Dailies Deal in 'News Lite:' Less filling, less nourishing for
the civic mind," Honolulu Advertiser 2/18/96
By Tom Brislin
By the very act of reading these words, you have marked yourself as a member of a declining -- and some worry, endangered -- species: the newspaper reader.
It's no secret inside or outside the industry that newspaper reading is on the decline. Readership hasn't kept pace with the population. Certain groups of readers -- young women in particular -- are abandoning newspapers in alarming numbers; young people
in general aren't taking up the regular reading habit; and those who remain are reading fewer issues per week and spending less time with each one. The mortality rate among newspapers themselves includes once formidable big names in big cities.
Why are readers turning their backs, rather than pages? What has so chilled civic credibility -- the only real currency the press can deal in?
There is a reason newspapers were afforded constitutional protection in the first amendment. The country's founders knew the press was an integral part of the citizen-democracy. The free flow of information was essential for citizens to make conscientious
decisions about how they were to be governed. No other industry gets such top constitutional billing.
- News as Conflict. Newspapers traditionally tend to frame -- and limit -- news as conflict. every January with tiring regularity, we can expect to see a photo of abortion rights and anti-abortion advocates yelling at each other at a Roe v Wade anniver
sary demonstration around the state Capitol. Here we have an issue that touches so many fundamental beliefs and has an impact on real people every day, and yet the annual shout-fest photo just about sums up the entire year's worth of abortion coverage. <
Worse, the "news as conflict" formula presents us only with the extremes, or opposite ends of each issue. That view leaves readers with the feeling that unless they are on one of the extreme edges of an issue, there is no place for them to participate. T
here is no middle ground for deliberation and dialog.
Often a pseudo-conflict is hyped to propel a story forward. A few weeks ago the headline "Historic Confrontation" ran about Hillary Clinton testifying before a federal grand jury. The story, however, said she arrived, was asked questions, answered questio
ns, and left. No confrontation. Not particularly historic.
- Politics as a Spectator Sport. Our local newspapers give our politicians too much "celebrity coverage." They portray government as personality, rather than people. Important issues and policies are presented as conflicts (again) between the House an
d Senate, between the Governor and the Legislature, or as a spitting match between two legislators or council members. Very few stories tell us how these great policies and issues would actually affect the people that government, and newspapers, are suppo
sed to serve.
Not long ago there were stories about how the Honolulu City Council was reorganizing its leadership and Jon Yoshimura would no longer be second vice-chair. Any real interest in that "drama" probably extended to two dozen people at the most -- all politica
l insiders. These stories never told what earthly difference it would make to Yoshimura's constituents -- the real people who live in Pauoa -- whether he was a second vice-chair or not. The reason is simple: In people terms, its meaning was zero. But it
took up a lot of space in the newspaper and sent readers the message: Politics is something you watch, like a football game, played by professionals -- not by you and me. These "power structure" stories -- who's up, who's down -- are like injury reports o
n the sports pages: Written for the insiders and political handicappers.
- Abandoning the Franchise. Television news became a profit-center once it realized it didn't have to compete with newspapers. It had its own niche and its own form. Newspapers just can't seem to get the same message. Our newspapers have joined the lem
ming-like trend to shorter stories, bigger photos, packages of "news briefs" and summary graphics. The franchise of newspapers used to be depth of coverage and analysis -- helping us to make meaning of the news in our daily lives. Today's dailies are givi
ng us "news lite" -- less filling, and less nourishing for the civic mind.
A burning question is whether the quality of that information has decreased to the point that it is fouling the democratic machine.
Just as it is no secret that people are turning away from newspapers, it is painfully obvious that many also have turned away from public participation in civic affairs. The two are related. Newspapers need to regain their franchise as powering the machin
ery of democracy -- the citizenry. It has to run on a fuel richer than "Infotainment."