Several years ago a Kennedy descendant flew his private airplane from New Jersey (I think ) to an island in the Atlantic offshore New England. It crashed and he was killed. I probably heard it first on the TV news and then in the local paper. Both of those reports said who it was, what, when and where it happened, but didn’t say why or how. I’m not a pilot, but In my company at one point in charge of managing our private planes. So I had some interest in “why & how” it happened.
A day or two later, there was a story in the Wall Street Journal that reported on how and why people thought it might have happened. It was an interesting and useful article to me. It was also about twice as long as the article in the local paper, but I read the whole thing and think I learned something useful from it.
A few years ago my friends who were journalists or studying journalism told me of the “5-W” questions that writers or reporters should remember when writing an article reporting on a news event. The 5-W’s are the questions Who?, What? When? Where? and Why? Today’s news media I think does a good job with Who, What, When, and Where. But the “Why?” question is frequently ignored. And in most cases – as it was in the Kennedy Plane crash – the “why?” question may be the most important if the reader needs or wants to learn something from the event. But it takes longer to learn “why” something happened, and it may require some special knowledge or expertise. Another thing is it also takes longer to explain the answer to why, than it does for the other 4 questions. And by the time you get the answer, it may be “old news”. But in conceptual discussions involving the role of the press, they always take the “high moral ground” that the press is helping the voters learn and understand issues. That is probably why we have all the open records and open meetings laws. But the problem is that if they don’t answer the “why?” questions, the readers aren’t learning much.
To be fair, today’s “for profit” news media – both TV and newspapers – are in an increasingly competitive environment. With all the electronic environment, news papers are having trouble surviving, and what used to be our 3 main TV news networks has a lot of competition from all the cable and internet stations. In the struggle for survival, they need to have a lot of readers and viewers. That results in advertising dollars and subscribers, and the revenue is important to their survival. Which probably leads to the dominance of the other thing I learned from my reporter friends “If it bleeds, it leads”. News has to be “new” and the more sensational it is the more readers and viewers it is likely to get. That helps the top accounting line – the revenue. So if it takes longer to get to “why?”, the event might not be “new news” any more. The other problem may be with the “expense” line. The “why” answers no doubt take more reporter time which adds to the expense. But it also takes – in the case of newspapers – more paper and more ink. The Wall Street Journal article on the Kennedy plane crash was at least twice as long as the local paper article. In the case of TV, the daily network news programs are only a half-hour long and with the ad’s that leaves only about 20 minutes for actual news reporting. That’s led to the famous “10 second sound bite”. To explain “why” something happened takes a lot longer than the usual story time of 1 or 2 minutes. 10 second sound bites are usually someone telling their position on a political or other event. So in the bite, one might learn what the interviewees’ position is on an issue, but not “why?”. One network a few years ago advertised that their news program would have more “depth”. I got excited because I thought they might explain the plusses and minuses of each side of an issue. Instead, the time was increased from one minute to two minutes and the number of 10 second sound bites was increased from 2 to 4 (the idea of “balance” in TV reporting is apparently to have an equal number of sound bytes on each side of an issue.) Still no “Why?” reporting.
I once had a course in dealing with the news media rom a lady who had been a reporter for CNN. One of the things she warned us about were 10 second sound bytes. She said if the interview lasts any time at all, you may say something that can be taken “out of context” and made to sound in the 10 second sound bite as something that is different from what you really think. The fix, she told us, was make the point you want to get across into a short “elevator speech” and regardless of the question you get from the reporter, that speech is your answer. And she worked on the other side of the camera, so I thought that she probably knew what she was talking about.
So the newspapers – including the Wall Street Journal – are using thinner paper, less paper, and less ink. Stories are getting shorter and the “why?” question may have gone away completely except for maybe the “editorial page”. But the editorial page has many column’s by people who are trying to “sell” their side of an issue, and so the “why” does not include both the plusses and the minuses – so there is little “balance” in these columns. There may also be a question of accuracy or lack of specifics.
So is watching the news and reading the paper a waste of time? No, I don’t think so, but you can get most of news in the headlines and your left to guess on what the whole story is.