The hunt for a news angle
Are you worried about dying from listeria?
If you lived in the North Island, you might well be. On Thursday, as I write this, the New Zealand Herald, Waikato Times and Dominion Post, the three largest newspapers in the North Island, all led their front pages with the story of how two women in the Hawke's Bay died after being infected with the food bug. One died as a result of a listeria infection and it was a contributing factor in the case of the other.
One victim was in her 80s and the other in her 60s. Health officials said listeria was a high risk only to people with weakened immune systems, such as the pregnant and the elderly.
Based on those reported facts, it would be fair to say that the story could be summarised as "One elderly woman dies of infection". But that does not sound very dramatic, does it? Hardly front page news, you might think.
In an interview I read recently with California Governor Jerry Brown, he quoted a conversation he had with influential media theorist Marshall McLuhan in 1980, when Brown was serving an earlier stint as the governor.
"The newspaper is a machine to heighten neurosis and increase the propensity to respond to the advertising," he said.
I couldn't help but think of that in the face of the overwhelming coverage of the listeria story. Was there really nothing more important happening in the North Island on Thursday? (I was happy to see that the Nelson Mail ran the story without fanfare on page four.)
McLuhan's neurosis machine theory is a cynical explanation for the old newspaper saying, "if it bleeds, it leads".
Newspaper editors, from my experience, are neither cynical nor sophisticated enough to try to heighten neurosis to make the reader more responsive to advertising, but they are focused on what their readers want to read and their sales figures.
The daily sales of each day's paper are attached to a copy of the front page on the wall outside the editor's office in the Nelson Mail. The story of those figures is easy to read: crime, car crashes and natural disasters are winners every time.
You can check for yourself. News websites all show lists of the most read stories, and invariably those topics dominate. (The exception to the rule is any story that seems to offer the possibility of a photo of an attractive, scantily clad woman.)
That undercuts the complaints that I - and pretty much every other reporter I've ever met - often hear. "The news is too negative." "Newspapers only report the bad news." "Why don't you tell good-news stories?"
My usual response to such complaints is to explain that when nothing out of the ordinary happens, it is hard to find the news angle. Imagine trying to write, or read, the story where man drives three well-behaved children home from school and then cooks tea.
The truth is, we do tell the good news stories. Flick through any newspaper - ideally a Nelson Mail for which you have paid full retail price - and you'll see stories about people starting new businesses, winning awards and helping their communities.
From my seat as editor of the Motueka-Golden Bay News, I know that we run lots of those good news stories. Perhaps it is because, as a free weekly newspaper, we have the luxury of not knowing exactly how many people are picking up each edition, but mostly it comes from trying to produce a paper that reflects its community.
As I page through last week's edition, I see stories about high school artists giving up some of their holidays to paint a door for the dementia unit at the local hospital, police and pub owners working together to reduce drunkenness, and polytech students donating their time to build a boardwalk at a Mapua reserve.
So I don't think the negative news charges are entirely valid.
It is also possible that readers are selective in what they focus on in news coverage. A recent study showed that conservatives were more prone to focus their attention on potential threats but liberals were more likely to focus on the positive.
Researchers tracked subtle eye movements of self-identified liberals and conservatives as they looked at a series of images.
Liberals lingered on portraits of puppies and kittens and conservatives on photos of an open wound, a crashed car and a dirty toilet.
Perhaps I shouldn't have publicised those findings, in case a newspaper editor is reading. If you see a photo of a dirty toilet on the front page of a newspaper soon, you'll know who to blame.