Measuring the Value of Human Lives

by Jeff Siegel

The iVoryTowerz blogmeister reports that my effort earlier this week about the pet food media scare generated a ton of hits and even a tiny bit of commotion in the cyber ether. This is all well and good, I suppose, but only if the people who read it are interested in learning how the modern news media make decisions about their product.

Because that is the truly big story – as well as the most terrifying one. The people who report our news, who shelter under the protection of the Constitution, are in the process of abdicating that responsibility, and they’re doing it in the name of profit. In the old days, which probably ended around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, reporting the news was everyone’s first duty, and making enough money to do that was just one part of the job. These days, on the other hand, content is chosen to drive profit, and the cheaper the content the better (which is why there are so many celebrity stories). Hence wonderful slogans for TV news like “Not Just What Happens, What Matters” – an excuse to show cute puppy stories to appeal to a specific demographic or to do the same tired health stories over and over.

Certainly, there are exceptions to this. The nightly network news programs, for the most part, still play it as reasonably straight as they’re allowed, and The New York Times remains true to the mission. But the rest of them? It’s pitiful. A friend of mine, who must remain anonymous to protect his job, says his newspaper’s goal this year is not to win a Pulitzer or even do any really big reporting, but to lose a couple of dozen jobs through attrition so no one has to be laid off. The profit margin at this paper, incidentally, is 25 or 30 percent.

Want to find out how little the media actually care about reporting news? Consider this story: According to a report released Tuesday, a Texas oil refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people and injured 70 – the worst industrial accident in the U.S. since 1990 – was caused, in part, by lax oversight by the federal government and by organizational and safety flaws at the refinery. In other words, 15 people died in an accident that should have been prevented. That sounds like huge news, and certainly more important than the pet food scare.

But you can bet, save for some mention on the networks and in some of the bigger papers, that this story will be ignored. And that’s because, to the people making these news decisions, the deaths of more than a dozen pets are more important to ratings and circulation, in keeping costs down, and in attracting ad dollars, than the deaths of real live human beings.

I truly wonder how these people can sleep at night.

Update #1: As of noon CDT on 3/21/2007, Google News lists 1,085 stories for the pet food scare, compared to 566 for the Texas refinery accident story.

Update #2: As of 7:30 a.m. EDT on 3/22/2007, Google News lists 1,558 stories for the pet food scare, compared to 569 for the Texas refinery accident story.

(The photo is a still from an investigative video produced by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board -- a federal agency -- of the aftermath of the Texas City explosion and fire. This photo is in the public domain.)

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Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. I have a few points to add

- I have an acquaintance you works in Public relations. her job is to get quote placements unquote. I don't live her life day to day so I suppose I spin this to my slanted worldview but my understanding is that a "significant" amount of what we read today is practically handed on a silver platter by PR types to newspapers and magazines. This system has always existed but as a percentage I have to believe that PR firms are placing more and more "news" than they ever have in the past.

- I live in Europe and watch CNN as much as my stomach can bear (not very much). without going on and on, it does seem to me that CNN have dumbed down the folks in front of the camera, paying less and letting those behind the scenes set up the anchors with "incisive questions". I may be wrong but when the anchor butchers the question in terms of pace and grammer, I have to assume she or he has had the question fed by someone else...

- if we speak of throwing softballs to major figures ala Barbera Walters, recently a person from the Herald Tribune wrote about the example of recently passed Italian journalist Oriani Fallaci's classic interviews with major figures in the 1970s and he compared that to the pathetic interviews a major American "journalist" made in the run up to the Iraq war with Saddam... If you want to see real journalism, study the work Fallaci

Jeff Siegel said...

All very good points. I can corrorborate the PR assessment, at least anecdotally. I have been told by many PR people that reporters lift material from their releases verbatim, including quotes, much more often than ever before. Even more troubling, a military official who was involved in the first Iraq War and the Balkans peacekeeping mission in the 1990s said that he saw a marked difference in media efforts. Reporters in the Balkans asked fewer questions at briefings and were much more likely to go with the official handout than their colleagues had in Iraq.

Rick Rockwell said...

In her prime, Fallaci was one of the best. Her interview with Ayatollah Khomeini is a classic.

Anonymous said...

I am reading Fallaci's classic novel "A Man" based largely on her real life relationship with a Greek rebel. The book is absolutely one of the great reads I have ever had the privledge to enjoy. Fallaci was clearly inspired by this intense relationship and it led her to a book that is insightful on many fronts, politicals, poetry, relationships, etc...

She went a bit nuts at the end of her life but on balance she will reign as one of the all time great authors and journalists of our era

Stephanie said...

Jeff, I meant to comment on your original post about pet food, but time got in the way. I think you make some really interesting points about news coverage concerning the pet food incident in particular and news in general.

I'm not saying the media were right to give the refinery accident short shrift, but I have an idea why the pet food story got more play. First, the pet food story has a more immediate impact on more people than the refinery story does. In other words, people nationwide have pets and they should know if the food is safe. Playing off that is the profit factor. A story about poisoned pets is likely to get more eyeballs and therefore more money.

Jeff Siegel said...

Stephanie, your analysis is exactly correct -- more eyeballs, more money. That's how decisions about covering news are now made. Note, too, how the story was covered, not by discussing the pet food supply chain or how this happened (it took a week for that), but by quoting pet owners about how scared they were. That's the cheap and lazy way to do the story.

Immediate impact is relative. I'll bet the people whose parents and children and spouses were killed in Texas felt an immediate impact.

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