February 10, 2003

The Shuttle: When is Too Much News Not Enough?

I launched First Draft with the Quality Manifesto, an admittedly self-inflationary headline for a piece that, in its essence, lamented newspapers' lack of innovation and proclivity to run in a pack. Newspapers, I wrote, "are killing themselves with adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth."

David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times media writer, addresses the same issue in a column that questions the over-saturation of Columbia coverage to the detriment of other stories, particularly the coming war with Iraq.

"It's not surprising when all-news radio and cable TV fill the airwaves with one story, hour after hour. They're 24-hour news operations, and on most days there's not enough real news to fill that gaping hole. But newspapers have a different mission, and their readers have different needs. Do readers really want 25 separate stories on the Columbia, as USA Today provided on Monday, along with 45 photos, drawings and other graphic elements (and that doesn't include the four Columbia stories and three pictures in the paper's Life section, or the story and four pictures that dominated the first page of its Sports section)?"

The answer, of course, is no, and Shaw finds the news media "once again guilty of confusing the spectacular with the significant."

I would also convict newspapers, once again, of focusing inward - on themselves, on their competition, on the notion that nothing is bigger than the Big Story of the moment - instead of outward, on their readers and on their role in the larger environment of omni-media.

In a column last November, Shaw interviewed Jay Harris, the San Jose Mercury News publisher who quit over newsroom cutbacks ordered by the paper's corporate parent, Knight Ridder. They were talking about the political news, but Harris' comments are apt in the context of the shuttle coverage. Shaw wrote:

"(Harris) thinks journalists talk too much to each other -- and not just in speeches. He thinks many stories they write and broadcast, ostensibly to enlighten the public, are also -- even if only subconsciously -- aimed primarily at their colleagues and their sources, rather than the reading and viewing public."

The quote clip came from MediaMinded, who added this comment to Harris' remarks: "Reporters will jump through hoops to find some subtle little nuance or extra little factoid that the competing paper missed, but which adds next to nothing to the narrative." [Thanks to Rhetorica for the pointer.]

Newspapers' compulsion to scrum a story under mounds of incremental reporting is fueled by the relentless pounding of 24-hour TV news. I have been in more than one newsroom during a major story and watched assignment editors futilely attempt to keep pace with what passes for broadcast reporting.

Of course, destruction of the Columbia was a huge story. Of course, it was a human tragedy. (Although as Orville Schell, dean of the UC-Berkeley journalism school, points out, the excessive coverage of the shuttle disaster "raises questions about the equivalence of human tragedy" such as the "wars, famines and epidemics that last years, maybe a lifetime (that) don't receive anywhere near this much attention.") And, of course reporters are raising legitimate questions about NASA's funding and safety record.

What is important for newspapers to remember, or perhaps relearn, is, as Shaw stated, that "newspapers have a different mission, and their readers have different needs."

I am sure many people will disagree with Shaw's assessment that the news media mistook the "spectacular with the significant" in covering the shuttle - I myself read every Columbia story Sunday morning in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle - but I think what he yearns for is more perspective by newspapers, a longer view on the contextual importance of an event, something that extends beyond the reach of today's CNN scroll bar, in planning and executing their coverage of a Big Story.

You can't disagree with that.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg tackled the same question, and raised the same issue of perspective, in the Wall Street Journal. He concluded: " 'The Columbia is Lost' story involved large themes, important policies and billions of dollars mixed in with drama, tragedy and heroism too. If not this, then what kind of story should the media go overboard about?" [Thanks to cut on the bias]

Links
 David Shaw How the loss of Columbia eclipsed all other news
 Jonah Goldberg Spaced Out -- Another maudlin, media-crazed moment. But hold the scorn.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 10, 2003 10:26 AM