Thursday, February 23, 2006 | Any analysis or critique of the media must begin with the following reality:
The media did not invent or create the definitions and values of news.
People created those definitions and values over tens, or hundreds, of thousands of years. With the rise of communications technology, beginning with alphabets and paper roughly 3,500 years ago, the media simply took those values and turned them into a business that brought news to people who otherwise could not obtain it for themselves.
News is defined as something that changes or threatens to change – things. From ancient humans to present events, humans react to such changes with no prompting by the media at all.
Every day, all over the planet, humans encounter change – a volcanic eruption (change), a rumbling volcano (threat to change), a crash of cars or trains or planes, a fire breaking out in a house or building, an act of heroism, a kidnapping, a good deed – and, instantly recognizing it as news, run to the nearest telephone and call the newspaper.
Those human recognitions and reactions to changes and a threat of changes to things were going on thousands of years before the first newspaper was ever published. In time they became categorized into news types, or values.
There was conflict, progress, disaster, consequence, prominence, proximity, timeliness, human interest, novelty, sex, and sensational. These are exactly the same values which humans recognize and react to today, whether they are experienced first-hand or received in a media report.
Ancient humans also conceived the famous 5 W’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why. As they experienced and reacted to the world around them, they learned that someone the who was involved, and that something happened – the what and it happened just now – the when – and right here – the where.
Those details were generally apparent, even to the ancients. More mysterious, many times, because it could not be immediately known, was the why. Human curiosity made them wonder, when some event happened, why it happened. Remember the famous scene in “2001, A Space Odyssey,” when the ape-men make the connection between bone and weapon. That was a fabulous why story.
All modern humans, including journalists, walk around with these values and the 5 W’s on board. The non-journalists react to them in the ages-old ways; the journalists learn to use them as tools. They are granted that proxy by the non-journalists, to use in gathering news for the masses. It is vital to understand that, in an age when interest groups, left and right, have learned to defend themselves by finding fault with the media.
The Cheney shooting incident in Texas provides a good example.
Imagine people experiencing that event first-hand, millions of people in galleries watching the action below, as Dick Cheney and company flush quail. They are there, of course, because Cheney is there. He is famous, the “prominence” value. If it were half a dozen ordinary people out on a hunt, no one would care.
Now the star, Cheney, raises, aims, fires.
Cheney hits a fellow hunter 30 yards away. All in the same instant, the galleries witness 1) something changed, 2) four of the five W’s, and 3) eight of the 12 news values. Immediately they react, to the news story breaking in front of them. They gasp, or shout. They reach for cell phones to call the newspaper. They watch Cheney run to the victim and as he kneels they feel a threat of more change. Is he alive? Dead? Once they know he is alive, they wonder – will he die later?
No one can say. For now, at least, he is alive. But there is one more W: why? Why did this happen? Any one of the hunters, knowing the codes and rules of bird shooting, could give the answer, but the galleries don’t want it from them. They want it from the one they came to see, the star.
What is going through the mind of the Vice President of the United States, an experienced hunter, at that moment?
If he turns to address the galleries, that is the end of the story. There will be stories with follow-up information, that the people, filing out of the galleries, will want to know, concerning the victim’s condition, etc., but it will all be information about that story.
Since the millions can’t come to the news, the news must go to the millions. If it had – had Cheney addressed the millions via the media on Saturday night and Sunday morning – it would have been the end of a small story, except for some follow-up information.
But he chose not to do that.
At the instant of that decision, a second story was born, a story many times bigger than the first story. The media did not decide it was a bigger story. The news definitions, values and W’s – all the province of the people – whirled and clicked, at the instant of decision, into new and stronger positions, particularly in the areas of conflict, prominence, what and why. People wanted to know why the vice president let the second story happen, and what that decision might have had to do with the details of the first story. In that moment, it became the media’s job to provide the public with that information.
Then the new why strengthened the what: what really happened, to make him duck the first story? Thus into conflict crept doubt, one of the most powerful and insidious forms of conflict. It gave his enemies ammunition, his friends (and employer) discomfort, and the entertainers’ jokes. Then came claims of arrogance, drunkenness, swift-boating and decaying partisan support – all of them swelling the “threat” definition of news to front-page strength.
The second story, with all that mass, became much harder to stop than the first story. But stopping it starts at the same place as stopping the first story. The star had to talk to the people. He had to talk to them through the media, which brings us back to the beginning: the reality is, the media did not invent or create any of the definitions and values that made these stories stories.
As always, the interest groups left and right have their own opinions, which they are obligated to publish (see David Brooks’ brilliant essay, Thursday, Feb. 16, The New York Times). Among these is to blame the mainstream media (the “MSM,” the bloggers call it) for various excesses, including creating the story itself. The modern media has many excesses, with which it must deal, but creating the story isn’t one of them, and it is vital that people reject the bloggers’ notions that it is.
It is vital that people, in the face of this misinformation, learn how the mainstream news media works, who it works for, and why.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com.