Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Newspaper coverage of helicopter crashes deprives us of world news

Whether it's television news or our daily papers, "selling it" seems to be more important than balance. I noted when my lightweight edition of the Advertiser fluttered down on my doorstep this morning that for the second day in a row, huge pictures of the crashes had displaced other important news.

Pictures of helicopter crashes sell papers, of course.

It used to be that by opening to page 3 I'd find out what was going on in the world, more often than not the latest on the ongoing war in Iraq. But generous space has been given to color pictures of the helicopter crashes that frankly don't convey much information, while real news has been totally ignored. The world continues to turn, of course, but we are missing out on its important stories.

Certainly, two deadly crashes in a row is newsworthy. On a relative scale of things, though, isn't the coverage being sensationalized at the expense of news we need to have?

There comes a point where a newspaper that's on a strict diet risks losing its relevance. The six o'clock news adequately covers local crime and disasters. We usually count on a newspaper to continue covering real news, but it's not happening. Today's paper was anorexic and let us down on both world and national news. Would adding even a single extra page of world news have broken the budget?

We do have alternatives when the daily paper falls short (see the end of this post).

Are newspapers emulating the "vast wasteland" of television?

The deterioration of television is perhaps better documented. Here is one study on local content (there are several choices I could have used here):
In every year of the study, the No. 1 topic on local television news was crime. Over the five years, 24 percent of all stories were about crime - the number ranging from a high of 26 percent in 2002 to a low of 19 percent in 2000. (Some stations clearly go the other way. In 2002, the last year of the study, there were stations where crime represented as little as 5 percent of stories. But these were unusual.)

If crime was the No. 1 topic on local news by more than 2 to 1, what came next? Over the five years, stories about accidents, bizarre events, fires and catastrophes accounted for 12 percent. Taken together, crime, fire accidents and disasters made up 36 percent of all stories.
That was a study of television, but how much of it would apply equally to our daily paper? Given the chance, accidents, fires, catastrophes and the occasional bizarre event seem to push real news off the few pages still left in the first section.

Alternatives to the shrinking daily paper

If your interests go beyond two helicopter crashes, you can get a quick summary from a vast choice of Internet news sources. There's Google News and similar. For Iraq, to dig more deeply than the wire services do, try this list of Iraq blogs. There is also Headlines from Electronic Iraq. On the left side of this blog are some alternative sources, especially Democracy Now! which is a website, radio and also a television program all in one.

These alternative sources bring you real news, and they do the job that most daily papers, with their dependence on Associated Press wire news and a few other limited sources, can't do. For example, here is just one story you can read on the 'net today:
Malnutrition among children under five
8 March 2007
Apart from dodging bombs and bullets in their schools and neighborhoods, children in Iraq are suffering from worryingly high levels of malnourishment, according to specialists. Poverty and insecurity are said to be the main causes of the children's deteriorating diets. Despite efforts by NGOs and the Iraqi government, violence and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people are making it very difficult for monthly food rations to reach those families that need them most. According to the United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF), about one in 10 children under five in Iraq are underweight and one in five are short for their age.
Every major US newspaper has a web presence, and you can take a world tour by visiting the websites of international papers such as the Guardian of London, the Independent, or the International Herald Tribune.

I enjoy browsing the front pages on the Newseum website.

On days like this, when my local paper lets me down, what choice is there but to go electronic and get information via the web? In the end, since a local paper can't afford the breadth and depth of coverage you can find on the Web anyway, you'll be better informed if those helicopter stories have sent you searching for real news elsewhere.


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