My criteria for judging negativity

Newspapers are generally money making operations. They print stories they think their reading public will pay for. When they run a story or an editorial cartoon like our Duluth paper did a few months ago they run the risk of canceled subscriptions and lost revenues. They tread a very fine line between needing to print the unpleasant and avoiding layoffs due to lost readership.

If a story wasn't considered newsworthy by reporters and editors it would not be in the newspaper. This is a remarkably subjective question. I think it is fair to say that human interest stories are the most suspect in terms of newsworthiness. Human interest stories are judged by the simple standard: "will our readers be interested in reading about this person and his or her experiences?" Is this really newsworthy? I don't know but I don't want the Duluth paper to go bankrupt and I think for reasons that have more to do with civic boosterism they have chosen to highlight teachers that do good work. I'm glad they print such stories. Even if one individual's efforts in the classroom can't replace a general evaluation of the overall educational program those efforts are at the least symbolic of the good intentions of most of our teachers.

Ah, but what of hard news stories? Do they jaundice the public about public education? Most such stories deal with problems that have become "newsworthy." I think this can happen but I'm glad our press tries hard to "tell it like it is." If the press did not look at our warts it would become like the press in the old Iron Curtain which painfully and predictably described every success of the state and hid every blemish. That kind of self congratulatory myopia hypnotized the communist nations until they fell far behind the open, honest and fractious West. Without the impetus to do better the Iron Curtain rusted.

This is not to say that every news article that highlights some societal ill is necessarily helpful. A news program which shows a suicidal man threatening to jump off a bridge for the titillation of the viewing audience is simply gratuitous. It no longer has as its objective informing the public but becomes merely sordid entertainment.

The first time I put a story about the Littleton massacre in my table I violated my initial plan to list stories about negative events as neutral if they simply described things which school officials had no control over. I listed Littleton as being negative because it was negative and horribly so. I didn't want to be criticized for minimizing a terrible tragedy. And yet, as horrific as Littleton is, it has not been a story about the incompetence of schools. Littleton may show us a failure of our society, or a flaw in our culture, but its coverage in the press has been neutral in that we've simply been told what happened.

My cousin lives in Littleton. Her son attends a public high school in Littleton and until the next day I had no idea which one it was. All night I pictured my daughter and my cousin's son sitting side by side in their strollers 15 years ago outside the Denver zoo. If ever there was a negative story, Littleton is it, and yet it was not negative in the sense that it demeaned public education. No state legislator or anti-tax champion or anti-union activist stood up and said: "Look folks, public education screwed up again.!" The latter is what I'm looking for when I list an article as negative. In this regard Littleton has not been negative although it has been a nightmare.

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