Like many people, and particularly as someone who grew up in St. Louis, lately I've been following the story of the Ferguson riots fairly closely. Partly, however, my ability to follow it is a function of the enormous media presence that has descended on the small, near-in St. Louis suburb. I doubt that I am alone in thinking that the media presence has exacerbated the tensions and, in effect, induced the riots, at least to a degree. Certainly it has attracted protesters/activists/troublemakers from around the country to travel to Ferguson, a town that most probably had never heard of before the recent events.
Stick with me here... I've also lately been reading a truly great novel by the Russian journalist and novelist, Vasily Grossman, called Life and Fate. Not published during his lifetime, it centers around the defense of Stalingrad. It is not too much to say that it is the 20th Century's War and Peace.
At one point, Grossman's story focuses on an editor of a newspaper in Moscow. Naturally, the paper is a propaganda tool for the regime and Stalin. But this description of how the editor selects news and shapes what counts as news as a way of educating his readers strikes me as very applicable to modern journalism:
He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader -- not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kinds of probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might consider it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideologically inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to close his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring them to the notice of readers.... He himself felt that his power, his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational benefit.I thought of this passage this week when I read this terrific story by Matti Friedman about the press' coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this summer. It raises many questions that editors and journalists, but mostly readers, should consider whenever they pick up a newspaper. Why is this story so prominent? What was the principle the editor applied in deciding to send reporters out to cover this rather than that? Why are the lives of A,B and C apparently more important, more newsworthy than the lives of X, Y and Z?
In short, it forces you to understand that, just like when you eat a hot dog that hot dog had to be made in a sausage factory somewhere, and how that factory works ought to matter to you, when you read a newspaper that newspaper was put together by human beings with biases and career interests and bosses and advertisers breathing down their necks, and how that all happens also ought to matter to you.
Anyway, here is just a bit of the article, but it's really worth reading all of it:
Staffing is the best measure of the importance of a story to a particular news organization. When I was a correspondent at the AP, the agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. That was significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” eventually erupted.
To offer a sense of scale: Before the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the permanent AP presence in that country consisted of a single regime-approved stringer. The AP’s editors believed, that is, that Syria’s importance was less than one-40th that of Israel. I don’t mean to pick on the AP—the agency is wholly average, which makes it useful as an example. The big players in the news business practice groupthink, and these staffing arrangements were reflected across the herd. Staffing levels in Israel have decreased somewhat since the Arab uprisings began, but remain high. And when Israel flares up, as it did this summer, reporters are often moved from deadlier conflicts. Israel still trumps nearly everything else.
The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago.
News organizations have nonetheless decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic, and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012: 60,000), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand. They believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close.
In the same way, news organizations have decided that the single young black man, Michael Brown, killed in an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson two weeks ago somehow merits massive media coverage, while the dozens, if not hundreds, of young black men killed in St. Louis and Chicago and Detroit and all of the other dysfunctional American cities this summer by other young black men somehow doesn't merit such coverage, but instead merits what amounts to statistical reporting, as if those deaths, that violence, that carnage, was just the weather. Five killed over the weekend on the South Side of Chicago is reported with the bland tone of "eighty-two degrees and partly cloudy."