Priorities

by Ted on April 22, 2004

At 10:31 Central time, here’s the top news on the top news websites:

MSNBC: Trains Crash, Explode
CBS News: Heavy Toll In N. Korea Train Crash
FOX News: Report: Thousands Hurt, Killed in N. Korea Crash
CNN: Michael Jackson indicted
ABC: Michael Jackson facing trial

The stories on the crash are reporting as many as 3000 dead or injured. Meanwhile, CNN and ABC have the story in sidebars. These are not good priorities, my friend.

UPDATE: At 10:55, Michael Jackson is still the top story at both CNN and ABC.
UPDATE: 11:25. CNN’s top story is now the crash, while ABC’s is still Michael Jackson.

{ 36 comments }

1

Gyan 04.22.04 at 4:53 pm

I noticed the exact same thing as far as CNN goes. Not really surprised, though.

2

Anita Hendersen 04.22.04 at 5:12 pm

Heh, I was watching Law and Order on TV last night, and NBC News started scrolling a message across the bottom of the screen. I got all excited about some breaking news, but was really disappointed to find that it was about the Jackson indictment. Then I was sort of amused. Then disappointed again.

3

Jamie McCarthy 04.22.04 at 5:15 pm

At 11:15 Central time, CNN has switched to the crash, but ABC still has Michael Jackson’s indictment as the top story.

On ABC’s webpage, the train wreck is described in one small-print sentence, with a teeny map. The Korean peninsula is about the size of Michael Jackson’s nose.

4

Rv. Agnos 04.22.04 at 5:17 pm

According to many credible reports, over 10% of North Koreans have already died after years of famine. With a population of over 20 million, that works out to the equivalent of about 3000 people a day every day for 2 years.

I’ll be impressed when I see a major new source lead with “3000 North Koreans dead” and have the story not be about the small minority of those killed by the evil empire that heard a “boom” right before they died.

5

John Isbell 04.22.04 at 5:44 pm

Maybe Jackson could drive to the hearings really slowly in a white SUV. I’d just moved here from England at that point, and it felt like entering Bizarro World. A palpable sense of unreality. It doesn’t register so much these days.

6

Nat Whilk 04.22.04 at 6:04 pm

I, of course, see your point, but what about all the Africans that die of malaria each day?

7

Sudan (The Country) 04.22.04 at 6:09 pm

Tell me about it. Apart from a Mark Fiore cartoon in today’s Salon, my decade-long genocidal purges hardly ever get noticed.

8

Thorley Winston 04.22.04 at 6:39 pm

It could be that they devoted more coverage to the Michael Jackson story because their viewers were likelier to be able to identify Michael Jackson than to be able to find North Korea on a map.

At least it wasn’t a story about a water skiing squirrel.

;)

9

Ted Barlow 04.22.04 at 6:51 pm

You know what gets me? Dysentery. A few cents worth of sugar and salt will prevent death by dehydration. Nonetheless, it kills 2 million children every year, according to the Population Resource Center.

10

Thorley Winston 04.22.04 at 6:53 pm

Seriously, though, as far as priorities of what gets what coverage goes, it could be that a more local story gets more attention because that’s what the networks believe their audience wants. A story about something that happened in the United States or to an American is probably going to get more coverage than a disaster in some other part of the world, particularly if it is easier to get media coverage to splash on the screen. I would suspect that a train wreck that killed three Americans or occurred in the Untied States would probably be deemed more newsworthy than the trial of a foreign celebrity or a trial in a foreign court.

Also, there is the matter of how much coverage you can build around a story. A high-profile trial presents the opportunity to have special reports, invite experts to give their opinions on matters of law, and fodder for debate and hashing and rehashing on the talk shows which are part of the cable news networks. In contrast, it would be more difficult to try to build a similar story around a train wreck in a third-world nation anymore than one might build a story around people starving or dying of disease. The story just isn’t as exciting for the audience.

Keep in mind that I am not arguing for or against the amount of coverage devoted to either story but rather trying to find a plausible rationale for their decisions.

11

ian 04.22.04 at 7:08 pm

“Small earthquake in Chile – not many dead”

“Fog in Channel – continent isolated”

12

peter ramus 04.22.04 at 7:10 pm

Today’s catastrophe in North Korea, of the same rough size as September 11, has caused North Korea to cut telephone lines to the outside world.

Who knows what retribution they might seek, justified or not, given their peculiar ways.

13

Josh Jasper 04.22.04 at 7:16 pm

In defense of the media, North Korea has been engaging in it’s usual “nothing happened” policy of denying anything ever goes wrong there.

14

Ann 04.22.04 at 7:32 pm

I was living in Hong Kong in 1994. Much of the news there was about the North Korean drama – Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader”, was heading towards arranging a summit with South Korea (a huge step!) when he died unexpectedly. A friend of mine was in the US visiting family at the time, and when she came back, she said “you wouldn’t believe what it’s like back there. All anyone can talk about is OJ Simpson”.

