Albion Monitor /Commentary

1997: An Unbalanced Media

by Walt Brasch

The death of Jacques Cousteau rated a mug shot and a few sketchy lines. So did the deaths of John Denver, Jimmy Stewart, and Robert Mitchum.

Mother Teresa rated a larger mug shot.

Charles Kuralt, James Michener, Red Skelton, Harold Robbins, Ben Hogan, and Supreme Court justice William Brennan didn't even rate a mug shot.

Princess Diana got the cover and 10 inside color pages.

The media -- almost all of which pretend they don't use paparazzi -- opened their pages to an almost unlimited collection of photos and in-depth stories, liberally sprinkled by speculation, rumor, innuendo, and hearsay
It wasn't the National Enquirer, nor even People . The Diana splash was the centerpiece of Newsweek's "Pictures of the Year" wrap-up, and its way of saying what it considered to be important in 1997.

"But we were doing a year in pictures," Newsweek editors might haughtily contend. "It was an international tragedy, and there were more dramatic pictures of the Princess than of anyone else."

That's one of the problems. The media -- almost all of which pretend they don't use paparazzi -- opened their pages to an almost unlimited collection of photos and in-depth stories, liberally sprinkled by speculation, rumor, innuendo, and hearsay. Here's a tip to editors -- just because it's available doesn't mean you have to use it.

It's hard to believe that the Newsweek editors didn't have in their own files photos of Michener and Kuralt, or that they couldn't easily acquire those pictures. Certainly, there might not be as many pictures of Brennan, one of the First Amendment's staunchest defenders, as there are of Diana, but there are pictures. They could easily have been more dramatic, more insightful than any of the Diana pictures. For almost two decades the media seem to have placed a higher value on the life of a storybook princess than for those who have committed their lives to helping society better understand and improve itself.

"But the people want the Diana pictures," the editors might wail in the delusion they are giving the people what they want, thus abrogating their responsibility of reporting about all issues that affect the people to give them a balanced version of what they need.

"Balance" is the other major problem in the "year-end" wrap- ups. Newsweek picked and chose what it thought was the "best." Among the photos in the "living" section, Newsweek designed two-page spreads of boxer Evander Holyfield's chewed ear, George Bush skydiving, three Buddhist nuns testifying before Congress, the reconstruction of the TWA 747 that crashed off Long Island in Summer 1996, and one- page photos of dead 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey and barely- convicted Nanny Louise Woodward.

Newsweek did publish a two-page landscape of a flooded and burned out section of Grand Forks, N. D. But it could have published a couple of pictures showing people helping each other, or perhaps even one of the staff of the local newspaper working against flood and deadlines to publish every day. Those pictures, certainly, would be more representative of what happened than a portrait of water and buildings.

Newsweek ran only one photo of Bill Clinton. Of the photos that have been shot of the President, of which Newsweek photographers shot thousands, the editors chose a picture of the President hobbled by a ripped knee tendon, and supported by members of his staff. It was a dramatic photo. But, there are other dramatic photos. Newsweek like most media focus on the unusual, the different.

Guess what picture the media will publish should a football player who gains 250 yards in a game slips on the sidelines. Guess what picture will be used should one politician stifle just one yawn in all of his days in office. Guess what picture the media will choose between a scientist in a lab who won the Nobel Prize -- and the latest Baywatch Babe.

Two council members who disagree on an issue will get the bigger headlines over a unanimous vote since conflict drives editors. The police blotter feeds our newspapers with daily doses of crime stories. Watch the news, read the local newspaper and we believe we are completely a nation of violence.

The media need to balance their reporting about society to make sure the public gets enough information that it can better understand our society and all of its contributors, not just the deeds of criminals, the weird and unusual, and pop celebrities.

Walt Brasch, an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. His latest book is "Sex and the Single Beer Can," a compilation of many of his media-related columns

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Albion Monitor January 3, 1998 (

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