Boy Scout wants to know why news is always bad

jsoutherniconWe received a letter to the editor this week from Boy Scout Alex Carothers from Troop 38 who asked an age-old but important question.

“Why is our news filled with primarily sad and violent stories?” He suggested that, “every once in a while you should have a front page story that shows and recognizes the accomplishments of the community that would surely make the news happier!”

Alex, you may not know it, but you’ve asked a very complex question. I almost never answer letters to the editor, preferring to let the writer’s opinion stand on its own merits. You, however, have asked an important question and I feel it deserves an answer.

Before I answer your question, let me give you a little background. I am an Eagle Scout and have once been where you are, sending a letter to the editor to meet the requirements of a merit badge, presumably Communications. Please consider the requirement met; I’ll vouch for you!

Now, to answer your question let me first ask you a question. What is news? What events that happen every day in your community, nation and world would you consider news? I presume by your question that you believe the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that is so prevalent in society today. If you watch any of Houston’s (or any major market) television news, you will see that most of the time coverage is dedicated to crime and major accidents. Or at least that’s the perception.

Things of that nature – or “negative” news – are generally things that people want and need to know about. That is why they get reported. If someone in your community were murdered, that would be important to you, and you and your neighbors would be talking about it. Our job as reporters is to research and present as much information about the case to help keep people educated and informed.

Another thing to keep in mind about whether a story is positive or negative has a lot to do about the reader’s (or viewer’s) perspective. Right now the elections have been grabbing a lot of headlines. If the news about the election is positive or negative, it probably depends on which candidate you are supporting. If the media report that the FBI is investigating your candidate, you might see that as bad news. If you support the other candidate, you might see that as good news.

Another thing you need to consider is that not all news is black or white, positive or negative. There is a lot of gray or neutral news out there. Last week we had a story about the Allens Creek Reservoir project moving forward. To a lot of our readers that may be good news or bad news but to most, they’re probably indifferent to it, at least for now. A few weeks ago we had a story about the Fort Bend ISD superintendent getting a new contract and a raise. Is that good news, bad news or just indifferent information to you? Again, it depends on your perspective about Charles Dupre and the job he is doing.

As a newspaperman with about 30 years of experience, let me let you into the mind of an editor. Every day and every week I have to make a very difficult choice about what news gets into the paper and then how that news gets played. I can’t speak for television news, but I know they are limited on airtime as much as we are by available space in the newspaper. How much news we get to print is directly related to how much advertising is sold.

Once I know how much space I have to work with, I must then determine which stories we have room to run out of the hundreds of articles that are sent in each week and the stories that my correspondents and I have written. From there, I must determine if a story goes on the front page or somewhere inside. Is a story important enough to go on top or does it go below? Do we have room for the whole story or just part of it?

As the editor of the Fort Bend Star, I must take into consideration whether or not the information is widely disseminated through other media outlets. We do not cover the presidential elections, for example, because it is so well covered elsewhere. I want to give our readers the news about their community that they will probably not receive anywhere else. I also try to provide news that adequately reflects what is going on in our communities.

Alex, as to your suggestion that we run a “front page story that shows and recognizes the accomplishments of the community that would surely make the news happier,” let me invite you to take another, closer look at the Fort Bend Star. Our Oct. 5 edition had more than half of the front page dedicated to the Sugar Land Skeeters winning the Atlantic League championship. The Skeeters title run made the front page four weeks in a row. I don’t know about you, but I would consider that some very positive recognition of accomplishments in our community. In the last few months we have had front page coverage of Olympic gold medalists from Sugar Land, the opening of the new patient tower at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, the opening of Texas State Technical College’s new Rosenberg campus, the Fort Bend County Fair, the Wings Over Houston air show, a Ridge Point High School graduate who is now a Houston Texans cheerleader and many others that I would consider to be good or positive news.

I hope that this gives you and all of our readers a little insight into what makes the news and why. As you can see, there is a lot more to it than what meets the eye. I hope that as you venture forth through Scouts and school and into adulthood, that you will be able to keep an open and informed mind as to what is good and important news and what is clutter and a waste of your time as you filter the thousands of messages that bombard you each day from many news outlets and other sources out there.

Alex, one other thing before I go, please never stop asking tough, important questions. That is how you get answers and information that will help you make informed choices in life.

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