Monthly Archives: October 2009

USC loses significant portion of its endowment

$1.2 billion to be exact.

The world market did not bode well for private universities these past two years. USC’s endowment was about $3.7 billion at its high in 2007, and is somewhere around $2.5 billion now, although figures for the last financial quarter haven’t been released yet. USC, unlike private schools such as Harvard with much greater endowment pools, doesn’t rely too heavily on its endowment for everyday spending, so it wasn’t affected the same way.

You can read the whole story here.

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War of the Worlds Strikes Again

Almost 71 years ago this Halloween, people cowered in their living rooms. They prayed and cried. The aliens were invading.

Given the fun Orson Welles undoubtedly had spooking the public that night, it might not be so far-fetched to think he is the culprit behind nearly every fright story reported on the news by cable TV. His being dead, however, quickly kills that hypothesis. This can only mean that the sensationalistic stories about the rise of teenage “Super-Predators” and “bio-underclass” crack babies are neither parody nor farce.

If we bought the alien story in 1938, on Halloween no less, who would bother to question stories like Newsweek’s “After Iran Gets the Bomb” issue last week, with its none-too-subtle photo of a mushroom cloud? After all, how many people even know that Iran has a “no strike first” doctrine?

Almost every article is susceptible to scaremongering these days. Just today, a gem of an article on CNN about online identity theft was one of the headlining stories:  “If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, you could be the next victim,” it began.

But before I cower under my bed and delete my Facebook account, lest I become a victim of something called “phishing,” which sounds ominous and yet is left undefined, let’s do some quick math (something that journalists are averse to):

There are 300 million users on Facebook. Since 2006, the article said, there have been 3,200 cases of this social networking “cybercrime.” (Again with the scary words.) A few clicks on my calculator widget tell me that this averages out to less than 1 percent of users being hacked each year — even less if we were just including Facebook.

I think my Facebook account may just live to see another day.

Journalists are abandoning their purpose as they continue to turn and distort facts into dramatics. President Obama is spurning Fox News for its one-sided, skewed reporting. If he really wanted to make a statement for the public good and not just his administration, he could turn the other cheek, or at least rebuke, every news organization that does a disservice to the public by paralyzing them with hair-raising phrases and inaccurate statistics.

So what if the media is prone to spurious reporting, you might ask.  Shouldn’t the average news consumer shoulder the blame for being so darn gullible?

I concede that it might do us some good to approach what we read and hear more analytically, and take the time to fact check the likelihood of becoming the next target on a cyberthief’s to-do list. Still, we shouldn’t just chalk our gullibility up to stupidity or laziness.

As for the War of the Worlds incident, let’s give listeners the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were so hysterical that they missed the disclaimers that it was a hoax. (Please, humanity, let this be true.) Also, consider the time it was broadcast — shortly before War World II. People were especially on edge, the way we were after September 11. No one expected it to happen, and no one could anticipate what might come next. Things we never dreamed of happening really did turn our world upside down. That, with the onslaught of bleak news — some accurate and some not so much — leaves us vulnerable to the idea that we could be the next victims of something out of this world. And the news media capitalize on that.

That’s why we don’t always think to second guess reporters. The way we don’t expect someone who has spent every Sunday in services to steal, we also don’t expect a reporter who has been trained upon a code of ethics to create words out of thin air like “Super-Predators” and “crack babies.” Et tu, Nancy Grace?

So no, I don’t believe we can place too much blame on the consumer. To borrow a line from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, I think that we’ve entrusted journalists with “great power and great responsibility.” We’ve bestowed them with the job of gatekeeper. We’ve put our trust in their hands. It is the journalist’s job to produce work that does not require hours on end of sifting through information to figure out where the cool logic and reasoning is hidden among vague and misreported facts.

The problem boils down to just plain careless reporting. There are two main reasons I see for this:

First, to throw in another superhero reference for good measure: A news company’s kryptonite is its profits. More than ever, the media are driven by the need to survive, and that means money. To be the first across the finish line with the story, decisions are made on the fly, instead of being painstakingly deliberated. (Now if only Clark Kent applied his superhero powers to ridding The Daily Planet of sensationalism.)

