by Tom Hubbard
Emeritus Prof. Ohio State School of Journalism and Communication
Journalism reaches its finest hour when a major story develops. It has risen to the challenge in covering Katrina. It's a quirk of journalism that it needs a big story to be great. Most of life is routine. Routine is the totality of most people’s lives. In the absence of the big story, journalism needs to hone its skills in perceiving and reporting on the culture.

I just discovered I'm really not a photojournalist anymore. A fatal accident happened right in front of me last week. The car directly in front of me simply drove over into the oncoming lane on a narrow two lane country road. It hit an oncoming car, both going 40 or 50 mph. The driver in front of me was killed, if he wasn’t dead from a heart attack or something before the impact. I drove to a safe pull-off and went back with my casual camera, my trusty Nikon 995. But, I didn't take any pictures, not of the CPR by a passerby, long before medics arrived. No pictures of clouds of steam from the hot engine when someone sprayed its flames with a fire extinguisher. The not-at-fault car had a father, mother and four year old daughter. My wife Ingrid and I talked calmly to them, but no pictures. We gave a report to the police and went on our way. A few years ago, I might have gotten a prize winner.

Another experience yesterday was just the opposite. This time, I didn't have a camera, but would have taken the picture. I was at a outdoor event at a big farmer's market near downtown Columbus. A country band was playing on a covered porch. Beautiful bright lighting came from a parking lot and sky, all reflected under the porch roof. The fiddler took a solo in "Orange Blossom Special." His expression was ecstasy, as he played his solo. He was in flow. I was only five feet in front of him. That old mental “click” went off in my head before I could pick up the camera, which I didn't have.

Instead of taking pictures at either of these events, I went into my gerontology reflective mode. Follow me for a minute. I’m not a sociologist, but I think it’s safe enough to divide all people into three groups. One group is actively negative. They are the bank robbers, highway speeders and those who yell into cell phones. The other extreme is the actively positive. These are anything from the block watch chairs, to contemporary saints among us. They include activist, religious leaders and politicians who are actually out to improve the human condition. The last group, the largest group are the neutral group simply trying to cope. “Middle majority” is a good term. “Middle America” has been used, but sounds limited geographically, with greater political implications. I’m talking more about a group state of mind. Of course, minds change, so this group is always in flux. They are always there, but they never congeal into a mailing list.

The country band was middle majority. They were not headliners in a big concert just part-time musicians. When that fiddler went into his solo, he moved from middle majority to the positive minority. He was out to improve the world with his solo. I know he improved my day. No media was covering this little event.
Typically, the middle majority is ignored by news media, until sub-groups move to either extreme. A neighborhood might move either way, from a neutral middle majority to an actively negative or positive group. Of course, a neighborhood never goes negative en masse. A conspicuous minority goes negative, makes the whole neighborhood a “bad area.” Later, it may be a “recovering” neighborhood, moving back to middle majority, and obscurity. Movements are covered, but the majority of the world is not moving every day, by news standards. They are just coping.

Composition of any group is in flux. Individuals migrate from group to group. A bank robber may do a kind deed, moving from negative to positive, and back to negative during “working hours.”
As a journalist, do you see the irony? Media is directed toward the middle majority, but reports on the extremes. That is, the news media expends its energy telling the middle majority what the other groups are doing. And, it is preoccupied with finding negatives. A private or public individual may wander back and forth between saint and philistine, and be ignored. One small step into negative and the media is all over it.

Up to a point this is good. A good watchdog ignores the ordinary. The large middle majority can’t all personally attend to the goings on in Washington, whether they are negative or positive. There are events in this world of overwhelming importance to everyone. We should know about these, but It’s the accumulation of small events guides our lives also.

The irony is, the media markets to a middle majority with information that is NOT about them. This disenfranchises the vast middle. To them, news is something others do. The middle becomes a reality to news media only by association, when they are fans are an example. Middle majority individuals don’t exist until they attend a rock concert or sports event (aside from the old standbys of robbing a bank or getting killed on the highway.)

Advertisers are interested in the middle majority. They realize the wisdom of using the mass media to reach the mass audience, the audience interested in coping, not making waves. Isn’t there irony in: advertisers supporting a mass media in order to reach a mass audience, while news content providers all but ignore the mass audience they are supplying with news?

Try being a middle majority yourself. Call a news media outlet with a simple story that’s important to you or any small group you belong to, neighborhood, social or interest group. No, you may give yourself away by starting your query with a good lead. Have a member of the group call in a naïve news tip on a community garden or something.

You may be politely listened to. You may even sense interest. But, it’s an act. Your call will be forgotten instantly. The intern answering the phone knows news comes from “newsmakers,” not random calls. With luck and timing, your community garden may even be covered.

The subtle point is, your community garden may be covered but it’s still outside the central newsroom flow of information. It’s “human interest.” I hate to fall back on “irony” again, but why does the newsroom equate “unimportant” with “human interest”? WHAT IS NEWS IF NOT HUMAN INTEREST? Who created this abomination of a concept?

If you have read this far, thanks. I’m not trying for specific changes in the daily news system. When something gets into the system, it’s too late to change. Change comes at the planning level. Not planning tomorrow’s news budget, but conceptual planning. Today’s news coverage was developed in the past, in reaction to past conditions. With changes in news and distribution of news, new concepts must be considered. New concepts start with reflection, not reaction. Pass this on to some people in the newsroom.

Journalism reaches its finest hour when a major story develops. In the tragedy of Katrina we see continual efforts by journalists to get the story and remain sensitive to the human tragedy they are covering. It's a quirk of journalism that it needs a big story to be great. Most of life is routine. Social scientists call this routine "culture." It's the totality of what most people experience in their lives. In the absence of the big story, journalism needs to hone its skills in perceiving and reporting on this culture.

Tom Hubbard
Emeritus Prof. Ohio State School of Journalism and Communication



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