Opinion by David Stone
My first direct experience with news reporting happened way back in 1968. An anti-war activist, I visited my favorite hometown columnist. Tom Cawley wrote for the Binghamton Press.
Protesting the bloody conflict in Southeast Asia wasn’t popular in my conservative Upstate hometown, but I hoped he’d listen. Cawley turned my story into a three parter. (I was only Part One.)
Later, after I became an organizer, I got more coverage. A reporter drove me to a rally, so he could pick my brain on the way. And he got the story right, quotes and all, although he maneuvered through traffic as we talked.
In those days, I had no complaint about accuracy or fairness. Balance wasn’t the rickety nonsense it is now. Responsibility mattered.
Mainstream Media News Sucks in the 70s
An average guy like me doesn’t get in print much or, these days, in online stories either. We just go about our business, ignored by editors and reporters alike.
Except when we’re troublemakers…
In the late 70s, I landed a job with what was then called a “sheltered workshop.” We trained adults with vocational disabilities for the best jobs available. Severely restricted men and women worked on simple projects and were paid subsidized sub-minimum wages.
A clueless TV reporter named Costantini leaped without looking.
Heywood Hale Broun served as a satirical model. Heywood Hale Costantini broadcast Sheltered from What?
A three-part series on the local news showed that he had nothing, but after hours invested in the report, it hit the airwaves anyway. No wrongdoing was found, but since many people absorb only the headline, not the content, the damage was done.
In short, once they invested in the story, whether or not it had merit was on little concern. Heywood Hale Costantini reported like he had an expose, but he really had a handful of nothing.
Then, the mass media narrative sucked even worse…
I’m a troublemaker. I mention this only for those who don’t know me. Age has not reduced my inclination to fire first, aim later.
Ready! Fire! Aim!
Not long after Sheltered from What?, I got into a tiff with, of all entities, the Erie County Democratic Party. Tangling with a machine run by Boss Joe Crangle lead me to change my party affiliation to Independent.
The fight escalated until the Buffalo News caught on, and I got to be the focal point of another three-parter. And at risk of losing my job.
Details of the conflict are unimportant, but what does matter is that, although the coverage was positive, the reporter screwed up the facts.
The reporter worked on deadline, and facts were the victim.
Lacking concern for getting the facts right, regardless of bias, is a plague that’s cost credibility and readership.
How the Internet Worsened the Mess
Facts regarded as a necessary evil by the mass media conditioned a bull rush toward click bait. Skipping important facts and news stories altogether became acceptable.
The dreary state of news reporting in the Internet Age hit home this week. Every local media source in New York City skipped a huge story. Why? It wasn’t negative enough.
Floating Over Hard News to Get To the Bait
In a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said,
Overall crime, year-to-date – the first six months of 2019 versus the first six months of 2018 – overall crime down 5.4 percent in New York City; homicides down 13.5 percent – and that is fewer than any six-month period on record; the first six months of 2019 – the fewest homicides of any six months ever our city’s history.
That’s BIG news, and if it was the other way around, crime increasing by 5%, they’d sure as hell report it.
When we moved to New York City in 1990, over 3,000 homicides pounded us every year. The news media never reported most of them. There were just too many.
For 2019, the City is on track to hit an all-time low of 270 murders.
A 90% drop equals nearly 3,000 lives saved.
Who gets the credit? What lead to this stunning reversal?
It matters, but not more than the fact that nobody knows much about it…. because good news doesn’t sell.
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How the mass media reports positive news… or doesn’t
The New York Times failed to cover the drop in crime as did the Post and Daily News. Online only resources, The City and The Gothamist, skipped it too.
The Times kept busy with an avalanche of seedy Jeffrey Epstein and Trump stories. Sex and crude behavior get clicks, but great news about saving lives doesn’t make the cut.
The others yelled at de Blasio about bicyclists being hit by cars at a record clip. That’s important, we’re talking dozens compared with thousands.
Unless you’re hellbent on negative content…
My reading among aggregators like Google and Apple News proves that the local disgrace is not unique. Everywhere, the emphasis is negative. Stomach churning crimes and political screwups get featured, but real progress and improvements in quality of life are swept aside.
Public perceptions are skewed. Crime goes down. Our neighbors believe it’s getting worse. Casualties from war hit rock bottom, but the mainstream news media sucks so bad, viewers and readers believe deaths are escalating.
I don’t have an answer. Read selectively. Use a smart filter. Remember that mass media news caters to advertisers, not readers. Telling them about it wouldn’t hurt either.