Sometimes it would be easy to think that only bad things happen in the world . . . especially if you listen to certain politicians or are of the hyperpartisan sort.
And sometimes readers get irritated that bad news they think should be in the paper isn’t, or isn’t the information they want. An example of that would be the death last week of Kansas City Police Capt. Robert Melton. Melton, who was shot about 2 p.m. last Tuesday after responding to a call for backup following a chase of drive-by suspects, was pronounced dead shortly before 3 p.m. The following day we ran a brief story on his death. That wasn’t enough for one reader, though, who complained that we should have run a longer, more in-depth story.
The problem, though, is that not having reporters in Kansas City, we rely on the wire services for news outside the state. Had it been earlier in the day when Captain Melton died, it’s possible that the police would have released more information in time for the morning edition, but death doesn’t care about newspaper deadlines or the hunger for information fostered by 24/7 news and social media.
The day after Melton’s death, the Kansas City Star had virtually the same information about the shooting that we printed, and if the local paper didn’t have further information, there’s little reason to expect a non- local paper to have it.
Kansas City Mayor Mark Holland had urged the public not to jump to conclusions about Melton’s death, but people across the U.S. did just that. For that reason, it wouldn’t surprise me if the more detailed follow-up story, in which police reported that it wasn’t a planned ambush, didn’t get a rise out of people with an agenda who wanted to tie Melton’s death in with recent targeted attacks on policemen.
Police Chief Terry Zeigler told reporters Wednesday morning that “this crime does not fit the national narrative of planned attacks on law enforcement, but it does fit the narrative that words matter. The hate speech has to stop. Our blue line got a bit thinner yesterday with the death of Captain Melton.”
What should matter, as the chief said, are the words we use with each other, and in relating news, but in the new media landscape, all that seems to matter is inflaming the audience.
Which is likely why memes about people like Carolyn Gudger, an armed school resource officer in Tennessee who in 2010 held a gunman at bay until sheriff’s deputies arrived, get passed around so much on social media, maintaining that the mainstream media doesn’t cover stories like that (because that’s one of the NRA’s favorite talking points).
Except they do. It’s just local/statewide news, which unless the instance is horrific and affects more than a few people, it’s likely to stay that way. That’s the way news works. Every police call cannot be covered, nor should it be. In this instance, the gunman was killed by police and no one else was injured. It was rightly covered as a story mostly of local interest, though at least a few national outlets (including NBC) picked up the initial story. (Wait … NBC’s mainstream, right? Huh …)
CNN and other 24-hour cable networks helped feed the current hunger for information (especially that which confirms one’s own biases), starting with wall-to-wall coverage of the first Persian Gulf War, the O.J. Simpson trial and the Oklahoma City bombing. Of course, when you have to fill 24 hours, that means that some stories are covered to death while tiny stories end up much bigger than they deserve to be if they fit an agenda. Add in social media and the Internet, and you have people believing satire is real and that every terrible thing they’ve read about people they hate is absolutely true.
New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog asked Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress, about the effects of the never-ending flow of negative news. It reported:
“In addition to a burgeoning sense of helplessness, she said, cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies. McNaughton-Cassill’s research suggests that all things being equal, if you ask people, regardless of their circumstances, to evaluate what’s going around them—Do they think their neighbors are good people? Do they think the local schools are solid?—‘People always say yes in their immediate setting.’ Zoom out a little, though, and people have less to go on.”
The current media landscape has muddied the waters, especially when compared to the days of the Big Three. When you can get information at any time that confirms your biases while disregarding anything that doesn’t, it makes it that much harder for traditional media outlets to hold on to the standards of journalism.
And yet we do. Somebody has to.
OK, I think I need an intervention here. Maybe it’s the conventions, the heat, or maybe it’s the IBS flare-up I’ve been dealing with, but I’m finding it hard to find the funny.
Here’s hoping I’ll be back in a joking mood next week. Sheesh.