Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thoreau and Storm Team Coverage

I write this blog post with a blizzard bearing down. According to a meteorologist: "This will be one of the bigger and stronger storms in recent history with the combination of snow and wind." The rain hasn't changed over to snow, but TV reporters are already staked out in the elements, commenting on conditions (alas, since there is no standing snow yet we haven't got that close up shot of the ground with the reporter shuffling her feet to indicate how much has fallen). Flipping around the channels, I've also seen the obligatory report from a hardware store, complete with an interview with a guy who is buying a shovel.

This is the kind of formulaic winter storm coverage familiar to anyone who lives in Wisconsin, and it persists in the face of seeming public contempt. Whenever there is a newspaper story about an impending storm, I always play a game where I check the on-line comments section to see how many posts there are before somebody complains about media coverage. I've never had to go beyond the fourth post. (To be fair, there is usually a backlash against the backlash, with somebody shortly thereafter jumping in and defending the local media).

A couple days ago we got a couple inches of snow--nothing that provided a great disruption to travel or commerce, but a bit of an inconvenience for some drivers. The TV stations didn't go wall-to-wall by any means, but they did provide live shots and reports from outdoor locations. And this didn't sit well with some commentators, who remarked that snow in Wisconsin during the month of December does not constitute "news."

This does raise a valid question. What is "news"? I think the people who accuse weather coverage of being "sensationalism" are on to something deeper than they realize. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes: "To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip." He goes on to develop the idea that once somebody is acquainted with a general principle, there is really no need to be constantly updated with the latest iterations of that principle. In other words, once we are aware that there can be such a thing as a house fire, in which people can lose their possessions, pets, or perhaps their very lives, do we really need to know the details of every house fire that happens in our general vicinity? And once we know there is such a thing as a homicide, do we need to know the details of how homicides in a given geographical radius (which have been defined by the reach of now obsolete analog television signals) actually occurred?

Having once worked as a news reporter for a small town radio station, I definitely got the idea at times that the information I was disseminating was gossip. In reporting on who had been charged in the county court with dealing drugs (and naming names in the process), in making calls to hospitals and relaying information about health conditions of accident victims, and even in covering contentious local elections, I would often think back to Thoreau's quote about news and gossip, as well as his own corollary: "They who edit and read it are old women over their tea."
Thoreau, of course, was basing his ideas on print newspapers. He probably never could have envisioned the degree to which instantaneous, around the clock, electronic media would amplify his observations.

So while I don't fault anyone for complaining about the seeming histrionics of "storm team coverage," I fault them for not being more consistent in their criticisms. If live shots of reporters standing in snowdrifts are inappropriate, then so are most live shots of reporters standing in front of police tape.


Anonymous Tim said...

Alright, I get that the team from my geographic area can score more points in a given time period than the team from your geographic area. No more box scores.

12:26 AM  
Blogger giraffe02 said...

nice blog

11:59 PM  

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