Sunday, April 22, 2007

News Cycle

[posted by Callimachus]

Captain Ed laments that "our national character these days seems to demand that everyone assume that all tragedies belong to the entire country, and that we all have to participate in a mourning/healing cycle that imposes itself of the real victims of the tragedies." [The whole post actually is about something tangential to that, but that apt line is in it.]

It seemed to me I saw something different in the Virginia Tech coverage -- and to a certain extent in 9/11 and other recent calamities. Maybe it's because I'm inside the MSM. I saw the media confusing the arc of human grief with the cynical graph of a news cycle. However huge a news story, its relevance and timeliness -- its hugeness -- diminish with time. And rapidly, in most cases.

When you wake up one morning and 33 people have been slaughtered on an Appalachian college campus on a spring day, that's a big story. A week later, it's down to parsing the suspect's creative writing papers and the details of the ballistics tests. Bigger, fresher stories are vying for the wood. There will be no trial, no final resolution to look forward to. Just funerals and endless speculation.

So the story fades. One day it's no longer the lead item in the paper. That day's developments run in the left side rail. Then another day it falls below the fold. Then a few days later, the update to the story runs on an inside page. Then one day you have nothing new in your product on this case. And there it may stay until the one-year anniversary rolls around.

That's the way media work. But in this case, it seemed to me a great many outlets overlaid that journalistic reality with the template of grief. The big headline said "horror." The day it moved to the left-colum rail was "mourning" When it fell below the fold, it was "healing" when it disappeared inside it was, "moving on." That's false. Not only do people not grieve as quickly as the news cycle churns out products, people at difference distances from the epicenter will get through this -- or not -- at paces of their own. The media already is set to "move on" while some people are still deep in shock.

The cynical realities of journalism are nothing new, and need not arouse most people to indignation. But the mistake of identifying market forces with the anguish in anyone's soul ought to offend.

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