On Unhelpful Journalism

Blitz Magazine, September 2004

As anyone who’s ever organized an event knows, there’s nothing more crushing than low turnout. You put your heart and all of your energy into organizing something, you do your best with limited marketing and promotion dollars, you keep your volunteers hyped and hope your committee members do their jobs. Then, on event day, only half of the expected numbers appear, and you feel absolutely sick.

unhelpfulThis is, I’m sure, how the organizers of the Athens Olympics feel right now. As I write this, the Olympics are half over and there have been very few events at which the seats were more than 50% filled. In fact, in most cases, it appears that no more than a relative smattering of people bought tickets for events. Watching the world’s finest athletes competing in echo chambers adds a sense of real Greek tragedy to the games.

Why has this happened? The media, of course. August in Athens can be pretty uncomfortable, but reportage focusing on the heat and the city’s problems with traffic congestion and pollution was unhelpful. It’s true that all businesspeople try to extract as much profit as they can from a world-class event, but the news of hoteliers and restaurateurs being slapped with huge fines for gouging tourists? Unhelpful. The Greeks are known for being a bit laid-back when it comes to scheduling, but having the ‘Unreadiness of Athens’ become a staple for late-night comedians? Unhelpful. News reports of the ease with which terrorists could infiltrate the games? Unhelpful. And wrong—none of the media’s almost gleefully-dire predictions have come true.

The same thing happened with the recent Canadian federal election. Every single poll proved to be completely inaccurate. Every analyst had to backtrack. Every pundit was dead wrong. The Liberals were not voted out, the Conservatives did not win, or even make their projected gains. Yet all of this advance speculation and ‘educated’ opinion clouded the decision-making process for millions of voters. Why do the networks commission polls? Polls are useless, because the samplings are so small. The only way to get an accurate measurement of public opinion is, hello, an election.

In the US, Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife. How an untainted jury pool was found for this trial is beyond me. Because, from the moment Laci Peterson disappeared, nearly two years ago, every detail that could be dug up was announced to the public. It appears that even law enforcement officials held nothing back; indeed, the Modesto Police Department has a website devoted to this case, including file details, timelines, news releases etc. And from the beginning, there was the media—the already smarmy, and the ‘legits’ on their road to smarminess, predicting, predicting. There was Larry King and his panel of experts telling the public what would happen to Scott, how long he’d get, what would happen at his trial—and this was long before the guy was arrested.

One has to wonder how the media became so thoroughly obsessed with reporting on events that have yet to transpire. Why do reporters persist in analyzing possible scenarios and then projecting them to the public as probable outcomes? Why are we subjected to facts not in evidence, groundless statistics, baseless innuendo—all negative, of course.

Because, I guess, the news had just become another sideshow. Another form of entertainment. Reporters no longer dig and dig to find their own stories; they use their imaginations. The networks and newspaper owners no longer what to find the news—why pay for staff to go out and do actual research, when they can get some polling firm to come up with something they can do a story on? Is it about economics? Lethargy? A loss of ethics? A combination, I suspect. And it’s all really unhelpful.

 


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