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The rescue of 33 miners in Chile this week is the 'feel-good' story of the year. No fictional Hollywood movie could surpass the hope and joy it has inspired around the world.

Yet according to some journalism academics, what happened in Chile is really "a story about journalism’s failure."

Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University, inspired by a tweet from New York University's Jay Rosen, detailed why the media coverage of the Chilean rescue "has me feeling really, really cranky":

The actual story has zero effect on people in the U.S. with real problems; it’s a wonderful distraction, which would be fine if it was distracting us from coverage of bigger problems at home. But that’s not the reality of this reality TV news story.

He went on:

The public sees a great story, and that’s fine. It really is. But on the media side, I see an industry chasing hits and page views by wasting valuable economic and human capital. Let’s cheer for the miners, but let’s not forget that there is suffering here at home and it should get the same, if not more, resource allocation.

Obviously, I have some potential bias here. After all, I'm a Chilean citizen. But this isn't about Chile, or the United States, or any other country. It's about humanity.

The story of the miners captivated the world for good reason. Whether you saw in it a miracle, or a demonstration of man's technical ingenuity, one thing that everyone saw: the absolute best of humanity and the human spirit.

Academics such as Littau and Rosen may toss this aside, but I might go so far as to suggest that they're part of journalism's problem. And here's why.

As the first miner, Florencio Avalos, was rescued, more than 10m people in the United States were glued to their televisions watching cable television. During the same period of time on a normal night, only 2m are typically watching cable television.

Tens of millions of people -- if not more -- were watching the rescue unfold around the world, from the UK to South Korea to Iran.

That, in short, is a powerful signal. A signal that people were interested in what was happening. Was sending 1,300 journalists to cover the event too much? Was it a 'waste' of "valuable economic and human capital"? Only if you believe that news organizations, many of which are for-profit businesses, should ignore the marketplace and instead allocate their resources according to the views of journalism 'experts' who apparently see little of value in reporting on the best of humanity, and who would rather focus on "bigger problems."

I spent part of my youth in the United States, and I visited a couple of years ago. I've also traveled over the years throughout Latin America, Europe and Asia. Journalism has a lot of problems, from cost structures to business models, but I'll go out on a limb and say that in the United States, one of the biggest problems the news media has is negativity.

Yes, there are important stories that need to be told, and yes, many of them won't bring a smile to your face. The world isn't perfect, and it never has been. But to deny how much better it is today in so many areas for so many people is pure insanity. And it's pure insanity (and disturbingly telling) when a story that inspires hope and empathy across borders, cultures and religions is criticized for having little to do with "reality."

While nobody is suggesting that the news media blind itself to the world's ills and injustices, one should consider that part of the news media's dilemma is how you sell a product that is often filled to the brim with negative stories -- crime, tragedy, political squabbling. Case in point: while border violence from Mexico's drug war figures prominently in the American news media these days and feeds a media storm over immigration, crime rates on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border are largely unchanged over the past decade. Put simply: the media has created a problem that largely doesn't exist.

That the media's portrayal of reality is often far more negative than reality isn't a new phenomenon. Barry Glassner's book, The Culture of Fear, described this in detail.

The irony, of course, is that you can only sell so much bad news. At some point, people get tired of opening up the newspaper to read about a politician who cheated on his wife and didn't pay his taxes, or turning on the television and seeing images of "suffering at home." And let's not forget about Lindsey Lohan. So what do people do? They cancel their newspaper subscriptions, and they skip past CNN when channel surfing.

The millions of millions of people around the world who turned their attention on the rescue of 33 men from the depths of the earth this week were sending a powerful message to news organization and cynical journalists alike: the world isn't nearly as bad a place as you'd like to portray. Perhaps a few might listen to that message. Journalism, and the business of journalism, would probably be better off for it.

Photo credit: rockmixer via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 15 October, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2406 more posts from this author

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DocuMaker

Wonderfully said. My mother told me there was once a newspaper called "The Good News," published in contrast to all the negativity. Lack of support caused the publication to shut down which is a shame -- especially since we're constantly told there are more good people than there are bad. Of course watching today's choice of news content, that's rather hard to believe and pass on to others. Thanks for sharing. We definitely need more stories like these when they're a perfect role model for how humanity is *supposed* to behave!

almost 6 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

I saw a great quote on Twitter earlier this week which said "watching the Chilean miners being rescued live on TV, was just like Big Brother - only you actually cared.."

Loved that.  If only 'reality TV' was actually something we cared about.

On the other side of the argument I heard that the BBC sent 40 reporters to cover the news as it emerged which cost more than £200,000.  There's a leaked email that mentions a spend of £100,000 but this is believe to be only a fraction of the full budget spent.  As a consequence the BBC's production plans are being re-jigged and other planned news events are being cut back.

