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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why the Media Loves an Uncomplicated Story

The election of a Republican in a Senate seat once considered to be the safest in America is causing much weeping and rending of garments on the left. One of the handiest whipping boys is of course, the media who are being targeted by elements in the blogosphere as the handmaidens of an inevitable Republican resurgence in midterm elections later this year.

It may be a premature reaction.

My reading is that much of the public distrust of the Obama healthcare plan is more a function of
Americans' anxiety about jobs, more than any other issue. As James Carville so eloquently phrased it in another political time, "It's the economy, stupid." Americans are historically predisposed to distrust anything governmental. It is part of their heritage of rebelliousness that stems from their revolt against the British crown as well as the deep commitment to self-reliance and volunteerism. Something as ungainly as a national health plan just doesn't make a lot of sense to many in the US. 

More immediate is the media coverage of health care negotiations. This was bound to create a backlash as the sausage factory view of legislation making was given more close-up shots than people wanted or needed. The sense of "celebratory politics" (Obama's election) gave way to the conflictual nature of  Parliamentary politics (health care reform). This gave Americans a deepening sense of gloom about the future. It wasn't the media's fault. In fact, the coverage I thought was deep and contextual. Americans have been without serious political journalism for so long that the view of the workings of Congress was a shock for many.  The intricacies of the legislative process did not give a comforting sense that much had changed.

But as Harold Wilson once remarked, "a week is a long time in politics." Obama's vision for America is a long way from being defeated.

In Canada, we are effectively without a government. Using a little-used Parliamentary manoevre, the government has prorogued Parliament and will reconvene after the February Olympics are over. Not many Canadians seem to mind, which is precisely what the Government anticipated. Instead Canadians are engaged in celebratory politics as they watch the Olympic flame make its way across Canada, stopping in small towns, Indian reserves and coffee shops in its way to Vancouver.  People are making the obvious comparison that this is much more pleasant than watching politicians slag each other every day in "question period."

The media's abandonment of serious policy issues has resulted in this retreat from responsible journalism. The question still remains: how do we make the interesting important, and the important, interesting? In the US, health care seems on the verge of being abandoned. In Canada, Parliamentary inquiries into whether Canadian troops knowingly handed over captured Afghan prisoners to be tortured has been suspended.

Haiti is now the main story on the news. But I am hearing from the public that it is already "too much." A woman from Ottawa on a call-in show today began weeping saying she can't take it anymore. Compassion fatigue is setting in. At the same time, tv reporters are finding the story overwhelming and are abandoning their traditional roles to be active participants in the rescue operations. A BBC reporter on "From Our Own Correspondent" sounded in shock and reported how all he could think of was if he had to live on the street with his own family.

Are these journalists still capable of doing a job of reporting? Or have they become social workers? My sense is that many of them seem ill-prepared to do what they were sent to Haiti to do. They seem lost in the powerful emotions of the place which may be understandable.  While the public is donating money in record amounts,  the audience is being abandoned without any context and unprepared for what may come next.

1 comment:

  1. It seems sad that Canadian viewers should already be complaining that the coverage from Haiti is "too much" bad news. I can understand that reaction from someone on the scene, whether as a journalist, rescue worker, medic, or just delivering aid. The scale of the crisis and the difficulty of reaching so many people in time must both feel overwhelming. But is any of us watching from the comfort of home in Canada entitled to "compassion fatigue" after just nine days? I donated online to MSF as soon as I was able, and now I'm just standing back and reflecting on whether there was anything anyone could have done to avoid some of the awful outcomes we're now witnessing (apart from relocating everyone who lives near a fault zone?)
    It sounds like you've gotten the sense that younger journalists today have not taken up the standard of objectivity which earlier generations posed as so essential to effective journalism? Maybe that's so. (I wonder if I could maintain that detachment if I were in Haiti covering this.)
    Anyway thanks for a thought-provoking blog - I'll make a point to try to keep up.

    Jim Prall
    Toronto, ON