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Media outlets should stop scaring, start reporting


Jack Willis July 2nd, 2009

Is it just me, or does the media sometimes scare the pants off you? Chicken Little comes to mind. One media outlet's coverage may not be overkill, but stir the mainstream together, add a cup of In...

Is it just me, or does the media sometimes scare the pants off you?

Chicken Little comes to mind. One media outlet's coverage may not be overkill, but stir the mainstream together, add a cup of Internet, and it's a recipe for stomach cramps. The mix needs a dash of perspective.

Here's what makes me queasy: The World Health Organization just declared the first global flu epidemic in 41 years, a swine flu pandemic. After the first shock reports in early spring, I feared the country was going under. (Now I'm starting to cough and sneeze, and my stomach's churning. I think I'm getting the swine flu.) And I thought Oklahoma City TV's storm reporting was frightening.

Talk about scary. Greedy financiers and stock moguls may have been the catalyst, but we broadcasted and politicked and talked ourselves into a recession, the likes of which my meager savings had never seen. Someone screamed: "The sky's falling." (I looked up just in time to see a wall cloud and some sort of lowering.) And the feeding frenzy was on. I followed the frenetic pack journalism reports day after day, praying for economic solutions, but the news hounds failed to tell me where my money went. Or how I could get it back. I felt a need to throw up.

Jessica Alba knows. The actress, thinking the paparazzi were still in Hollywood, came to the OKC metro to film a movie. During her downtime, she tried some animal rights activism. Her night-on-the-town, poster-gluing antics got her in trouble with the vandalism police. A local blog picked up on an out-of-state blog, and the gossip Twittered nationwide. Newspapers, magazines and the multitudes picked up the item.

I used to not be afraid of the media and its power. But that was back when I was an editor in Eastern Oklahoma, and I was the one doing the scaring. News coverage looks different when you're sitting on the sidelines.

This new world of instant news access, a zillion cable channels and journalist wannabes " as rife with possibilities as it is " makes me crazy. The sheer massiveness of reporting and pontificating on a particular subject " like swine flu " skews any semblance of perspective. When swine flu kills 141 people in 74 countries while "ordinary" flu kills a quarter million to half a million people, you have to wonder about news judgment and perspective. When media obsesses over the Jessica Albas, but misses warning signs of the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression, it's chilling. It brings to mind their failure to alert the public to the causes leading up to the massive S&L- and bank-closing scandal in the 1980s.

Technology, corporate media ownership and overextended reporters have homogenized the news. It all tastes the same, and in many cases, it is.

Our changing communications world is like the University of Oklahoma's game-day crowd all talking about Sam Bradford at the same time: When the feeding frenzy starts, like the wave, there's no stopping it, no restraint.

Editors and news directors could stop it, but often, they don't. They fail to question the reporting and accuracy and significance and fairness, or come up with creative and compelling coverage. Cutbacks, they say. The editors and news directors who still have a job are rushing to get the word out while trying to one-up the competition. In the process of surviving, news judgment and perspective and journalism's core values have taken a backseat.

I remember a cranky Muskogee reader calling me to complain. "You're not covering all the news," she chided. I gritted my teeth: "What aren't we covering?"

"Well, I don't know, but whatever it is, you're not covering it," she said.

Maybe she had a point. Enterprise/investigative reporting " initiative " was and still is seriously lacking. It's easier to follow the pack. Newsrooms spend their money on breaking news, events and covering what Tom, Dick and Mary are covering. Granted, enterprising can be expensive and time-consuming. Everyone can't afford it. And when an organization does invest in it, Internet portals are quick to take advantage, reaping the benefits of the work while avoiding the costs. But that's another scary story.

Pack journalism wasn't the answer yesterday, and it's not today. Step back, take a breath and re-evaluate coverage priorities. Stop the echo. I got it the first time. Tell me something I can't get from every other news outlet in town or on the planet " like where my money is and where Kate Hudson was when Jessica was doing OG&E's electrical boxes. "Jack Willis

Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, once served as faculty adviser for the student-run Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame inductee is the author of "Saving Jack: A Man's Struggle with Breast Cancer."

 
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