I used to work with this bloke who, in talking about the newspaper where we worked, talked about following the bouncing ball.
We, he argued, did an acceptable job following the bouncing ball.
His point was it’s not just about following the bouncing ball, it is about knowing where the ball was going to bounce in advance.
Reporting by its very nature is responsive. But it’s not reporting on what people want — that’s PR as the age-old saying goes — it’s about uncovering what people don’t want uncovered.
However, too many journalists today are trying to direct the bouncing ball.
In some ways, that’s the total of what reporters today do. They ping-pong from issue to issue with little to no understanding of the root cause and no desire to track down the deeper stories.
And we, as consumers of news and information, don’t hold them accountable.
Take the zero-tolerance issue dominating the headlines in recent days. It’s an issue that could easily fill the entire hour of a newscast or all the pages of an average newspaper, but the story is instead distilled down into maybe 90 seconds or 500 words.
Politicians respond with talking points. The great masses react by congregating in camps of like-minded people.
The media often operate like a pack of wolves hungry for blood, particularly on larger stories. Once the narrative is set, it’s hard to break as it spreads across cable news and the internet.
By the time it hits tomorrow’s paper, it’s regarded as established fact, making it that much harder to redirect the narrative.
It’s like trying to reverse course after you’ve started over the waterfall.
This issue hardly has a monopoly on this outcome. Substitute any issue for the zero tolerance discussion, and the same outcome is inevitable.
Blame it on social media, if you want. There’s some truth to it, but like stories themselves, the issue runs deeper.
We need journalists more than ever. But we need people who are unafraid to follow the story wherever it leads and who are not afraid to break from the narrative the media writ large is telling.
Otherwise, we will perpetually be stuck in a vicious cycle we’ll never break.