There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about when to blame media outlets for a story not receiving the exposure you feel it deserves and when to look in the mirror.
In this modern age of Facebook, Twitter, news aggregators and Yahoo’s tailored headlines widget, the impact of reporting seems to be lost. Few people actively read a newspaper or watch the news daily anymore. The generation that did or still does is retiring or, unfortunately, dying off.
These days, many people get their news from social media (mainly Facebook). Occasionally, when you get bored enough, you might run across something on an aggregate site (which pulls stories from various outlets into one place, usually at the expense of the outlets it pulls from) that interests you or you think is important. But mainly social media.
You may occasionally browse a news website or two — The New York Times, USA Today and/or a big regional paper (my home state’s would be The Oklahoman or the Dallas Morning News) if you care more than the average person — or you may visit a slanted site to get a digest of what those who share your worldview think is important, such as CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.
(As I’ve said many times before, if you want to truly be informed and are wary about bias in the media, get your news from several different sources. And don’t use those stupid tailored headlines widgets in your browser. Excluding the select few who are too busy to peruse a news site and just need the quick hits, those tools are for lazy news consumers. And they never give you a full picture, just a slice.)
In the end, though, the media’s job is simply to gather and report news. It’s not the media’s job to make sure you pay attention; that’s on you.
So say this news story you feel should be plastered in lead-story spots around the Web, TV and newspapers is something that’s a couple of months old. Let’s say you — and most people — didn’t pay attention when the media reported it as breaking (i.e. did their job completely). It is not the responsibility of the media to keep reminding you of old stories they think you should know.
You’re either willing to be informed or you’re not. And that is a daily decision. Being informed isn’t a part-time gig.
The media and the people have to work together if you want something to get exposure. Think back to the big events of the last few years: Newtown. The Colorado theater shooting. The fiscal cliff. The debt ceiling. Where did you hear about those? Odds are it wasn’t from a media outlet. For each one of those stories, I first heard about it through social media (or, in one case, a news alert on my phone). People in my network saw those stories and shared them or talked about them, which made me seek out a news outlet to read what was going on. Then I, in turn, shared the story and/or my thoughts about what was happening.
It’s called the public conversation for reason.
The media cannot force you to pay attention. They can’t force anyone to pay attention. They could stand on the mountain tops and shout the news you need to know, but unless you listen, it will fall on deaf ears.
That’s where your side of the relationship comes in. It’s a two-way street of responsibility. The media gathers and reports the news, and you have to pay attention and help spread the word.
When media outlets report a story and see only 100 page clicks or a handful of Facebook shares, that says to them their audience doesn’t care for that story, so they only do follow-ups if they feel it’s truly important (and even then, many times those follow-ups can be buried 17 pages deep, at the end of a broadcast when no one is still watching or at the bottom of a web page people rarely scroll all the way through). The media has to make room for Sarah Palin’s new book tour, Miley Cyrus’ latest run-in with alcohol, Carrie Underwood’s new haircut or President Obama’s March Madness bracket — stories they have proof you actually see/hear.
However, if that same audience decides months down the road that a story deserved better exposure (because some obscure, niche blog mentions it or someone writes a scathing guest op-ed piece) and blames the media for “burying” a story or somehow intentionally under-reporting it, they are unfairly placing their responsibility on the media.
And media does fail to do its job from time to time. It hypes a murder trial that should be cut and dry simply because the mother who killed her kid is white and somewhat attractive. It neglects to properly measure the social value a story will have with its audience and makes the wrong news-judgment call about a story’s placement. It runs an Associated Press piece that fails to localize an issue when it should have had a staff reporter do a little extra leg work.
That’s fair. The media is made up of people like you and me — people who make mistakes from time to time. Cut them some slack. They’re trying their best to keep you informed, and they don’t complain about you (publicly, at least) when you fail to do your job.
If the media does screw up, it is your responsibility to call them out on it. But you can only call them out on it if you’ve held up your end of the deal. The guy who grips the rope with just one hand and half-heartedly pulls has no right to chew out his friends if they lose at tug-of-war. But the guy who still has a vein popping in his forehead from giving everything he had to win has every right.
Be that vein-popping forehead guy with the news. The world is full of too many one-handed, half-hearted guys with the news. Save your judgment for when you actually deserve to levy it.
The media is a mouthpiece for current events, but that mouthpiece is limited in its ability to reach its audience. It can raise its voice (splash a story across a front page, lead the evening news with a story or display it prominently on its website), but it can’t shout loud enough for everyone who actively ignores it to be forced to pay attention.
You, dear people, are the megaphone. You have the real control over whether a story takes root in the public conversation because you are the members of the public having the conversation. You set the agenda, control the level of exposure and play a far more crucial role as “gatekeepers” of information than the media do. Read. Watch. Listen. Share. Discuss. Spread. But if you don’t do your job, you can’t blame the media for that.
Everyone has their own task in the grand scheme of social responsibility. The media acts to find stories that are important and their audience will care about; the media does the leg work to get all the pertinent information and ensure the whole story is told; and the media publishes or broadcasts those stories to their audience.
In turn, the public is tasked with being informed and helping those around you be informed. You have the easy job. You don’t have to track down experts, conduct interviews, do extensive research or write a 1,000-word story about something you didn’t know existed until five minutes ago — the media does that for you. All you have to do is read, watch or listen. It’s a simple task far too few people do anymore.
Instead of taking responsibility for those tasks, though, most people like to sit at a computer and spend their time complaining about the bad job they think the media is doing. In Internet lingo, we call those people “trolls.” In real-life terms, those people are passing the buck.
A handful of (mainly) conservatives made it fashionable to trash-talk the media when they launched a “war on the mainstream media,” but all they really did was make it socially acceptable for people to fail at holding up their end of the deal and send the blame elsewhere. Politics has worked like that for decades upon decades, and when politicians successfully (and unfairly) politicized media, it works like that today. But it shouldn’t.
So take responsibility for your task in the grand endeavor to create and maintain an informed electorate. If you think a story is important, share it. Because if you don’t, one of your friends might end up blaming the media for not breaking into his house and plastering that story all over his walls. And if he does complain, remind him he has a role to play, too, and he failed to do it. He can’t blame someone else for his own shortcomings.
To Christians, Matthew 28:19-20 is known as the Great Commission. Jesus commands His disciples to go out into the world and share the Good News with everyone they meet. It wouldn’t be fair if the disciples blamed Jesus for not telling everyone Himself — that wasn’t His job.
Though I’m remiss for having just compared the media to Jesus, I hold fast to the idea that in the same way it was the disciples’ responsibility to spread the Good News, it is our responsibility as the public to spread the news.
The only way this is going to work is if we work together. Stop the blame game. Stop passing the buck. Stop shirking your responsibility as a citizen of this free-information age. Stop actively ignoring the media or half-heartedly clicking on the first three or four stories you see. Step up and do your part to make the world a better place.