Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Today, on CrimeWatch!

In local news, a man who stabbed a church's therapy cat with a knife could possibly spend as much time in jail as a group of teenagers who robbed and beat a man who later died. The stories shared the busy Crime and Justice beat stage with the arraignment of a man charged with attempting to kidnap a boy from Pike Place Market, and a judge wrestling with whether to have a convicted rapist committed to an institution now that his sentence is up.

If there's one place where I feel the news goes all out to manipulate the audience, it's with crime stories. And today, the manipulation dial was set all the way to "manhandle." From placing the story of the sentencing of the teens and the charging of the man who attacked the cat one after the other, to an interview with a sobbing rape victim who decried as an injustice the fact that her attacker might be set free after having done his time, to the ever-popular child-in-peril story, our local ABC affiliate may as well have also been running free advertisements for the local torch and pitchfork emporium.

This bugs me, because there are no easy answers to any of this, despite what the standard emotional reaction might be. Each of the cases so quickly trotted out on this evening's news raises some really serious questions. And the news reporting offered no answers beyond a knee-jerk reflexive sense of gross miscarriage of justice. Worse yet, by tomorrow, some other story will be the flavor of the day, and these will be more or less forgotten. While "coverage that’s utterly trivial and that poisons public understanding of crucial issues" may be "rewarded by the market," Matthew Yglesias is correct to point out that this isn't a good reason for the coverage to be this way. But I don't know how you solve this problem - businesses act in a way that's rewarded by the market - that's pretty much the central defining characteristic of a successful business. Only by making news not a business can you get around this. And that leaves us with a public that's effectively willfully manipulated and misinformed about important issues. That can't end well.

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