In the age of podcasting, backpack journalism and 24-hour news, the number of informational resources available to the public is impressive. That number grows with every blog created or news story posted online. It would seem impossible for today’s mainstream media to sing in chorus, but some things never change.
From Feb. 4 to Feb. 9, Journalism.
org’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Anna Nicole Smith’s death was the third-most-covered story on cable and radio talk shows.
This story ranked just behind coverage of Iraq policy and the 2008 presidential race, accounting for 10 percent of total news coverage in the 48 outlets studied by the organization.
For those who obtain news primarily
from cable stations, it would be difficult to believe much else went on in the world that week. The Anna Nicole Smith story monopolized 15 percent of talk time that week, according to the PEJ report. Her death accounted for a staggering
37 percent of talk show conversation.
Minus commercials, this works out to be nearly an entire day’s worth of broadcasting.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer outlined the paradoxical situation when he said, “I know a lot of people are complaining about that, but a lot of people are also watching.”
It is a wonder why an ultimately inconsequential story received so much attention from the media and the public.
But with legal battles surrounding Smith’s burial, estate and the custody of her child following her death, there is likely to be even more time devoted to this story in coming weeks – perhaps more than it deserves.
For the better part of her career, Smith was more a subject of ridicule than a subject of admiration for her supposed talents. Her tragic death only cemented the exaggerated, inaccurate parallels drawn by the media between Smith and the original blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe.
This follows coverage of the death of Barbaro, a story of particular local interest which inspired cheers for the racehorse’s courage and heroism – praise befitting of the most valiant of soldiers.
It is a shame when any animal suffers
and dies, but the local media and Philadelphia residents portraying Barbaro
as a hero fit all too easily into the city’s eternal underdog complex.
If the U.S. Army were made up of racehorses, then people might care more about our soldiers who are dying daily in Iraq. People are shot daily in the streets of Philadelphia, but we hold our breaths over the imminent death of a horse whose suffering was prolonged for months of fruitless medical attention.
If Blitzer’s justification is correct – if journalists only report what the public
wants to hear – then the public’s priorities need to be refocused. And so do journalists’priorities.
As the gatekeepers of news, journalists
decide what is or isn’t newsworthy.
It is a heavy responsibility that requires
the weighing of ethics and values with, among other things, consideration of the audience’s interest.
This balancing act determines what’s called “newsworthiness,” a concept about as clear-cut as Stephen Colbert’s famed “truthiness.”
Seeing so much coverage of people
like Smith and Britney Spears reflects
poorly on the judgment of journalists.
These are stories that belong in “US Weekly” and “People” magazines, and on “Entertainment Tonight” – the respected outlets for entertainment and celebrity news.But when they are the lead stories on evening newscasts or on the front pages of newspapers, it’s likely that more relevant events are marginalized.
Journalists – and the public – need to reclaim the traditional hard news outlets,
limiting coverage of softer stories to focus on the events that impact everyday life, not just the ones that entertain our fantasies. When delivered responsibly and consumed diversely, news can be the most valuable resource available to the public.
Brian Krier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.