Even when Madeline Albright was in Pyongyang sipping champagne with the Dear Leader, few news sources managed to mention the widespread starvation in the countryside. They were gushing about how well Kim Jong Il could tell jokes. “He’s so charming”.

And how many Americans know that North Korea periodically lobs a missile towards Japan, or sends a submarine down to land disguised soldiers on the shore of South Korea? How many have heard about how North Korea finally admitted having kidnapped quite a few Japanese through the years, but claimed that most had died of “natural causes” before the age of 40? When Bush included North Korea in the axis of evil, most of the news media took it as proof of what an obsessed wacko Bush must be to target such a harmless, reclusive little country.

15

msg 04.22.04 at 8:01 pm

Anyone who believes corporate media are responding to perceived viewer appetite is strongly encouraged not to vote, ever.
Not that the appetite’s not there, but it’s clearly being put there, then fed by the same hand. The priority ranking of news stories isn’t determined by research, but by decree.
Two months back I heard a major network telecaster describe some shrink as one of the doctors most likely to have a hand in deciding what happens to Jackson’s kids. Which seems slightly prejudicial, all in all.
-
In addition to the discomfort created by his uncategorizable shape-shifting image, Jackson crossed somebody, pissed somebody off.
What’s being lost in Korea is an unknown to most of us – a deep, aesthetically profound culture brutalized and drained away. Lots of otherwise sophisticated Americans see Koreans as something in between Japanese and Chinese, but they’re a distinct people, suffering because of their proximity to the other two and the violent economies of the world.

16

Zibblsnrt 04.22.04 at 8:05 pm

Welp, as of 4:00 Atlantic time, ABC’s still blaring Michael Jackson’s news as their headline story…

17

Anthony 04.22.04 at 8:12 pm

I’m surprised people seem to be under the mistaken impression that the news industry is some sort of altruistic humanitarian movement, rather than competing “entertainment” streams all fighting for viewers/readers/listeners.

18

Gyan 04.22.04 at 8:17 pm

msg: Anyone who believes corporate media are responding to perceived viewer appetite is strongly encouraged not to vote, ever.
Not that the appetite’s not there, but it’s clearly being put there, then fed by the same hand. The priority ranking of news stories isn’t determined by research, but by decree.

Which works out to the same thing, in the end.

19

AAB 04.22.04 at 8:38 pm

I also always notice how annual list of “Most Influencial People” by Time magazine and the like is always crowded by celebrities. I would say there are by far many people (in labs etc) that are doing cutting edge research that will influence people’s lives greatly than, say, Nicole Kidman in the future. If it is my wife’s hair do that is in question here then may be Nicole Kidman has more influence.

20

Rv.Agnos 04.22.04 at 8:58 pm

I believe the “mistaken impression,” actually, is that if people go to a web page and see a big North Korea story and a little Michael Jackson story to the side, they’ll click on the North Korea one.

Honestly, not having checked the news today before I read this post, I immediately went to CNN (before the 2nd update, but after the lead story had changed to Korea) saw big Korea, little Michael Jackson, and then my eye caught on the side “Man falls out of 18th story window and lives.” Even coming in with the mindset of “me smart, media stupid,” I clicked on that story first.

21

Thorley Winston 04.22.04 at 9:20 pm

Lots of otherwise sophisticated Americans see Koreans as something in between Japanese and Chinese, but they’re a distinct people, suffering because of their proximity to the other two and the violent economies of the world.

Actually, the North Koreans are suffering because they live under a communist dictatorship that oppresses and starves its own people.

22

P O'Neill 04.22.04 at 10:21 pm

Also being shamefully ignored is the coup in the Central African Republic.

23

Xavier 04.22.04 at 10:47 pm

I guess I’ll have to stop voting now. The masses obviously have a preference for silly celebrity gossip over serious news. Look at television ratings and magazine subscription rates. People like crap. You can’t blame corporations for creating that taste. They’re just catering to it.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say that Koreans are suffering because of the “violent economies of the world.” First off, South Koreans aren’t suffering. They’re doing pretty well. North Koreans are suffering plenty, but not as a result of world economies. North Korea is extremely isolationist. It’s incapable of providing for itself internally. That’s a failure of the North Korean economy, not the economies of the world.

24

Xavier 04.22.04 at 10:51 pm

I think there might be another valid for reason for caring less about the death of a North Korean than the death of an American or European. Have the North Koreans really lost as much? Life in North Korea is miserable. In death, they’re not really losing much.

25

Andrew Edwards 04.22.04 at 11:27 pm

6:30pm and Drudge is leading with “John Kerry said something a teensy bit controversial in 1972″.

