Toddler's News Judgment

July 09, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

Arriving at play school, the 3-year-old announces with great solemnity: ''Mommy hit a rock when she was driving the car.''

Not exactly a falsehood, it is one of those teasers open to far more serious interpretation than it deserves -- at least in this journalist's impeccable judgment.

Now why, Mom wondered aloud, was that the important pronouncement of the day, rather than something like: ''Mommy made some yummy oatmeal this morning and even gave me seconds.''

Silly question. Quick as a flash the answer came back from a discerning adult: Well, why does the newspaper you work for print all that bad news and leave out the good things that happen every day?

Touche.

News, by definition, centers on what goes wrong, what's out of kilter, what's different. We usually take for granted the things that go right. Wars and disasters, pestilence and politics are things we need to know about, not necessarily things that make breakfast more pleasant.

But it's not entirely true that there's no good news in the media. Most newspapers, and this one is no exception, have a fair share of writers with a gift for chronicling the everyday joys of life, or celebrating the distinctive characters who make a place unique.

As for television, don't forget Charles Kuralt, who spent a good part of his career roaming the byways of this country for his ''On the Road'' feature for CBS News.

Recently, a transcript of a talk Mr. Kuralt made at the University of South Dakota appeared in the daily mail. Like one of his folksy features, his remarks made me feel better about the country we live in and about the fallible people who report what happens in it.

Despite a career in news, Mr. Kuralt retains something important -- something that may even be essential in a country governed by its own people: optimism.

His speech came in April, only days after the Oklahoma City bombing shook Americans badly. Even so, he said, ''I am bold enough to stand up here and say to you that this country is a lot more just and a lot more humane than it used to be. The country I've found is one that presses upon you cups of coffee and slices of pie and great globs of local history -- [one that] always wants you to stay longer than you have time to stay.''

Mr. Kuralt singled out the American conscience for special praise, which he connects with the country's optimism: ''We believe [as] Americans -- a kind of naive belief I suppose it is, but we believe it in our bones -- that there's a solution to every problem. That's ridiculous! I mean there are some problems that just don't have solutions, but don't tell that to citizens of the USA. Let something go wrong in this country, and you can be sure somebody will [rent] a hall, somebody will form a committee. . . .''

Solutions. Progress. Charles Kuralt assures us that these quintessentially American impulses are thriving, and that the people with decent impulses far outweigh the crazies.

Sure, there's often a cynical spin on the news and on some days the problems seem to blight all hope for solutions. But then there are the people out there ''On the Road,'' whether in Highlandtown or in some dusty, rural town, taking their lives one day at a time in full confidence that sooner or later there will be the strength and means to tackle any trouble they face.

Headlines may scream bad news, but Americans know that sometimes the real news is in the small print, the often-untold stories that tell us there's more to life than the latest scandal.

Meanwhile, is it possible to help a 3-year-old refine his news judgment, especially where his mother is concerned?

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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