Second, journalists are paranoid freaks like the rest of us. (Guilty.) Maybe they are writing about the rise of Super-Predators because they truly believe they’re out there lurking in the dark, waiting. Despite what journalists say about being unbiased watchdogs, reporters do not just throw away their identities, morals, personalities and beliefs when they sit down to write. The words they write and say are the best window into their cognition. It’s likely that if reporters are spewing out jitter-inducing phrases, they are allowing their own paranoia to blind them from reality. They too are vulnerable to the frightful ideas their sources leak.

So, journalists, I implore you to examine your priorities and your frame of mind. Both are preventing you from upholding the good name of journalism. Remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

Super-Predators” and “bio-underclass” crack babies are neither parody nor farce.

If we bought the alien story in 1938, on Halloween no less, who would bother to question Newsweek’s “After Iran Gets the Bomb” issue last week, with its none-too-subtle photo of a mushroom cloud? How many people know that Iran has a “no strike first” doctrine?

Another scaremongering gem from CNN the other day began, “If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, you could be the next victim.” But before I cower under my bed and delete my Facebook account, lest I become a victim of the dreading “phishing,” let’s do some quick math (something that journalists are averse to):

There are 300 million users on Facebook. Since 2006, the article said, there have been 3,200 cases of this social networking “cybercrime.” (Again with the scary words.) A few clicks on my calculator widget tell me that this averages out to less than 1 percent of users being hacked each year — even less if we were just including Facebook.

I think my Facebook account may just live to see another day.

So what if the media is prone to spurious reporting, you might ask.  Shouldn’t the average news consumer shoulder the blame for being so darn gullible?

I concede that it might do us some good to approach what we read and hear more analytically, and take the time to fact check the likelihood of becoming the next target on a cyberthief’s to-do list. Still, we shouldn’t   just chalk our gullibility up to stupidity or laziness.

As for the War of the Worlds incident, let’s give listeners the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were so hysterical that they missed the disclaimers that it was a hoax. (Please, humanity, let this be true.) Also, consider the time it was broadcast — shortly before War World II. People were especially on edge, the way we were after September 11. No one expected it to happen, and no one could anticipate what might come next. Things we never dreamed of happening really did turn our world upside down. That, with the onslaught of bleak news — some accurate and some not so much — leaves us vulnerable to the idea that we could be the next victims of something out of this world. And the news media capitalize on that.

That’s why we don’t always think to second guess reporters. The way we don’t expect someone who has spent every Sunday in services to steal, we also don’t expect a reporter who has been trained upon a code of ethics to create words out of thin air like “Super-Predators” and “crack babies.” Et tu, Nancy Grace?

So no, I don’t believe we can place too much blame on the consumer. To borrow a line from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, I think that we’ve entrusted journalists with great power and great responsibility. We’ve bestowed them with the job of gatekeeper. We’ve put our trust in their hands. It is the journalist’s job to produce work that does not require hours on end of sifting through information to figure out where the cool logic and reasoning is hidden among vague and misreported facts.

Journalists are abandoning their purpose as they continue to turn and distort facts into dramatics. President Obama is spurning Fox News for its one-sided, skewed reporting. If he really wanted to make a statement for the public good and not just his administration, he could turn the other cheek, or at least rebuke, every news organization that does a disservice to the public by paralyzing them with hair-raising phrases and inaccurate statistics.

There are two main reasons I can see for such careless reporting:

First, to throw in another superhero reference for good measure, is that a news company’s kryptonite is its profits. More than ever, the media are driven by the need to survive, and that means money. To be the first across the finish line with the story, decisions are made on the fly, instead of being painstakingly deliberated. (Now if only Clark Kent applied his superhero powers to ridding The Daily Planet of sensationalism.)

Second, journalists are paranoid freaks like the rest of us. (Guilty.) Maybe they are writing about the rise of Super-Predators because they truly believe they’re out there lurking in the dark, waiting. Despite what journalists say about being unbiased watchdogs, reporters do not just throw away their identities, morals, personalities and beliefs when they sit down to write. The words they write and say are the best window into their cognition. It’s likely that if reporters are spewing out jitter-inducing phrases, they are allowing their own paranoia to blind them from reality. They too are vulnerable to the frightful ideas their sources leak.

So, journalists, I implore you to examine your priorities and your frame of mind. Both are preventing you from upholding the good name of journalism. Remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

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USC debates future of The Lot

That’s right — The Lot could be here to stay after all. Also, USC wants to know what restaurants students want on campus next fall. Bad news: In-N-Out is out. (Har har.)

Check out my latest article.

