Public has thirst for bad news

Last updated 05:00 31/05/2012

The media have been getting it in the neck again, this time over allegedly wallowing in the news of the Doha triplets tragedy. Invasion of privacy, door-stopping, intruding on grieving relatives, stalking on social-media sites; you name it and there's someone, somewhere, complaining about it. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? I mean, reading all the messages of disgust over the way our media collects such news, you'd think there couldn't possibly be a market for it.

Sadly, that simply isn't the case. Study after study; survey after survey demonstrates a point we all probably know but don't want to admit. We're fascinated by the macabre and tragic. We rush to buy death and misery, crime and punishment, grief and misfortune. The mainstream media knows this well, of course, and trades on it. Don't blame it. If the negative didn't sell so well, advertisers would retreat and editors would think again. But the reality? We lap it up.

On social-media sites, blogs and online comment sections, Kiwi journos have been panned for their lack of sensitivity. It's a natural reaction but they shouldn't be blamed, either. As in most industries, they're mere foot soldiers; told what to do by chief reporters, news editors and the like. These executives, in turn, are heavily influenced by marketing and advertising figures. And the figures? They're governed by you and I; by whatever media we choose to consume.

Which is another way of saying: to suggest we're all victims of a great media conspiracy to lower community standards is to miss the point by some distance. We dictate to the media; it's not the other way around. We get the media we deserve. We get the media we pay for and support. We're fed what we want to be fed. Trust me, if there was any evidence that serving up negativity was poor for business, the industry would be quickly taking another tack.

Spare me the criticism of the young reporters on this week's Doha case. It's not as if they would've been offered any options. Being part of the news media means coping with deeply unpleasant assignments. To refuse to comply is to immediately jeapordise one's career prospects; maybe even risk losing one's job. As a general reporter on the Otago Daily Times for three years I was occasionally put in this position. It is, without doubt, the most daunting task imaginable.

Yes, times have changed. What a couple of decades ago was treated seriously in mainstream newspapers without being gratuitously exploited, is these days peddled ad-infinitum. If there's an immediate shortage of tragedy or serious crime, ambulance-chasing stories are amplified out of all proportion. Why? Because editors know they sell well. Because when it comes to reaching into our wallets, they know we value the bad over the good.

Not that it's been a problem exclusive to the press. Radio and television have, if anything, led the charge towards the sensational, and online news sites have followed suit. Faced with an increasingly demanding economic situation and the corresponding dogfight for advertising, the media's been trying almost anything to keep its numbers up. People accuse it of cheapening the market? Ha. It's more guilty of trying to pander to it.

The crux of all this? Just that we'd be kidding ourselves to think the news industry is seeking to satisfy anything but our own demand. It's in its own interests, after all, to appeal to as many consumers (and as broad a part of the market) as possible. It's true; evidence that concentrating on the "bad news stories" will help it achieve this goal tells us more about ourselves than anything else. That said, there's no point in shooting the messenger.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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NZSounds   #1   01:30 pm May 31 2012

I recall overhearing a well-known right-wing personality complaining about media coverage of unemployment (at the time when a conservative government was in power). They're always bashing on about the number of unemployed, he griped. Why don't they write stories about the people who ARE employed? The figure is much larger. Of course, he missed the point entirely. If unemployment had gone down, that would have been news. Likewise, if a holiday road toll is lower than usual, that's worth reporting. In each case, it's good news that poses a legitimate follow-up question: why has this good news occurred? When I was a trainee reporter, I was told that it was preferable not to intrude on private grief, if possible. There are legitimate questions to ask about the Doha tragedy, and it appears criminal proceedings will ensue. Does that justify exposing the grieving parents to the glare of publicity? Possibly not. Tabloid/chequebook journalism has tainted the profession and is thankfully getting some comeuppance in the UK. We are a prurient bunch, however, and to paraphrase H.L. Mencken: no one ever went broke pandering to that.

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