Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute


We cover everything from legislation to social policy to peace initiatives as fights because we understand that our stories need a certain amount of dramatic tension to make them interesting.

COMMUNICATIONS

There's more to news than conflict

By William Raspberry

My concern is that journalists pay so much attention to conflict and so little to substance. We have always loved fights, of course, but of late it's beginning to seem that that's all we enjoy.

We cover debates over welfare reform and affirmative action and Medicare more in terms of who is landing the most punches on whose nose and less in terms of the potential impact on the lives of people--and on children in particular.

Our emphasis on fighting may be entertaining, but it's hardly enlightening. Worse, I fear it is helping to rip our country apart.

Because we don't seem to care about substance, we also don't care much about what works. I have known instances where reporters were sent out to cover some supposedly conflict-ridden program, only to discover that the program was in fact running pretty smoothly. The conclusion: No story.

We get accused of favoring bad news, but that really isn't the problem. The problem is that we cover the news, according to the media's working definition, that news is the unusual, the extraordinary. Let a kid in one of our schools be shot to death, and we'll cover it like a blanket. Let another kid save a life in a daring rescue, and we'll cover that, too. But most kids are neither murder victims nor heroes. Most just go on being pretty okay, sometimes a little less than okay and sometimes a bit better. And that's not news.

The fact is, we miss an awful lot of good-news stories that are also interesting. Stories of unlikely victories are inherently interesting--the more unlikely the more interesting.

And yet we'll walk past a dozen successful families in search of the disaster that illuminates the pathology of the ghetto.

There are exceptions, of course. Some newspaper reporters and editors--including many of my own colleagues--develop an interest in the healing stories, the "what works" stories.

Hedrick Smith, late of The New York Times and now trying his hand at public television, spent more than a year chasing down a story of community-building in Southeast Washington--the most economically depressed and problem-ridden section of the nation's capital. We've been reporting on those problems for as long as I've been in Washington.

But Rick found a whole series of people who were NOT drug dealers or drive-by shooters or teen mothers or school failures. He found people who spend their time--usually uncompensated time--doing what they can to bring neighbors together in common cause, to rebuild their community. And there were some truly remarkable successes, engagingly told.

A focus on our mutual problems, rather than on our political enemies, can disclose common interests and lead to some innovative solutions.

Why can't we do more of this sort of thing?

Why can't we routinize our search for what works? This is the stuff that can hearten America, move us out of our despair and make us believe that we really can do better.

Our insistence on defining news (mostly) as fights and other disasters not only discourages those who might be tempted to try to make a difference. It also poisons the relationship among us, perverts our institutions and makes our future more difficult.

So, why do we do it?

Primarily because of Journalism's need for drama. We cover everything from legislation to social policy to peace initiatives as fights because we understand that our stories need a certain amount of dramatic tension to make them interesting. It's an important discovery, but so is this: Pitting people against one another is not the only way to achieve the necessary dramatic tension.

This is the lesson taught by Rick Smith's documentary on Anacostia. We have long covered that part of Washington, but principally as a series of dismaying problems: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, school failure, economic abandonment and political exploitation. All true.

Smith's piece addressed all of those problems, but from the viewpoint of those who would solve them. He achieved his dramatic tension not by pitting people against people but by counterpoising problems and problem--solvers. The difference is almost startling. It is, I believe, what people have in mind when they beg us for more good news. They want some assurance that maybe, just maybe, things can work.

What Hendrick Smith found is that a focus on our mutual problems, rather than on our political enemies, can disclose common interests and lead to some innovative solutions.

Why don't we in the media help with that focus? I like the answer offered by Carl Sessions Stepp, senior editor of the American Journalism Review. Stepp was explaining why our religion coverage is so bad, but his explanation has more general application.

Contemporary journalism, he said, is event-oriented. We look at "the here and now," rather than such abstract and complex expressions of people's lives as their spirituality.

That, he said, explains why we gravitate toward conflict and controversy, stories in which there are two clearly opposed points of view.

"Controversy is an event," he said, "and journalists are very good at covering events. We are not good at covering things that evolve."

If journalists had been around 2000 years ago, he said, we would have covered the Crucifixion--and missed Christianity.

We can do better than that. Not only can we learn to spot important trends and developments, we can also provide leadership in the search for solutions, for commonality, for community.

William Raspberry is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Communications and Journalism at the Sanford Institute's DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism. This essay is excerpted from the 1995-96 Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Journalism. The annual lecture is made possible by a gift from James D. Ewing, publisher emeritus of The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire.


Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute