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.