stories, how much might we have been uplifted and encouraged by stories of people who have succeeded in making a real difference in the lives of others?  And we certainly wouldn't have missed anything about the other stories--even at half the amount, we still would have learned more about both than we needed to, than would help us in the long term as human beings living our lives.

Another question I have to ask is what percentage of our population murders or attempts to murder, and how much of our news is dedicated to people like that?  I know that if I'm ever able to do the story, I'll find that they receive a disproportional amount of coverage, which may even be a partial cause of further violence--many people are so desperate for attention that they'll take desperate measures in order to get it.  And if someone who already feels isolated and alone sees the amount of attention given to someone who's committed a violent act. . . . 

Thoreau wrote a century and a half ago that he didn't feel papers were worth reading, and that if we want to live full lives, we'll give up reading about strangers.  In "Life without Principle" he wrote:  "the news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius.  It is the stalest repetition. . . . Such is the daily news.  Its facts appear to float in the atmosphere, insignificant as the sporules of fungi. . . . We should wash ourselves clean of such news."  His basic premise is that if the news doesn't help us to grow as human beings, if it doesn't enrich our lives, then it's useless.

You see, we're being fed information, not news.  Reading about yesterday's car accident was just the same as reading about the one three months ago, and the one four months ago; only the names and locations have changed.  This year's mass murderer isn't anything new, yet the media want you to think he is--that will sell more papers.  Even monsters like Dahmer are not without their predecessors who did even worse things than they did.

But what does that mean to us in the context of this website?  Why write a column like this in an encouraging setting?  Mostly for awareness, I believe--what we pour into our brains stays there and helps to determine how we feel.  Reading about murder and crime tends to keep us focused on those things, and tends to keep our perspective dark and grim.  I strongly believe that we can help make this world a better place to live only by encouraging and helping each other out to find out who we are and what we want out of life, and to help each other accomplish what we wish to accomplish.  If we fill our minds with the violence and anger and deception, we get a false view of humanity, and we lose a bit of our ability to focus on those positive things--the neighbors who helped you out, the family members who have been there for you, the woman in the store who went out of her way to help you with something.  Our lives are full of positive, loving experiences, and we can't let our media mislead us about human nature by focusing on the abnormal.  Think your thoughts, and develop your perspective--don't see what you read as the norm, because it certainly isn't that.

Of course, don't ignore the bad and the evil--we have to deal with that--but let's deal with it to the degree at which it occurs, which is far less often than a newscast would lead you to believe.  The next time you watch the news and see all the bad things they focus on, ask yourself this--how many people aren't on the news who did something great today?


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