Naysayers will wear out their welcome

March 01, 1994|By C. W. Gusewelle

A GROUNDSWELL of objection is building among readers and viewers of the news, and even among some journalists, to the unrelievedly bleak depiction of human affairs in the mainstream media.

The world they see represented on their television screens and in the pages of their newspapers -- a world dominated by violence, deviancy, ungoverned venality and cynicism -- is not the one that most of them inhabit.

Increasingly the press and TV alike have come to be viewed as prurient in their interests, fascinated by the sensational and the aberrant, indifferent to the interests and the experience of ordinary readers and willing to manipulate reality to serve various social or political agendas.

Whether or not the perception is altogether fair, it is indisputably real. It's the dominant topic in any public discussion of the press. If truth be told, it's a frequent subject of complaint among newspeople themselves.

The primary function of journalism is to give readers or viewers information that may be of use to them in making judgments about the conduct of their own lives.

There are other functions, of course: to provide some context of important events in the community, the nation and the wider world; to argue in the editorial columns for positions of principle; and finally, in some measure, to amuse and entertain.

These other purposes are legitimate, but they are secondary to the first mission, which is to empower consumers of the news with useful information about the world in which they live.

Wicked and despicable things do happen. A responsible news organization must report them. The issue is balance. That is, to give them fair weight and display them in a way that does not suggest that crimes and abominations are the dominant themes of human experience.

For the fact is that most people do not live lives disfigured by violence and depravity. Some do, and it is tragic. But most do not.

When a television newscast is led by a detailed chronicling of the day's murders, or when a newspaper's front page is dominated by horrific and repugnant offenses, the world that is described bears little relation to the one familiar to the great majority of news consumers.

News is a product, like any other. When the product is irrelevant or, worse, useless, the consumer passes it by.

In a telephone conversation the other day with an editor in Ohio, this subject came up. There's much that's good in human nature, we agreed. And, for all its dislocations, there's much good about this society. But the good goes largely unreported.

"Somehow," that editor said, "it just doesn't get through."

The reasons are several. For one, monstrous behavior contains an element of drama that decency generally lacks, and therefore is easier for a writer to tell. For another, there are dependable institutional sources for bad news -- the police, the courts and so forth -- whereas good news usually must be happened upon by accident.

News managers, especially in the print media, also are heard to argue that the public's taste is evolving, with the change most often blamed on television and the tabloid press. The new readership must be enticed, they say, or it will be lost.

The problem is that the line between enticement and pandering is very fine.

It's a real dilemma, for news consumers, in my view, are more discerning than they're often given credit for being. They are no more interested in a sugarcoating of the day's events than they are in a horror show. They only want some rendering of life as they actually know it.

What can't be disputed, though, is that a reaction has begun taking hold that we in the business of telling the news can ignore only at our peril.

C.W. Gusewelle wrote this for the Kansas City Star.

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