I was enthused over the warm reception media colleagues gave me during the recently concluded NetOne International Media Congress (Nov 5-7 at the Pope’s summer residence in Castelgandolfo). I had told participating delegates coming from all over the world that good news do sell, and can sell even better than bad news. The amount of questions journalists asked about the issue of lopsided reporting had led me to the pleasant conclusion that journalists in fact disagree with what seems to be the established editorial dictum that regards ‘bad’ news as ‘good’ news to the business.
Competing for street sales or for ratings, media organizations scramble for the Gloom and Doom news item that will produce the biggest shock and awe impact. In the race for viability, gatekeepers of media – editors, publishers and those others who direct and determine what becomes news – have set their own trap. They have eroded the very credibility and public trust principle by which media is supposed to anchor itself.
But in my talk, (published as my November 15 High Ground column) I had disputed the notion that good news does not sell. Studies and personal experience all validate the fact that people prefer positive, human interest stories. They like stories with happy endings and those that portray heroism and convey redeeming values.
Cinema-wise, we witness the same phenomenon. Horror movies never even came close to the box office successes of heartwarming dramas, adventures and musicales like Little Lord Fauntleroy, Harry Potter and The Sound of Music. In advertising, it is a practice to use a slice of life and human interest as mechanisms for promoting positive consumer attitudes and feelings for a brand. Very few admen will employ scare or shock tactics in promoting a brand.
So why are news editors so fixated on peddling bad news?
Based on practice – something perhaps that can be traced to the time when people bought papers based on the shock and awe value of headlines which were then peddled by screaming newsboys – bad news sold papers. The commercial imperative drove media owners to dictate a commercial objective to news evaluation. Since media organizations do employ professional journalists, the contradiction between commercial intent and professional ethics has always been an acrimonious issue between professional journalists and media owners. Note that subscription-based newspapers which do not compete for street sales are more sober and responsible.
In the process, media has lost sight of its commitment to truth – the kind that can take the form of ‘bad’ or ‘good’ news but one which has only one clear mission: to enlighten and uplift the human condition. Sometimes the truth is not all that pleasant, in fact most times, truth – like truth that exposes a corrupt regime – hurts for the parties concerned, but it is the kind of truth that enlightens and moves people to positive action. In the final analysis, it is the truth that serves the human condition that becomes the good news of our daily lives.
For all the hard-hitting antics and supposed noble accomplishments strutted about by the press as they try to prove their worth, I have yet to find visible proof that our people have been enlightened and all the better in their discernment of the world around them. Not surprising really, considering that much of the news we have are wanting in perspective and insight.
For the umpteenth time I shall say that for as long as our people are unaware of the collective rape done to them by the well-entrenched elite and their rah-rah boys and girls, media will continue to be a witting or unwitting tool of exploitation. Without perspective or insight, media can only feed on its own poison, running to where the wine flows, where the drumbeat is louder and the lights brighter, creating gods and saviors from cinema characters and leaving everyone even more confused and miserable.
We cannot expect media to take over the function of education in keeping the national mind abreast with its own history. But media is not supposed to operate in a vacuum. All the crying issues of the day – labor, graft and corruption, agrarian, social justice and civil rights, among others – connect themselves to a historical past. That historical past is the repository of all that we are, have done and want to be. It connects us to the truth that will help clear the cobwebs of confusion. It connects us to our origins and our dreams before the designs of vested interest had inflicted national amnesia and paralysis on all of us. Like the roots of a tree, our historical past brings us back to our common ground where lies the seeds of true nationhood.
Foreigners are aghast at how our public officials, congressmen and senators can get away with the silliest and most embarrassing comments and public statements. In many countries, legal action, public censure and formal admonition would have met such disgraceful conduct. But our public ignorance of norms and standards of conduct and behavior of our public officials allow and even encourage these types of behavior.
The good news in 9/11
Bad news when put in perspective, carry the potential of rectifying the errors of the past or an error still in process. The tragedy of 9/11 is definitely bad news. The sharp rise of oil prices is also bad news. But when media fails to take the opportunity to draw out the broader picture, it forfeits the opportunity to deliver on its mission.
The 9/11 incident would have been the great opportunity to focus world attention to the reality of terrorism – in essence, the extreme reaction to obnoxious and oppressive US foreign policy. Instead, media coverage fueled an anti-Muslim backlash reminiscent of medieval hostilities during the War of the Crusades. Former US President Bill Clinton was one of the few who offered the more sobering insights and perspectives in a speech he delivered in Georgetown University a few months after 9/11 but this hardly drew media attention.
The impact of 9/11 would have been a wonderful opportunity to separate the chaff from the grain, the myths from the facts. Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda do not represent the Muslim mainstream any more than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christians. Instead, 9/11 spawned an anti-Muslim hysteria and racial profiling that had inspired the creation of the Homeland Security Act, a near antithesis to American liberal democracy.
9/11 could have called attention to those oppressive self-serving US policies that provoke Muslim terrorism. Instead of motivating policy reviews and revisions, media coverage became easy prey to the neo-conservative mindset of the Bush administration which all too quickly seized on people’s fears to justify waging a totally unrelated war in Iraq.
The good news in high oil prices
Even the rise of oil prices that is now wrecking household budgets presents opportunities for good news that help people in a major way.
People desperately distressed over runaway oil prices will be open to prescriptions that offer a way out of their woes such as:
1. The need for a new attitude towards energy consumption. One does not sell a raincoat during the peak of summer and neither can one sell an energy conservation program unless an energy price crisis is raging. The fact is there is a limit to the world’s oil supply and we are nearing that stage when the world’s oil resources will be depleted. Until new sources of energy are developed, people must learn to conserve energy and prolong the remaining supply of oil.
2. The greatest need promotes investment and enterprise. Need is market demand and market demand means profit. It is in a period like this when investments for either oil exploration or for developing new sources of energy can get investors attention. The high price of oil attracts investments in alternative energy development.
I’ve often wondered why media news editors and gatekeepers continue to be wrapped up in their own irrelevance. The public hungers for news that will help ease their burdens, not a bombardment of gory, smutty or nauseating reports which have no other redeeming value other than to appall, terrify or distress.
But that of course assumes that we are dealing with the kind of media which is committed to uphold the ethical standards and mores of journalism. We do have journalists and we do have pretenders. The pretenders use the profession to promote vested interests which almost always, run counter to public good. When pretenders cover the news along with legitimate journalists – the poorly trained and the very best ones included – it is hard for the public to detect the quacks from the genuine.
What makes things even more complicated is when the powers that be utilize sophisticated chicanery to spin ‘good news’ out of a patently negative development to soften and influence public perception to favor hidden agendas, oftentimes, political survival. Cases in point are Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s recent incantations:
1. That the fiscal crisis is over when the fact is we have not even encountered the eye of the fiscal storm.
2. That she won the last elections fair and square sans cheating, misuse of government funds, overspending and congressional railroading.
3. That she runs a clean government where graft and corruption is non-existent and that all her appointees are honest, the best and the brightest like Ramon Revilla, Sr. in the PEA.
4. That she has the best interest of the Filipinos in mind when she allied the country with George Bush’s Iraq War – an act that rendered Filipinos working in the Arab states fair game for reprisal.
No, definitely the Macapagal-Arroyo idea of good news is not the good news we speak of. Fantasy and bewilderment certainly do not form the stuff that makes good news.