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