I hear it all the time. “Hey, you’re on the news! I watch when I can, there’s just too much bad stuff. Why don’t y’all ever show any good news?”
It’s a valid point, one that’s been debated in every newsroom. We’ve all taken the phone calls. “Hey,” they’ll say. “Stop showing all those shootings and wrecks, and I’ll start watching.” Or, “My scout troop is planting trees. That’s what you need to show. People would watch that!”
I wish it was true. As an education reporter for the past 25 years, I used to take it personally. For some principals, a phone call from me seemed like a good reason to run out the back door. Whatever I wanted, it had to be something bad, right?
One very honest school secretary, who actually knew me, responded to my request to speak to her principal by saying, “He said to tell you he is busy.” I laughed and said, “Is he really?” She replied, “Of course not, he’s just afraid of you.” What he, and others are afraid of, is bad publicity. Was I calling to inquire about a teacher complaint, or about his school’s great reading program? He’ll never know.
Let’s face it, human nature dictates the news. Look outside. Are cars going by, observing the speed limit, staying in their lanes? That’s nice, and it is as it should be. Like the saying goes, “Nothing to see here.” But remember the last time you saw a wreck? How long did you look at that? News is made up of unusual things that happen; some are good, and some are bad. The stories that get the most attention are negative.
If my channel leads the newscast with the downtown parade, and the other channel leads with prostitution arrests, guess who wins the ratings battle.
Still, most media outlets try to include something nice each day, along with all that naughty stuff. Some of our stories feature outstanding teachers, others show off local industries, and we find people who have great talents. We celebrate hometown heroes, and those who build houses for the poor, or wheelchair ramps for disabled folks. You may not hear about those stories the next day, when everyone’s talking about hookers and drug dealers being hauled away, but believe me, it was on TV, and in the newspaper.
Despite what many believe, most reporters don’t wake up saying, “Gee I hope something awful happens today!” I’ll admit, I’ve had that suspicion about some in the news biz. It’s widely known that “Entertainment Tonight”-type shows get a ratings spike when scandal erupts around Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer or Jared the Subway guy. I can’t help thinking they openly rejoice when a juicy story lands in their lap. At least, that’s the impression I get from the gleam in their eyes and the tone of their breathless promos.
But at the local level, we don’t go around high-fiving when there’s a tragedy or when someone gets in trouble. We know we have to report it, but we’d have a better day if the mayor won the lottery and handed out hundred-dollar bills. Honestly we would, and we’d put it on the front page.
By now, you know the rules. I didn’t establish them, but I must follow them. If a public figure (vaguely defined as a person of authority, fame or civic responsibility) is arrested, dismissed or suspended, he or she will make the news. Elected officials, police officers, firefighters, attorneys, doctors, educators, athletes, business leaders and media personalities are among those under this umbrella. The guy who painted your house, or the lady who bagged your groceries are usually exempt. Those who aspire to be superintendents or school administrators should be told, “We’re placing you on a pedestal. You’re going to be a leader of students and teachers. One false step in your personal life, and boom! You’re on the news.” The same could be said for teachers and school bus drivers. They’re paid, with taxpayer money, to be an example for our children, and to keep them safe. This is why their indiscretions often become front-page news, while your hairdresser’s escapades do not.
A reputable media outlet will report a proper mix of good news and bad news. It will also stick to the facts, leaving rumors to less reliable sources. Unfortunately, there are plenty of those to be found on social media.
Journalists have a huge responsibility, making sure you know the difference between facts and rumors. You should be able to count on us to separate the two. Otherwise, we are no better than the gossip girls on “Hee Haw.”
Please continue to support the news sources that bring you those facts. They are in my opinion, the overwhelming majority. We should never take them for granted.David Carroll, a Chattanooga, Tennessee, news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” His website is ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or email@example.com. Twitter: @davidcarroll3.