26

Poin D 04.22.04 at 11:43 pm

Shorter Xavier: “South Koreans get to shop and North Koreans can’t, so why would the latter care if they die or not? Also, North Koreans suffer because their leaders are evil, and South Koreans don’t because their leaders are good (never mind that ‘good’ means obedient to US-based interests).”

(BTW, thanks for being here, msg, you’re a breath of fresh air)

27

Tom T. 04.23.04 at 1:19 am

To cut the media a little slack, it may be that the difficulty of confirming any news out of NK is causing them to avoid playing it too big.

28

RSN 04.23.04 at 4:37 am

“it could be that a more local story gets more attention because that’s what the networks believe their audience wants.”

“The priority ranking of news stories isn’t determined by research, but by decree.”

As someone who works in the media industries, I can safely say that both of these interpretations are wrong.

What determines the ranking of news… are ratings. The stations that air the local news, and news of interest to the American public, are the ones that will win the competition in the market place, and make the most money.

In the end, such a system does follow the will of the people more than, let’s say, the statist approach in Europe, where news is ranked according to the priorities of the governments that fund the media.

29

ephrem 04.23.04 at 8:01 am

We have a natural appetite for candy, sex and violence. But the possibilities for stimulation have increased so rapidly, seems like we haven’t adjusted to a world-spanning information network, and stylized images that perfectly tweak our glands.

It’s natural and it’s manipulation.

The big problem I see is the necessity of an infomation system for a participatory democracy. Seems there are incompatible incentives between capitalism and democracy, between the eye-and-ego candy of our free-market news and the responsibilities of the fourth estate.

30

Jeffrey Kramer 04.23.04 at 11:05 am

When Bush included North Korea in the axis of evil, most of the news media took it as proof of what an obsessed wacko Bush must be to target such a harmless, reclusive little country.

Ann, can you name a single member of the news media who either said or implied anything remotely comparable to this?

31

Dave F 04.23.04 at 12:30 pm

To be even fairer to the media than tom t (I am a journo, after all), the problem is that the death toll may be either: two (Chinese media), 3000 (South Korean media), 54 (Red Cross, quoting North Korea), 152 (irish aid worker, quoting NK officials). The cause may be either: collision of trains carrying explosives (Red Cross), explosion of leaking ammonium nitrate (various), collision of trains carrying LP gas, chemicals (various). The number of buildings levelled may be 1100 or 8000, take your pick.

As to news values of US television networks, these are based on what they think their viewers/web readers are most interested in. So blame the consumer’s shallow values. Only in totalitarian states do news media give people what they think they OUGHT to be interested in.

Rule of thumb among copytasters (apocryphal): 10,000 killed in Chinese earthquake = 1000 killed in European floods = 100 killed in your own country’s disaster = 10 killed in your town = man bitten by dog next door.

32

rea 04.23.04 at 1:33 pm

Put that candy away and eat your vegetables!

33

Ophelia Benson 04.23.04 at 6:18 pm

“In the end, such a system does follow the will of the people more than, let’s say, the statist approach in Europe, where news is ranked according to the priorities of the governments that fund the media.”

Yup. And by the same token, a school that let the children play in the sandbox and eat cookies all day would be following the will of the people in its jurisdiction, too. So what?

Or to put it another way, the hell with the will of the people.

34

RSN 04.23.04 at 8:23 pm

Ophelia: your analogy doesn’t hold, as you’re now discussing the behaviour of childred. Parents, on the other hand, would hardly want to have their children be indolent in school… or are you suggesting that European media should indeed behave like welfare-state nannies? In that case, it seems to me that the European approach is much more ideologically infected.

35

greglas 04.23.04 at 9:29 pm

It is all about ratings, obviously. The two things I find interesting about this discussion are: 1) there seems to be some surprise about the way our culture’s priorities are currently attuned, and 2) no one has cited any scholarship that articulates the proper response. I always presumed that someone in some Department of Something somewhere spends a lot of time thinking about this issue. Is that wrong?

36

Tarius 04.27.04 at 12:48 am

I’ll make it simple… This world is a society of popular demand, if 51 people think on way and 49 people think another than the 49 will have to bow their heads in defeat. But you will allways have those that question that way. of course you will always have people that would question a 99 to 1 majority vote saying no everyone was satisfied. The media is out for ratings, not to tell people what happens in the world. If they think 3000 killed in an accident will get them ratings then they will play it, but if they decide that they have been publisizing the Jackson case every day for the past month and think that they will loose more viewers by switching topics, then they will go for the ratings.
” Rule of thumb among copytasters (apocryphal): 10,000 killed in Chinese earthquake = 1000 killed in European floods = 100 killed in your own country’s disaster = 10 killed in your town = man bitten by dog next door.”

Posted by Dave F · April 23, 2004 12:30 PM

The media will present you with ratings, not news… I mean when is the last time that you heard anyone saving a stray cat, or a lifeguard performing cpr correctly

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