information

Journalism and the Sacred Work of Disseminating Knowledge

Image via Brian A Jackson/shutterstock.com
Image via Brian A Jackson/shutterstock.com

There’s an old adage in journalism that if it bleeds, it leads. It sounds kind of savage and it’s often that principle people quip when complaining about excessive violence in the news. 

That criticism isn’t wrong. Just watch 10 minutes of nightly news, and you’ll probably see nothing but murders and robberies, as if that’s the only thing that happens on a daily basis.

But what I think we forget when criticizing the bleed/lead principle is the inherent value it places on human life. The way I learned it in journalism school, “if it bleeds, it leads” means that people matter. It means that the loss of human life should never be something we consider a banality and that if there’s bloodshed, we, as journalists, have an obligation to report it.

In a perfect world, that would work. (Well, actually, in a perfect world, there would be no bloodshed for journalists to report, but you know what I mean.) But the problem that Gareth Higgins identifies in “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015) is not so much the excessive coverage of suffering, but the callous coverage of it.

Instead of promoting the sanctity of life as I think it was originally intended, media coverage of crime and violence has been twisted into a formulaic script that serves only to create the must-watch, must-read news that brings in advertising dollars. And it can be hard to stomach that much disingenuousness.

Yet the solution is not a positive-news only model. There are media outlets — largely Christian ones — trying this, but I don’t think this approach adequately addresses what’s wrong with the mainstream media. For one thing, it does nothing to fix the problem of formulaic, disingenuous stories. People can fake happiness, too, you know. Furthermore, there are times when we actually need more bad news — like, for example, when black women disappear or when migrant farmworkers are being abused.

The Church in a Media-Saturated Society

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com
VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com

I grew up in the days of the encyclopedia salesman. I clearly remember the day when a clean-cut well-dressed man knocked on our apartment door to sell the 26-volume World Book Encyclopedia.

We were recent immigrants and could not speak English fluently. We had few worldly possessions and the last thing we needed in our house was a 26-volume encyclopedia.

After the hour presentation during which we flipped through the volumes full of exciting information, my dad said no. The salesman looked sad and pitiful as he packed his sales kit. As he exited the door, he gave one last pitch and, suddenly, my dad changed his mind and we bought the whole set.

Either the salesman was good or my parents had this strong desire that their children needed to know “everything there is to know about the world.” Maybe it was a bit of both.

In 2014, long gone are those 26-volume encyclopedias that once filled the bookshelves of many of my childhood friends’ homes. Now we have everything that we need to know at our fingertips through iPads, computers, cell phones, or other gadgets.

Air Wars

AS THIS IS written, the Federal Communications Commission is, again, preparing to rule on a revision of its media ownership rules that could, again, allow the few remaining mass media conglomerates to own even more of what are currently competing local news outlets. For one thing, the proposed revision would allow Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to have its Los Angeles and Chicago TV stations and eat the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, too.

Five years ago, the Bush administration's FCC commissioners tried this move, but it was routed in a decision by a federal appeals court. But, just in time to quash any illusions that a second Obama administration might be less friendly to corporate power, Julius Genachowski, the Obama-appointed FCC chair, tried, at the end of 2012, to quietly slip in this new set of Murdoch-friendly ownership rules. The only reason it may not have happened already is because he raised the issue at the same time that an FCC report on minority media ownership arrived showing the share of outlets owned by people of color to be only 2.2 percent for commercial full-power television and 6.2 percent for commercial AM radio. This, needless to say, raises questions about the wisdom of further media consolidation.

Over the decades, this column has spilled a lot of ink on the subjects of the FCC, media policy, and, especially, media ownership. I haven't obsessed over these issues because of any love for the details of broadband allocation and other regulatory minutiae. In fact, I struggle to understand some of those matters just well enough to try and explain why they are important. But they are important, mostly because deregulated and monopolistic mass media impinge upon our ability to effectively exercise our God-given free will and participate rationally in the process of self-government.

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