Monday, August 30, 2004


Journalism's great weakness

This morning I've noticed that some people are rightly upset about newspaper coverage of yesterday's massive protests in New York City. Despite the fact that the great majority of the protests apparently occurred without incident, many reports featured the handful of arrests. Our local news anchor headlined the protest story by saying that the protests were "relatively" peaceful; the qualification was dripping with disappointment, since this meant (by local TV news standards) that there was nothing left to say.

Apparently, many journalistic outlets also feel there is not much more to say about these massive protests that that nothing very illegal happened. This is not scientific proof, but head over to Google News and notice how hard it already is to click through quickly to a story on the protests. Even though they just happened yesterday, the links are already buried.

All of this made me think of the following passage from G. K. Chesterton's obscure 1909 novel, The Ball and the Cross. Since Chesterton was himself a prolific journalist, it counts as an insider's critique:
It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, "Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe," or "Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet." They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

Collective Improvisation:
Great post, Caleb.

Dennis G. Jerz

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/01/2004 06:02:00 PM : Permalink  

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