Flip through the pages of a magazine, turn on the TV, read one of countless blogs or news websites over the past few weeks, and you may be struck by the thought that we are in a slow-news rut. However, with numerous wars being fought with U.S. involvement overseas, the Middle East in a period of unprecedented turmoil, and the United States’ own economy and job market in disarray, this is certainly not the case. Yet the media in the United States seems determined to latch onto any trivial story and run with it, dragging it through investigative reports and hour-long news specials for days, if not weeks. Recent examples of this phenomenon that come to mind include Anthony Weiner’s twitter scandal in June, Casey Anthony’s murder trial, the News of the World hacking fiasco, and the breaking news treatment of a relatively minor earthquake on the East Coast.
For some reason these stories are the ones that have been consistently in the headlines, while more serious disasters such as the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, and even the death of Osama Bin Laden are covered fervently for about two weeks before being relegated to the back pages. While events that are still unfolding are arguably more captivating to audiences who crave minute-by-minute updates, the media should not ignore developments in more serious stories. Although the effects of the Joplin tornado will undoubtedly go on for years, the media has little interest in the recovery stories. This phenomenon could have devastating effects similar to the loss of focus on stories such as Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake.
Recently, the News of the World hacking and stories about the U.S. debt crisis have dominated headlines. While both of these are more legitimate news stories than some others, the way in which they are covered is still questionable. The day of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony to Parliament, the media paid more attention to his wife Wendi punching a pie-thrower than any concrete facts that came out of the session. The debt crisis suffered a similar problem. Although the US economy is one of the most serious current issues, the partisan game-playing and outright fighting seems to have had almost as much print space as actual recovery plans. For a day in the week of August 29th the top economy story was not that Obama was proposing a jobs plan, but that he couldn’t agree with Republicans on when to address the nation to announce said plan.
The media consistently focuses on coverage that can provide good filler for a few hours despite lack of hard-hitting news. A recent example: earlier in the same day of the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt in Washington, DC and New York City there was a 5.3 earthquake in Colorado, which had next to no coverage in the media. Although both earthquakes caused almost no damage to property or people, since the DC earthquake could be analyzed for hours with a shot of the unharmed Capitol building in the background, the events were rehashed in breaking-news mode for hours on cable television.
Overwhelmingly, pressing disasters are overlooked in favor of more frivolous news: a study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in the week of June 6-12, Weiner’s scandal accounted for 17% of news coverage, with the Arizona wildfires, which displaced about 7,000 residents from their home, only appearing in 4% of news stories. PEJ also reported that Sarah Palin was the third highest newsmaker of that week, behind only Weiner and President Obama. Had Palin announced her candidacy for Presidency or given a rousing policy speech this would be expected. Instead, this attention was focused on thousands of emails released by the Alaska government, which news outlets such as the New York Times and Politico sifted through at length. The emails produced amusing anecdotes, but no real news, yet there were numerous stories on new “discoveries” from the emails.
Salacious stories may be more interesting than wars that drag on; death tolls rising as little progress is made. But only three months following Bin Laden’s death and with the monthly death toll from the war in Afghanistan at its highest since the beginning of the war, there are more pressing issues to investigate. None of the lead scandal-driven stories from this summer will be of any consequence even two years from now, and yet America’s media seems to have an insatiable appetite for them. It could be argued that Americans are more interested in immaterial stories than anything of more substance, but give America a chance, and the media may find the general population is more interested in their own risk of job loss than Anthony Weiner’s.