I almost didn't post this because I worry about sounding like a broken record on this topic. But a recent WMC Facebook
post stands out as a special example of how our broadcast media has abandoned any responsibility to the idea of "first do no harm."
For years Fly on the Wall
has observed local news teams over-reporting crime
and padding their broadcasts and social media feeds with crime reporting from other markets. Most out of town stories aren't introduced with a dateline, giving the initial impression that these scandals and abominations might be local. This dislocation is amplified by headline driven "scroll and share" consumer habits. I'm hardly the first critic of this cheap, media economy approach
to news delivery, nor am I the only journalist
to suggest that an over-saturation of fear-based reporting coupled to endless stream of brown faces builds stereotypes and cements misleading cultural narratives while triggering racist anxiety and public policy crafted in response to racist anxiety.
The post in question:
On one hand, the link attached to WMC's post does eventually identify Houston a the location of the event. Many, similar posts don't even do that and one has to be clicked in order to see a dateline pegging the story to Florida, California, or somewhere else
in the heartland. Only, people don't read news in blocks, taking in all the content at once. We read top to bottom, left to right. So the first information consumers get from WMC's post is the station's logo followed by news that five officers have been shot and are being transported to the hospital. At this point in reading, anybody with a husband, wife, son, daughter, or friend on the local force experiences a little heart failure. It may be allayed if they read on, but the messenger has already failed by not providing key information up front while appealing to raw emotion and cravenly picking at the scabs of discontent.
As if on cue one of the first commenters emerges from the disinformed fever swamp to pin this mass shooting of police officers on an imagined "race war" ginned up by President Barack Obama.
So why would the commenter think this drug raid-related shooting was somehow related to younger generations and Obama's secret race war? Although the linked story doesn't include the usual mug shot and one has to Google a bit to get the details
, these perps were 50-ish and white.
Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle
But an endless news stream showing crime after crime — brown face after brown face — creates a misleading narrative
that lends itself to irrational conclusion. Per the old programmer's maxim: Garbage in, garbage out.
None of this is accidental. It almost feels trite to remind consumers that content is a market run by enormous financial interests
who use trusted, appropriately coiffed
personalities to anchor their brands and make you think they care about anything besides where the next dollar's coming from. That's glib, but it's neither incorrect or an understatement to say that news content is determined by market, not the public good.
For newsrooms, police blotter crime reporting with no context and no followup stories requires very little investment and no investment at all if you're sharing from an affiliate market. This stuff is as close to free as news content gets. Meanwhile, to borrow from media critic James T. Hamilton
, useful and informative but more costly and potentially less clickable stories are left undone due to the "difficulties of translating the public benefits from excellent news coverage into private incentives for [media] owners."
If TV news is our window on the world, the view is constantly grim and brown is the color of mayhem.
The market has spoken and the second comment to the post is the kind of dividend it pays.
All WMC's social media person had to do to make this post not abhorrent was include the word "Texas" somewhere in the first sentence. That's it. So, at this point it may be fair to assume that showing a jot of responsibility really would kill our TV news folks, and someone would no doubt interpret their tragic death as yet another victim of Obama's fantasy race war.
In other words, we're doomed: Scene at 11. Thanks WMC.