You could argue that's just the BBC overspending on production, which I can easily believe (I worked with the BBC's deputy CFO many years ago trying to cut back on production costs and it was a minefield!).

But I agree that the coverage was worth it - the Chilean miners story was one that touched us all and took our minds away from our own problems to appreciate that other people were worse off.

almost 6 years ago

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Felicity

Bloggers don't like it when journalists make generalisations about them and I think this article makes some unjustifiably sweeping statements about journalists.

As a journalist (who blogs), I think you're wrong. The industry might be cynical (which industry isn't?) but for the most part, the people are just people.

You can't extrapolate out to 'all journos are cynical gits, boo!'.

Felicity

almost 6 years ago

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Thomas Frame

listening to a interview this morning with Tom Daley, interestingly he was saying that the Commonwealth Games venue was nothing like the journalists were reporting, surely they cant keep selling negative news - Bring back the GOOD NEWS!!!

almost 6 years ago

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joey

Nice article, however was the title of this piece intended to be ironic?

almost 6 years ago

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John Bagnall

Well said.  I'd felt slightly guilty, sitting on the sofa in the small hours of the (UK) morning, watching GOOD news unfold...

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Steve,

I read about the BBC's 'overspend'. Apparently this will result in less coverage of the NATO summit in Lisbon, the G20 meeting in Seoul, the Cancun climate summit, the Davos World Economic forum, and the Oscars.

To play a cynic myself for a moment, one might very well argue that for most people, few of those events really matter. G20, Davos and Cancun? Big parties for politicians and the super-rich. NATO? A vestige of the Cold War. The Oscars? If we're talking about events that have no bearing on 'reality' for most of us...

Obviously, I'm exaggerating a little bit here. These events may very well be worth covering. But when it comes to resource allocation, news organizations are foolish to fight the market. The market sent a powerful message: tens of millions of people cared enough to turn on the television and watch the incredible experience of 33 fellow humans. How many will turn on the TV to watch politicians gather in Davos to save the world (like they do every year)? The BBC might want to consider that it didn't spend too much on the miner story, but rather that it's spending too much on other stories.

Felicity,

I'm arguing that one of journalism's many problems is cynical, negative journalists. Not that all journalists are cynical and negative. Huge difference. :)

almost 6 years ago

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Promotional Products

Wow, Littau sounds very heartless here. These people are risking their lives for almost pennies a day! They were underground for almost three months and its not something the we should care about? No wonder the print media is wasting away like a supermodel.

almost 6 years ago

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Student Accommodation

great article, but then i believe that all journalists are not the same..or this is not arule of thumb..i have seen the exceptions also..

almost 6 years ago

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Anonymous

Why can't the media make a bigger deal out of good news? It's a standard trope that's been around for decades. Digging out miners stuck in a room a mile under ground for two months is the dream-come-true human interest story, but it's fundamentally dull. We'd known for a good while that they were - happily - going to make it out. It was missing the fundamental of a good story, drama with some bad luck, bad judgement, injustice, and some good characters thrown in. Journalists find happy ending stories like the mining disaster boring. It's not because journalists are bad or mean. It's because they know a good story, and this didn't qualify as anything more than a feel-good moment in time.

almost 6 years ago

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Ian

Most journalists don't start out cynics. If anything, they start out idealists. Constant reporting i.e. measuring the gap between what they say and what they do of business leaders, bankers, politicians etc makes them cynical. What gave this story universal appeal was the leadership of Luis Urzúa, the miners' foreman. We all wish we had bosses like him.

almost 6 years ago

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Lisa

Great article Patricio.

The BBC is totally and utterly outrageous! How on earth can they justify sending that amount of people to Chile to cover this?? I don't know why I'm surprised though given the numbers they sent to Glastonbury. Didn't even Andrew Marr go? Why??????? They must enjoy having a real laugh at our expense.

STOP THESE JOLLIES NOW.

almost 6 years ago

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Juliana Farha

Not sure I'm buying this - here's why (sorry was too long to post here) http://open.salon.com/blog/julianafarha/2010/10/19/chilean_mines_and_the_failure_of_journalismnd_t

almost 6 years ago

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Juliana Farha

Not sure I'm buying this - here's why (sorry was too long to post here) http://open.salon.com/blog/julianafarha/2010/10/19/chilean_mines_and_the_failure_of_journalismnd_t

almost 6 years ago

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Kris

"Rather hard to believe and pass on to others".Well said DocuMaker. It's a good story.

over 5 years ago

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Logan Michaels

I admire you and thank you for trying to wake people up with all the great information you are putting out there.

about 5 years ago

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