Man Bites Dog
News this weekend included floods in the gulf coast, a fire and knife attack on a Swiss train, an elderly woman who was accidentally shot by police in Florida, and a Washington woman who crashed her car upside down into a Starbucks drive-thru.
So why were these stories in the news? And what stories might have been rejected so these stories could be featured?
Newsworthiness is the term I learned back in J school that expresses all the possible components of an event that could qualify it for coverage by the media. Today I will define each term, give examples and then talk about how they might be manipulated to create bias.
Newsworthiness isn’t an equation or a checklist. An event doesn’t have to meet three out of seven criteria to be considered newsworthy, for example. Neither does ONE element typically make something newsworthy. It’s usually a combination of these elements that has to be judged by editorial staff. On a slow news day, the top story might be a police officer chasing down bicycle thieves. But if an explosion kills factory workers on the same day, you can bet that bike story is going to the bottom of the page, if not the cutting room floor.
A few weeks ago, I saw a police cruiser veer to the side of a busy road just where a bridge crosses the Boise River. The officer jumped out of his car, then quickly over the barricade to the sloped terrain below. I kept driving, but later pulled out my smart phone and searched for news on the incident. I wanted to know what happened and I expected a timely answer.
The most basic thing that makes something newsworthy is timeliness. We want to know what’s happening as soon as possible – and this hasn’t changed since scrappy little dudes were sent to the street corners shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” (What HAS changed is what “as soon as possible” means in the modern era, which is one of the reasons print media struggles to survive).
Media outlets know you want it all and you want it now – that’s why they advertise “up-to-the-minute” news and “breaking stories” just “as they happen.” They have helicopters so they can reach a crime scene immediately and reporters who broadcast LIVE via satellite.
But timeliness has shorter life expectancy than a ripe banana. The article I found about three girls rescued from the Boise River only ran that day, maybe the next. By now, it’s completely irrelevant to the general public. Old news isn’t NEW, therefore it’s not “news” at all.
Only fresh information can bring an old story back to the news room. Last year the remains of a dead infant were found under someone’s porch in nearby Nampa, Idaho. Thursday, a new article told us FBI investigators have determined the infant was a girl and that they are trying to match her DNA to a list of former tenants. New information = new headline. If they identify a suspect a year from now, journalists will report on it again.
So can timeliness be manipulated to create bias?
Yes. The attack on Benghazi and the subsequent congressional investigations provide us a perfect example – mostly of politicians taking advantage of our desire for timely news to push their own political ends.
On one side, Democrats maintain that the Benghazi story is no longer timely. It all happened a long time ago. Discussion on the attack and the subsequent investigations are no longer relevant, according to people like Clinton’s press secretary and even Bernie Sanders. They maintain that the Benghazi committee, led by Republican Trey Gowdy, is dragging the story out for political gain during an election year.
But Gowdy has continually maintained that it is Clinton and administration staff who have drawn out the investigation by delaying the release of documents, claiming they could not find witnesses, or that they were given unrealistic timelines. Republicans believe these are stall tactics designed to put distance between citizens and the truth. They claim Dems want the public to have a fuzzy recollection of details, to blame Republicans for spending too much money investigating, and to grow weary of the discussion.
The news article about the girls rescued from the Boise River was only in Boise newspapers. People in Dallas are not concerned about it. (They have their own people being rescued from their own rivers after all.)
Proximity is the element of newsworthiness that has to do with how close you are to the action. But proximity isn’t defined by a fixed number of square miles on a map. It’s a judgment call made by editors who decide what to publish and what to cut. Generally speaking, the bigger the story, the wider the proximity is calculated.
So can proximity be manipulated to create bias?
Absolutely. News outlets can over report events outside their proximity to create an artificial sense of closeness to the event. Conversely, under reporting an event within reasonable proximity can create an artificial sense of distance.
Sometimes readers must examine our own biases when judging proximity. Take coverage of terrorist attacks, for example. Media outlets have been charged with covering European attacks WAY more often than they cover attacks in the Middle East. Social media discussion suggests readers also feel more impacted by attacks in Europe. This raises several questions: Is traditional media’s reporting driving social media responses, or the opposite? Are we more interested in European attacks because we’re racists (more white deaths = more outrage) or have we merely become desensitized to violence in the Middle East because it’s so prevalent? Some would suggest the higher degree of interest in European attacks has more to do with the impact of refugees and immigration, since most alleged terrorists came from the Middle East, but others just see that as a more pernicious form of prejudice.
In the fall, I spend a good deal of time watching Sun Devil football with my husband and other Sun Devils who live in the area. When the Sun Devils struggle and make a lot of mistakes, my husband gets agitated, but stays fully engaged. However, when our lead is enormous, he and our friends spend time talking about music, only glancing at the television from time to time.
Why is news so negative? Because conflict is a vital element of newsworthiness. Don’t blame the media for this – conflict is more interesting than peace. That’s human nature, as my anecdote suggests. Have you ever tried to read a novel without conflict? Probably not – novelists don’t write them! Even positive people love to read about conflict, if for no other reason than to hope it resolves. News outlets give readers what they are drawn toward (because they want to get paid, after all!)
But can conflict be manipulated? You bet.
