|Photo: Mike Pennington|
Written by Paul Dail
The Spectrum recently published a piece in which the author asserted that while many claim the media is too focused on bad news in our community, the numbers prove these stories are being read the most; therefore, there’s no reason to stop publishing them. While I agree people may be drawn to bad news like moths to the flame, I take issue with using one of the baser aspects of human nature as justification for the operation of a media source. In fact, it bothers me enough that I will often institute a self-imposed media blackout, both as a moral stance and for my mental well-being.
Before I continue, it’s important you understand that this isn’t a case of sibling rivalry between The Spectrum and The Independent, and that I’m not bearing my testimony for my current employer. This is a topic I’ve actually considered writing about for awhile but one that I shelved in my early days of working for The Independent. Don’t bite the hand that feeds, right? Fortunately, while this publication has run its share of stories that cater to that aspect of morbid curiosity, I’m pleased I haven’t had to bite.
In the Spectrum piece—entitled “We don’t like bad news, or do we?”—the author implies that as the community engagement editor, he is attempting to carry the torch as a beacon for the good of humanity but that people just seem to want to hear the bad news. He cites their most read five stories of the past month, three of which were about death, one about the Barista’s Restaurant bull statue (more specifically said-bull’s endowment), and one uplifting piece.
The author says the numbers don’t lie (and doesn’t pull many of his punches when he calls out their readers, something I can respect). He’s calling it like he sees it. The question is, just because bad news is what the people seem to want—whether they admit it or not—do we give it to them?
For me, I’m going to turn it off or tune it out. As much as I need to be aware of what’s going on in the world for my job, I have to balance it with my mental heath. Here is where a self-imposed media blackout enters the picture.
If it’s bad news I feel like I can change, I want to change it, yet so little of what I see in the news feels like it’s in my control. ISIS. Drought. Pending economic disaster. Just to name a few.
If it’s politics, it’s either a party in power I like that I have to hear people accuse of being stupid or idiotic, or it’s a party in power that I don’t like that I have to hear people accuse of being stupid or idiotic.
And let’s be honest. When it comes to politics and the court of public opinion, it often smacks of someone referring to their favorite sports team as if they were actually on it.
“Yeah, we weren’t doing that great in the first half, but we really pulled it out at the end there.”
If I haven’t talked about “House of Cards” yet, you don’t have to watch too many episodes to start deducing how little power we probably actually have. Yet look at how worked up people get about it.
It’s not worth it to me. I have enough craziness going on in my little sphere of existence that I don’t need to add the weight of the world’s craziness over which I have little or no control. Because for me, I can’t just see it and forget it. Remember my column on the insidious effect of news like the Ebola outbreak on a hypochondriac horror writer?
Yeah, I don’t need any help making bad news worse.
But I’ve been surprised how many people I’ve encountered who feel the same way and have taken the same route as I have. Not because they are horror writers with overactive imaginations, but because they agree that starting your day with more news about people killing each other over the same piece of land they’ve been killing each other over for hundreds of years, or mugshots of every idiot who has decided the generally accepted concepts of “right” and “wrong” don’t apply to them, is not very good for your mental well-being.
The author of the Spectrum piece says they tried to get more stories about good news, putting out the call a week earlier for positive stories about young people in the community. While this is a good start and certainly noble intentions, I see two problems.
First, we’re talking about the youth of today. Maybe this would explain the “tepid, nearly non-existent” response the author said they received [*cue rimshot sound effect*].
Seriously though, soliciting your readers for stories of a more positive nature sounds good on paper and all, but it falls short of an overall goal I think. This is not just something you expect your readers to provide, asking them once and then throwing in the towel when you don’t get any response after a week. It’s about decisions as to how to run a media organization.
A look at the top 5 reads at The Independent in March tells a different story, and it’s one that reflects more of what I believe a paper should put out, a paper where I don’t have to make the decision to impose a media blackout on myself.
Our top five stories for March were “Utah legislators force e-cigarettes to abide by new rules,” “DSU theater professor Varlo Davenport terminated, university refuses requests for explanation,” “OPINION: Dixie State University, the ends do not justify the means,” “Berrett pleads guilty to animal cruelty in Elsa case; sentenced to 30 days,” and “Hurricane schools on lockout after attempted abduction.”
[That last one I really consider more of a public safety announcement, which makes position number five actually a music review for the band Modest Mouse. Not too surprising given The Independent’s focus on art and music.]
Pushing the list out to the top 10 includes stories of a St. George resident petitioning city council to ban puppy sales in pet stores, a small town fighting a chain restaurant, and an article on healthy living.
While not all hearts and rainbows and stories of kids doing good things for old people, these are not just stories of death, death, death, and bull testicles. These are stories about justice and the inner workings of the government—both from their side and the side of the people. They address the need to question the actions of those in authority (because after all, aren’t some of the worst criminals the ones we see smiling from the media windows every day).
And they tackle these important issues all the while eating well and listening to good music.
Again, I won’t disagree that it may be human nature to slow down at the scene of a car crash or be tempted to search the arrest record for people we went to high school with (guilty as charged… and in my own admittedly wilder younger years, “guilty as charged”), but I don’t consider this our better nature. Using the reasoning that people will read it—that they will often give in to their baser side—as justification to keep printing it doesn’t necessarily connect for me.
And the fact is that some of us don’t “eat up bad news with a fork and a spoon.” Some of us stop reading that publication entirely, especially if what they are adding to our life in one area with stories that might challenge us or make us think, is being outweighed by how they are detracting from our life in another.
It’s like that article we published about eating better. If you stop giving the people crap to eat, they’re not going to starve. In fact, they may even discover they’re happier without it.
Paul D. Dail received his BFA in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Montana, Missoula. In addition to news and his bi-weekly opinion column, he also enjoys writing creative nonfiction and fiction (with a penchant for the darker side of the page). His collection of flash fiction, “Free Five,” has spent over a year and a half in the top 50 Kindle Horror Short Stories since its publication in 2012.
Currently Paul lives on the outskirts of Kanarraville, surrounded by the sagebrush and pinyon junipers, with his wife and two children. Read more about him at www.pauldail.com. While he prefers that any comments directed at a specific article be posted in a public forum, he welcomes all other correspondence at [email protected]