Having been part of the news media, I am utterly familiar with the adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” It is the raison d’être of the modern news media. It is also a very toxic, viewer and reader-driven, way of doing news. We know because we experienced it.
My husband and I ran a paper, now defunct, called Reporting San Diego. We were told for years that readers hungered for things like deep policy, and data journalism. We did that, with the occasional car crash, arrest or wildfire.
We noticed a few things very fast. First, people were interested in accidents, arrests, and fires. They were hardly interested in the city or county budget. Hot button issues were easy to drive traffic, but the actual policy was a snoozer.
Yes, people know we have a problem with housing affordability and homelessness. They hardly want to be bothered as to how they are linked. Nor do they realize that decisions made in planning commissions affect housing, and the type we get, years down the line. What if I told you that many of these boards are full of developers? Why do you think housing plans rarely include affordable housing? I do not care how many times a politician tells you they intend to solve this during a campaign, most of the planning is done behind closed doors.
Do you think that is a coincidence?
I get it. Reading into parking policy, policing, transit, city, county, state and federal budgets is far from fun. However, they are far more of a political values statement than any campaign plank ever will be. Nor are campaign promises ever followed. There are way too many interests that prefer the status quo.
We as a nation prefer to read what once was called the police blotter. Fun fact, in spite of all the crimes you read, actual crime rates are down. It’s to the point that local news services have to tell you about a gruesome murder three states over because they can go for days without a local one. Editors know you will gladly consume that and continue to believe crime rates are the highest they ever been.
This helps their friends in the home alarm services and private security business. If you knew crime rates are actually down, would you invest in an alarm system? This is not to say there is no crime. Of course, we have areas where violent crime is higher. And as a woman, you should still avoid walking at night in a dark parking lot. However, the other form of crime that is seldom never covered is white collar. And the media will almost never go into the real disparities of the criminal justice system. They are real, but editors will rarely go there.
However, there is one type of violent crime that has gone up. These are hate crimes. The attempted arson of a Mosque in Escondido is hardly an isolated event. Yet, you will see very little real coverage, let alone deep probing questions on that. Why? The answers make us rather uncomfortable. As a society, we prefer to believe the other is prone to violence. We’d rather not ask what is driving this rise in white supremacy and radicalization.
Overall crime rates are way down. This is very good news, but not good for news editors. And if you look at global stats, life expectancy is also way up. Famines are not as common as they used to be. Vaccination campaigns have made smallpox extinct, and polio will soon face the same fate.
You will not see this in your evening news. Partly, as long as “if it bleeds it leads” drives the news paradigm, Americans (and others as well) will continue to rubberneck to the police blotter. It is time to confine it back to the back pages where it once lived. It’s time for our news media to cover policy, which actually affects our lives. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry. The crash outside my home that affected traffic for twenty minutes may be spectacular, but it truly does not influence my life one way or the other.