08-30-2005, 07:42 AM
Aug 30, 2005, 6:03:51 AM by Eileen Weir

Recent media coverage of personalities ranging from BTK to T.O. begs the question of who is setting the agenda for today’s news coverage. A classic chicken or the egg conundrum, our apparent fascination with the contentious to the downright macabre calls into scrutiny not only Americans’ tastes but the media’s determination of what warrants reporting.

A trusting public presumes that news outlets endeavor to supply readers and viewers with relevant, well-researched, accurate information on people and events that are sufficiently interesting to the general population to merit treatment in their publication, on their Web site, or on-air broadcast. What is becoming increasingly unclear is who is driving the bus. Do media outlets react to consumer demand, reflecting back to the public what it expressly requests, or does media coverage manipulate the public into fixating on those stories the press continues to promote?

In either case, it is a disquieting statement about our civilization. As a society, the United States is examined and its ethos emulated worldwide. The stories that capture our imaginations, and indeed, our headlines, bear close inspection as they represent our national identity and our sensitivities.

Of chief concern is the willingness of the public, and in turn the news media, to give power to the depraved. Admitting a pathological need for notoriety is the common thread that binds such criminal minds as Dennis Rader, Timothy McVeigh, and Charles Manson. In reply, television executives devote hours of air time to investigative reports designed to give the viewing public an entrée into the mind of a madman. Hardly a day passes that valuable column inches are not assigned to inducting the deranged into our collective consciousness, effectively immortalizing the monstrous.

Though we regard murders and terrorists as despicable aberrations, we nonetheless reward them with the attention they so desperately crave. We find the horrifying so terribly irresistible, longing for that adrenaline rush frequently found in freaking yourself out. Our human desire for a psychological thrill has so infiltrated the chain of supply and demand in mass communications that the line between news and entertainment has become indistinguishable. Following weeks of grotesque details of the BTK murders, the media has now turned its focus to reporting on how over exposed the story has become. Now that’s irony.

Overstated? An on-line search of “the most famous person ever” revealed the two most popular answers are Jesus Christ and Adolph Hitler. In an age of unmatched advances in science, industry, technology, education, communications, and the arts, Hitler stands as the most noteworthy figure of the 20th century. Not convinced? Since Schindler’s List won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1993, no fewer than five Best Documentary award winners have been films about the Holocaust, and many more showed up as nominees. More recently Nazi Germany played stage to 2002’s award winning film The Pianist. Hollywood knows what’s hot.

Turning from Section A in the daily circular to the sports page, the trend continues. The very nature of competition has long decreed that only through exceptional performances over a sustained period do athletes earn placement in the minds and hearts of sports’ enthusiasts. No longer. Prodigious print is now given to those who can be the most unruly and outrageous. A training camp holdout by a dissatisfied superstar, an admission of illegal drug use by a top NFL performer, and barroom brawls are what titillate. Success is fleeting, and so is our interest in it.

So who is to blame for the current preoccupation with the sordid? It is easy to say the media is lazy, that reporters, editors, and broadcasters are unwilling to do the hard work it takes to uncover and develop a complex lead. The telecommunications and technological explosion is criticized as having too much time to fill and not enough with which to fill it. A general relaxation of standards, both personal and professional, is often held culpable for the disgraceful state of affairs.

The fact is there is plenty of blame to pass around. We tolerate professional athletes who make a habit of being a nuisance like we do naughty children who prefer negative attention to none at all. We enjoy the antics for a while, even find them amusing, but when it becomes tiresome, or hits too close to home, the cameras continue to roll and we can’t find the off switch. We complain of overkill but stay tuned just in case.

Media coverage is a consumer-driven product. Less news, more entertainment is what the public ultimately demands. National network morning news programs have relegated hard news headlines to the ticker, allowing more time for celebrity interviews, on site concert series, cooking demonstrations, and promotion of network programming. It is no different in the world of sports. More personality, less playbook.

As consumers, the public has the freedom to choose how, when, and from whom it receives its information, and possesses the ability to influence coverage. Audience expectations, clearly articulated and supported by action, can, and do, impact the quality and content of the news. If feelings of disgust and lots of eye-rolling currently accompany your television viewing, Internet surfing, and daily reading, remember who is driving the bus.