If it bleeds, it leads — and these riots have plenty of bleeding to report. The Associated Press does some navel-gazing today about the coverage of the protests and unrest following the George Floyd homicide in Minneapolis, and raises a few uncomfortable questions. Has the national media’s focus on violence crowded out attention on legitimate protests? Is cable news fueling a cycle of violence by essentially glorifying it in prime time?
The nation’s unrest has made for an unprecedented nightly action show on television, with control rooms that switch quickly between cars ablaze, police officers advancing on demonstrators and ransacked stores in cities across the country. …
Floyd’s brother, Terrence, publicly asked Monday for those people outraged by how George died last week after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his brother’s neck to make their feelings known peacefully.
That’s daytime television, however.
When darkness falls and prime-time television begins, earnest activism is replaced by tense scenes of conflict unique in their breadth. Scenes of urban unrest have been visible before in the nation’s history — the 1968 riots were more frightening and deadly — but not in so many cities at the same time, with so many cameras to observe.
Again, if it bleeds, it leads. Both the protests and the riots are news, after all, but the destruction of the riots are probably much more acutely news. Combine that with the fact that the riots have taken place mostly at night, where agitators can work under cover of darkness, and it’s tough to blame the media for its prime-time focus.
Al Sharpton argues that the coverage is setting a narrative rather than focusing on more important issues:
“If you only display that, in this whole ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ media obsession, than in many ways you are hurting George Floyd all over again,” said Sharpton, an MSNBC host. “Because he becomes a side story to the tragedy of what happened and to the pursuit of justice.”
What’s happening in the cities need to be covered, but not at the expense of losing Floyd, he said.
Who’s “losing Floyd”? There is still a great deal of attention being paid to the case, especially where it matters in Minnesota. Keith Ellison was on national television this morning to discuss potential charges against other police officers; Joe Biden made national headlines discussion police reform. In our state legislature, the DFL proclaimed that police reform will now be the “centerpiece” of their special-session state legislature agenda, along with COVID-19.
If anyone’s to blame for “losing Floyd,” it’s the agitators who have hijacked the controversy for their own political ends. Add in the looters who are exploiting the chaos to pillage their own communities, and we have plenty of people to hold responsible for the distraction. The media’s coverage might incentivize some of this, too, but the solution for that would be to choose to deliberately refuse to inform the public by crafting a more desirable narrative.
We already have too much of that from the media, Andrew Malcolm wrote earlier today:
Trump supporters will say he’s a genius at distracting D.C. media with substance-free messages that consume the well-paid time of these Eastern elites. There is an element of truth to this claim about the man who brought the mentality of a successful reality show executive producer into the White House.
But inadvertently, the Capitol media’s willingness to be so manipulated also reveals a disturbing, little-noticed change in the idea of what is journalism today. There has always been bias and subjectivity in the daily news business, not just in what was written or said by those men and women and their editors but, more importantly, in what was ignored or dismissed derisively and briefly.
Speaking from some decades of personal experience, in bygone times, each individual story was generally constructed to recount the who, what, when, where and why of the subject at hand, including select background as necessary. It was a stand-alone story.
No longer. Today, there is a narrative, a story template that each report must fit into. Those that don’t fit, like your high school jersey, get dismissed or ignored.
One has to ask these questions about the coverage: Is it news, and does it matter? If the answers to those questions are yes and the media is covering it, then it’s tough to complain. If the answers to those questions are no and the media isn’t covering it, then that’s not really a problem either. It’s when the media makes the irrelevant or false into a self-serving narrative or when they deliberately ignore or downplay actual news to preserve those narratives that the media becomes part of the problem.
Frankly, I’d be more inclined to call social media a bigger threat, except that it occasionally comes in handy to expose and trap the truly stupid. For now, however, let’s blame the actual malefactors rather than the content-hungry media that is presently covering them.