Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Choosing responsibility over ratings

Michael “Clay” Carey

Which story gets our time and attention – the fairytale wedding, or the nightmarish disaster?

As tornados swept across the South last week, news organizations had to make that decision. A lot of them chose poorly.

For news organizations in Alabama, where the damage was most severe, the coverage decision was a no-brainer. Most other newspapers in the South gave the tornados weightier play - the Atlanta Journal-Constitution made an obligatory wedding mention in the skybox but set aside most of the front page to news about the destruction. But the further you got from Alabama, the less you saw. What was it replaced with? William and Kate’s royal wedding.

I felt for the people in Alabama. Their suffering was (and still is, and will for a long time be) extreme. And the national media that has at least some power to help? Most of them were rapt in what Kate wore, and how Harry carried himself. What will you do, New York Times? You’ll give your print audience what you think they want – a big photo of the happy couple driving off into the sunset above the fold, and tornado news downpage. To the Times' credit, they did emphasize tornado news on the top half of their website, with wedding news underneath.

Getting it right

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was one of the few who bucked the trend and chose Tuscaloosa over Buckingham Palace. As he got on a plane for London, he said, he was “haunted” by weather radar images on television. When his plane landed in the U.K., he found out just how bad things were. On his blog, he explained the quick decision to flay back to the U.S. this way:

The effort to educate more Americans to the dangers of tornadoes (badly needed and needs to be virtually nationwide) will owe its new urgency to this disaster. Put as simply as possible: 300 Americans, people from around here who were doing nothing wrong, were killed by highly energized air, over-fueled and perversely formed into a freakish vortex vacuum capable of doing to the surface of the earth pretty much anything the human mind and imagination can come up with.

His post drew 70 comments, including this one, which was echoed several times:

I applaud your efforts to try and make sense of what happened - to realize that the tragedy is much more important, more real than the fantasy wedding you were scheduled to cover.

Media observers acknowledged that Williams did the right thing, and that too many of his colleagues did not.

What does this have to do with our current class topics? Plenty. For starters, it speaks to the issues of celebrity-driven culture referenced in the AJR piece by Jill Rosen. People want celebrities. The media should give people what they want. Therefore, the media should deliver William and Kate, right?

Wrong. The media have an obligation to people who are suffering. And at that given moment (and as you read this now), the suffering in Alabama was unimaginable. Pushing their stories to the side to cover the royal wedding is insulting. It shows how backwards our priorities can become when glamour and ratings take precedent over responsible news judgment.

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