Media Obsession with Sensationalism

It happens almost every day all over the country at the local, state and national scenes. Americans banding together wish to communicate a cause or publicize a protest to a larger audience over the media. They have news conferences, put out a report or petition and try to be newsworthy. But little or no media shows up and reports, because these Americans are not sufficiently powerful, as would be a Senator, a corporate executive or a commanding celebrity. Many of these citizens just give up and withdraw. Some do not and move to the stage that the media seems to be demanding they mount if they are to be considered newsworthy though powerless. That stage is lawbreaking.

It is clear that many publishers, editors and television producers are signalling to conscientious citizens and citizen groups that they have to violate the law or produce some sort of violence to themselves, by fasting, or to others by blocking traffic, taking over buildings or worse to make it on the evening news or in the morning papers.

For nearly twenty years, the New York Public Interest Research Group has produced groundbreaking reports, won important lawsuits and gotten key legislation through the state government. But the New York Times has never published a feature article about this influential college student funded and run organization. When Columbia University students took over a college building protesting the investment in South Africa issue during the Eighties, the Times printed over a dozen articles on this two-month long protest.

Doing something physically outrageous or flamboyant to get on the news was well known to Cesar Chavez, the farm labor leader, who damaged his health with long hunger fasts — called by one reporter “dramatic and visceral.” A few weeks ago, Cong. Tony P. Hall (D-OH) completed a 22 day hunger strike to protest Congressional neglect of hunger in America and the world. He received the publicity that his previous, reasoned declarations on the House floor and at news conferences did not produce.

Numerous Chicano students at UCLA held a hunger strike in May to demand curriculum expansion on Hispanic subjects. Suddenly the public learned about their concerns. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a government research agency, scientist, Walter Stewart, went over a month on only water to bring public attention to the NIH’s downgrading of the office to investigate scientific frauds. The media people said — ‘wow, a scientist fasting near death, let’s see what he has on his mind.’ Stewart got attention, but he paid the price with his health.

A few years ago, some Washingtonians got worked up about a decision by the Library of Congress to reduce the hours when the reading room would be open to the public. Nobody listened to their statements and calls to the press. Curtailing access to the nation’s library while the rest of the government is wasting billions was an important local issue and a significant symbolic issue nationally.

When the protesters sat in and took over the reading room, the police were called, arrests were made and — viola — the cameras and reporters started working.

Look what Greenpeace has had to do to get media attention. Track whaling ships, impede seal hunters and other dramatic actions on the high seas.

Just last week, two incidents occurred in Washington, D.C. performed to get media coverage. Senior District of Columbia officials, together with Jesse Jackson, were arrested for blocking a major intersection near Congress, to publicize their demand for D.C. statehood. And a group of AIDS activists brought the occupied coffin of an AIDS victim from New Jersey to parade up Pennsylvania Avenue. The resultant police confrontation put them on the evening television news.

Does the media have any responsibility for inducing these citizens to such extreme measures? To the extent that the press holds itself to official source journalism (those with power) and to street level violence, addiction and pornographic sensuality, what is left for reporting citizen actions?

It is true that the media ignores far too often citizen activity that would otherwise, if powerful, meet newsworthiness standards. The less space and time that print and electronic journalism devotes to these fundamental exercises of democracy, the more desperate measures for attention will come from citizen efforts to be recognized.

It is degrading that thoughtful people have to make exhibitions of themselves on the streets or harm themselves through starvation to get the media to do their job. And it is disgraceful that the inner cities get prolonged media interest only after teenagers riot, as occurred in Los Angeles last year.

The next time journalists convene for a convention of introspection, they should add this phenomenon to their program.

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