Rolling Stone tells us that more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan during Obama’s presidency than during Bush’s. Does that surprise you? So what happened to the war protestors who camped outside Bush’s Texas home, drawing attention from every media outlet in the country? Did they go home? No, not all of them. Cindy Sheehan, a prominent protestor from the Bush era, has continued her protests, even following Obama up to Martha’s Vineyard. But media coverage all but stopped as soon as Bush left office. Why? Is this no longer a conflict?
A car accident might make the news on a slow news day. A sixteen-car pile-up will make the news any day of the week. Why? It impacts more people. Impact is the element of newsworthiness that explains why bombs, terrorism, stock market crashes, and major storms always make the headlines. These things affect a lot of people.
But this creates a great opportunity for bias – because what has a huge impact and what doesn’t? It depends on who you ask. Environmentalists believe that climate change has a huge impact, as recently expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry. There cannot be too much coverage! Others believe ISIS is a bigger threat, despite the relatively low statistical probability that any one of us will be killed by a terrorist.
Impact cannot always be judged with simple numbers (one car in an accident versus 16). Sometimes the impact is predicted – and since different experts predict different things, it’s easy to manipulate news to reflect impact in a way that aligns with my beliefs.
If I decided to call a press conference to express my opinions about, well, anything at all, exactly zero reporters would show up. In the eyes of the media, I am nobody – no credentials, no reputation, no celebrity status. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift can’t buy an ice cream cone with her latest boyfriend without making the front page of several tabloid magazines.
Prominence is the element of newsworthiness that means famous people are more interesting than average people. Whether you or I disagree is irrelevant – no one would buy People magazine if I was on the cover. Lots of people will buy it to see a little Swiddleston hand holding (or is it Hiddleswift? Swiddleston sounds like a dessert to me – something with two cherries on top.)
How can prominence be manipulated by the media? Yesterday, MSBNC had a headline declaring that Ronald Reagan’s daughter believes Donald Trump is bad for America. (Shocking, I know!) How is this biased? In the first place, she’s been a Democrat for years – I’m not sure she even would have voted for her father – so it’s hardly surprising that she hates the Republican candidate (especially one hated by a good number of Republicans as well). Secondly, the headline didn’t say Patty Duke doesn’t like Trump, it said Ronald Reagan’s daughter doesn’t like Trump, just in case we missed the subtlety of a famous Republican’s child dissing the current GOP nominee.
If you know me, you know I’m not a fan of President Obama, but I can easily tell you my favorite story about him. It’s the one from 2012 when a fifth grader attended one of his campaign events and Obama wrote his teacher a NOTE excusing him from class. Now how cool would that be?
Readers and viewers love to be reminded that everyone else is human too – we struggle, we succeed. We fail and rise to overcome. These are the feel-good stories everyone loves to hear.
So how can human interest stories be manipulated? By humanizing people we want you to like and vilifying people we want you to hate. Let’s go back to Obama. Last week, CNN, CNBC and Politico (among others) shared an article about the president’s summer playlist. Immediately, other outlets speculated about what Trump might listen to on his gold-plated iPod, concluding that it was probably just a list of “white guy music.” Clearly, sharing Obama’s list is meant to humanize him. Trump’s “list” is meant to remind us that he’s a white guy who is only popular with other white guys.
Most news is what you would expect, following the dog-bites-man formula.
Example: a suspect who robs a 7-Eleven in Tucson is apprehended by police. It might be news, but it’s not surprising (or particularly interesting). Now, let’s say that a man went into 7-Eleven to buy a bag of Funyuns and the store clerk robbed him! Now that would be really weird – something journalists call “Man Bites Dog.”
The more bizarre or shocking something is, the more likely it is to end up in the news – like the story of the woman who crashed upside down into a Starbucks drive-thru. Car accidents happen every day – but not like that!
But sometimes it seems like the media won’t cover something, even though it’s truly weird – like the number of people associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton who died untimely deaths. (No one debates the deaths, by the way, just the degree of association with the Clintons – but how many people have YOU known who died in these ways? There are no similar lists for Obama, Kerry, Sanders or Warren, after all.) So is the mainstream media avoiding this topic to protect the Clinton image?
Other times, the media seems to suggest that someone’s behavior is really weird and unhinged, when it’s actually not that strange at all. Take Howard Dean’s weird little yell during his 2004 campaign. The media’s coverage of those two seconds was so thorough, Dean never recovered. It’s still what people remember most about him today (Google him. It’s third on the list.)
When I analyze these elements of newsworthiness and how they might be biased, I readily admit my own come in to play, no matter how fair I try to be. There is so much information out there from many sources – some more credible than others (something else I’ll address in the coming weeks) and I have to decide what to share and how detailed I will be.
Unfortunately, some people see that as an excuse to throw up their hands and say, “Well, sure the media can be biased – but it goes equally in either direction. We can’t ever really know the truth anyway, so why bother trying!” (What follows might be some muttering about vast right-wing conspiracies, the military industrial complex or alien cover-ups.) But I think it’s short sighted to give up trying to understand what’s happening around us. I can’t read all the research or every article on a given subject before drawing conclusions, but I can be more informed and more analytical the more I read.
And I can certainly change my mind if I’m proven wrong.