Saturday, September 29, 2012

Did You Hear About...?

Comparing the last 24 hours of coverage of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and third-place Spartathlon finisher Lizzy Hawker, Mike Elgan asks: "Why does the media fail to cover female achievement?"

I'm going to present a story problem. Jack the Journalist has a choice - he can write a story that contains something that the public didn't know about Kate Middleton, OR he can write a story that contains something that the public didn't know about Lizzy Hawker. Jack needs to pay his rent. Given that he only has time to properly research and write one story, which woman's tale is the most likely to ensure that Jack still has a roof over his head come the next weekend?

In other words, if people actively had to pay for access to a story, which woman is going to get people to open their wallets? We know that we can get people to shell out good money for the chance to ogle a pair of breasts simply because they happen to belong to the Duchess of Cambridge. Were someone to somehow come into possession of a photograph of the Duchess in nothing but a smile, they'd be almost able to name their price.

The people who care about the Spartathlon and the people who care about Lizzy Hawker enough to seek out information about her are a small minority. Very small. Is that the fault of "the Media" (whoever "they" are)? Maybe. But somehow, I suspect that "the Media" knows enough by now to have an idea of who their audience wants to hear about. Who they are willing to pay, directly or indirectly to hear about. If the job of a journalist is to bring us what's newsworthy, it's not their job to tell us what's newsworthy. We tell them. And until we tell them that we give a rat's ass about some footrace in what for most of us may as well the middle of nowhere, journalists who are enamored of food security are going to pander to what we tell them we want. Pointing out the old saw that "there is a fundamental difference between the interests of the public and the public interest," is a waste of time.

Could some journalist make a pile of money, and create a new star, by writing up a fascinating story on Ms. Hawker? Sure. That sort of thing has happened before. But "the Media" taken as a whole, has a habit of all chasing the biggest market they know about. And that means, when given a choice between celebrity gossip and a outstanding unknown person, celebrity wins every time. Of course, not everyone care about celebrities and what they've done this week. And the group of people who don't care may be fairly large. But it's not unified. In the end, this isn't a binary question. The fact that I don't follow the news about the Duchess of Cambridge enough to be able to pick her out of a lineup doesn't automatically mean that Ms. Hawker's accomplishment, while impressive, is of active interest to me. Put more simply, she's not the only alternative. There are a million niche markets out there. All of them may be newsworthy, but not all of them are profitable. And I don't mean raking in the megabucks - I mean leaving a dollar for the savings account once the bills are paid.

Celebrities tend to crowd out other people because they're a known and proven "product." People know that they can sell stories about celebrities - or advertising to appear alongside stories about celebrities. And the news business doesn't strike me as any different than Hollywood - what worked once is always a better bet than something completely new. And given that "the Media" isn't a single, monolithic entity, there isn't the level of coordination, the division of labor, that we often think there is. When a million people are chasing stories with the hopes of seeing a paycheck at the end of them, they're going to return to the same productive wells over and over. And while it's fine to expect that someone would have the courage to buck the trend, honestly, that would make them braver than most of us. And few things are more pathetic than craven pots calling cowardly kettles black.

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