Monday, February 9, 2009

Sensational news

Sensationalism is a difficult charge for journalists to refute. Often, it comes down to an "I know it when I see it" response.

But, the recent coverage of the California octuplets certainly qualifies. Not only have news organizations devoted an extraordinary amount of limited air time and newsprint to this story, but much of what has been published and broadcast smacks of voyeurism. And, rather than providing real news coverage, journalists have contented themselves with interviewing the mother and her family--and of asking questions that ask for opinion rather than asking for opinion in response to fact. These are easy stories. They are emotionally appealing (in the sense that they provoke emotion), but they display little critical thinking on the part of journalists.

Here is one set of stories I applaud: interviews with physicians and medical ethicists about the appropriate standard of care. These stories could be localized--in general, they have not been, even though infertility afflicts many in the mid-Missouri region.

Here is the set of stories I would like to see: inquiries into whether the California departments of social services are taking a look at the case and others like it; inquiries into the help the mother's church and community are providing to the family; an inquiry and publication of how much money, if any, various news organizations are paying the mother for her story. All of this can be done without vilifying the mother while asking difficult questions about the role of civil society in events such as this, including the role of the news media.

This news event has been treated in a sensational way. But, it does not have to be.

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