A few words on the media

I just want to take a moment or two to flesh out my understanding of the duties of  news media to its public. All this sounds pretty puritan, but I guess that’s who I am.

In a democracy people are asked to make decisions that affect not just themselves, but their entire country. In the U.S., which intervenes in the world through both aid and militarism, those decisions also affect much of the world as well. That’s an awful lot of responsibility, and an awful lot of information to sort through. For instance, another national health care debate is looming, and the various proposed plans are complicated and subtle. But people make do with the pittance of information they have, and do form opinions about health care.

It’s no surprise that people shirk this responsibility all the time. There’s not much we can do about that. Human beings need to divide their time in healthy ways. But news media can better assist people who are trying to exercise this responsibility, by working as the disinterested* specialists who can provide good schematic views of the major issues, as well as holding open debates about just what those issues are.

My crude model for what is newsworthy follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. News describing basic living conditions should be most important, followed by what we usually think of as lighter news: sports and entertainment. Healthy human beings do need art in their lives, but humans need to be healthy first.**

This is why I let Michael Jackson coverage drive me crazy.*** His art may provide solace to some, but the extended news rollout is out of proportion to the decisions people need to make in life. People hungry for more information on his death have plenty of options, so general and political news should look elsewhere and highlight more important matters.

*disinterested is not the same thing as perfectly objective. It describes an attitude, not a position. Engaged adults are aware that biases may exist in coverage, and are able so sort through them, and make use of multiple sources, to piece together their own accounts of events.

** so why do I usually write about art instead of capital P Politics? I lack the tools to be a successful newsman, but I can be a cultural critic. Plus, as anyone who spent time with me in grad school knows, I’m a committed generalist–my project is to see how well-informed a nonspecialist can be.

***plus, it’s easy to forget in these poptimist, end-of-monoculture days, but to a certain generation of independent and alternative musicians (who played formidible roles in my upbringing) Michael Jackson was The Enemy. That’s probably a whole other post.


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July 2009
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