News coverage of Zimmerman, Trayvon and Prince George: Don’t blame the reporters
By John F. Kirch
Over the past 30 days, I have posted 185 stories on a variety of topics, including the Koch brothers interest in buying the Tribune Co., the role of social media in India, the American public’s declining support for journalists, the threat to press freedom in Africa, and media coverage of the protests in Brazil.
The three topics that received the most coverage on this blog were: (1) the George Zimmerman trial; (2) the debate over “what is journalism” following press criticism of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified government documents; and (3) the media war underway in Egypt after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. All three topics received equal coverage during the last 30 days.
By far, stories about Zimmerman received significantly more hits from readers than any other topic covered by Media Politics in Perspective. While the Zimmerman trial received 19 posts, or 10 percent of all the stories published on this blog over the past 30 days, it received more than 628 hits, or 28 percent of the 2,262 hits I received since the end of June.
In fact, the top six posts for the last month were stories about press coverage of the Zimmerman trial. The most popular story on the blog, “From Serious to Sensationalism: Zimmerman Trial Shows Where Journalism Has Gone Since OJ,” received 104 hits. The second most popular post, “Obama’s Trayvon Martin Comments Spark Right-Wing Media Outrage,” received 88. The remaining four Zimmerman stories in the top six posts for the month received 74, 69, 55 and 53 hits, respectively.
By contrast, stories about the debate over journalism were viewed by 247 readers, or 11 percent of all hits for the month. Posts about the media in Egypt were read by 125 visitors to the blog, or 5.5 percent of the sample. Nineteen posts were devoted to “what is journalism” and 18 posts were published about Egyptian news media during the period.
The most popular story in these two categories was “What is journalism? It’s the wrong question,” which received 33 views. The most popular story about Egyptian media, “Morsi Ousted While Sparring with Egyptian Army on Social Media,” received 22 hits.
Granted, the results here are fairly crude, but they reflect the broader media trend. More than 10.5 million people watched the Zimmerman verdict on cable news, despite the fact that it occurred after 10 p.m. Eastern Time.
What this goes to show is that the news media is simply following what the public wants. This is not to excuse the journalists who should know better than to lower their standards simply to boost ratings or increase circulation figures. But it does provide insight into the tremendous pressure reporters and editors are under when making decisions about which stories have the most news value.
As someone who spent 10 years in the newsrooms of four newspapers in New England, I can tell you that the reporters and editors themselves hate these kinds of stories and would rather not cover them.
Editors cringed when the publisher suggested a story, and reporters hid under their desks or ran for some dark corner of the office when they saw their editor walking through the newsroom looking for a journalist to cover a matter that most of us considered too trivial to warrant our attention. None of us went to journalism school and then worked long hours for little pay at a newspaper to cover the birth of a royal baby. We all had bigger ideas than that.
The blame for this coverage rests primarily in two places: corporate owners of news organizations and the public in general.
Corporate owners are interested in one thing: profit. They are in the business of producing news to make money. They have little interest, in most cases, about the quality of the journalism itself. Their goal is to attract as big an audience as possible and then sell that audience to advertisers.
If they could, media owners would run commercials on their stations 24 hours a day. But they know that no one would tune in, so they entice the public with programming designed to grab its attention and keep it focused long enough to see the ads.
The public encourages — and even pressures media owners — to cover trivial matters because that is what most people are interested in. The public votes with its attention. If the viewers and readers tuned in to serious news, the media would provide serious news. If viewers gravitate to entertainment, the media will provide entertainment.
The bottom line is this: Over the past month, there has been a lot of criticism hoisted on the journalists themselves for their admittedly over-the-top coverage of sensational trials and royal babies. But it is not the reporters, editors and producers who should carry all the burden here. It’s time for media owners and, more to the point, the public to look itself in the mirror and acknowledge that it gets the news it demands.