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USC students – It’s survey time!

My class is working on an interactive website called the Jefferson Project, which will tell the story of West Jefferson Boulevard through different media elements. Part of my role in the project is to understand the relationship between USC and this street.

If you are a USC student, please help me out by taking this quick, 10 question survey about your perceptions of the street and how often you go there.

Click here to take the survey!

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“I am very self-conscious today”

A few weeks back, I introduced you to Jonathan Shifflett. This week, I put the spotlight on Matthew Kaundart, a truly one of a kind individual from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Everything he says catches me off guard and makes me laugh — and he is an excellent writer, I might add.

Matthew Kaundart

Without further ado — Matthew.

Edit: I vaguely remember Matthew deplores the use of the em dash. My apologies.

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Why do I have to pay to work for you?

It’s application season for students across America. Parents of high school students are preparing to reach deep into their pockets to pay for hefty tuition bills. They might expect this to be the last major investment they make before their children are out the door for good. But they might be wrong. In today’s economic environment, even work experience is a commodity.

For example: One father bid $30,200 on an internship at GQ for his son.

During college, advisers stress the importance of internships.  There are two types: paid and unpaid. Because of the economy, it is not so surprising that internships are usually unpaid, considering how many businesses can barely even afford to pay the salaries of their full-time staffers. Employers insist that if the internship is indeed an unpaid position, students must get class credit through their university. The catch: Registering for a class, especially at an expensive, private university, can cost thousands of dollars. At USC, a normal internship would cost roughly $2,000. As a result, students — or, I should say, the students who are able to — are shelling out thousands for the opportunity to use internships as a resume booster.

Oftentimes, whether a student applies for an internship boils down to whether he or she can afford it. What I see here is a division — a class divide —between who can and cannot get internships. In the next few years, we can expect to see that the people with jobs are the ones who were able to pay to get their foot in the door. This system is eradicating colleges’ need-blind policies. Even if a financially disadvantaged student is able to get into Harvard or Stanford, or any other elite university based solely on his merits, he will be at a disadvantage getting an internship unless he can find a way to fund it.

And because jobs are so scarce, it’s especially important now that students have previous work experience to put on their resumes to have a competitive edge. Internships can determine future employment, which means it’s the affluent students who have an advantage in the working world.

Talent can still emerge victorious when it comes to paid internships. For obvious reasons, these are most sought out by students. Here, businesses will at least offer a stipend to help with the cost of housing for the duration of the internship. These types, however, are more hard to come by, and especially competitive.  The Los Angeles Times recruiter said recently that he insists upon paying interns. The downside to this is that it limits the amount of interns he can hire. Because of this, he can only offer internships in the summer instead of yearlong.

Some companies that once paid their interns are now cutting back. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contact wrote that they no longer pay their interns.

Because unpaid internships are most common, our current internship system primarily supports a class divide.

Can’t these businesses get creative and be flexible in their definition of “compensation”? Or, what about the spirit of voluntarism? Why can’t someone choose to be a “volunteer” and forgo the title of “intern”? People can spend hours volunteering and not get compensation.

Students who want an internship but can’t afford it are forced to think of ways to circumvent the system. Some students get their class credit at a community college because the classes are cheaper. If you’re like me, you hope your employer forgets all about it. That worked the first time around, because the senator’s office had more to worry about, like saving the United States from economic ruin and what flavor fro-yo to get.

This year, I may not be so lucky. One internship program at USC sounded fantastic … until I heard how much it cost. Immediately I was deterred from applying. The program matches students with companies in New York for the summer and costs $6,800 — not including airfare, food or the commute to the internship site every day. I don’t know what the exact breakdown was, but $2,000 accounted for the cost of a 2-unit class, and I’m assuming about $2,000 for housing. The rest, I’m not sure. Also — financial aid does not apply.

I’m sure some parents are more than willing to pay for their child to have the internship opportunity. After all, parents pay for private schools, private tutors and private college counselors to put their children ahead in the college admissions game. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong. They want the best for their kids, and it’s unfortunate that paying exorbitant fees is what it takes to get the best for them.

I have hope that merit still means something regardless of how much you can pay. I hope that one day there will be a more efficient internship system that realizes not every student can pay thousands of dollars to learn valuable work skills.

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Fear Mongering in the 21st Century Newsroom

The other night I was riding the metro home, when a kind, albeit chatty, woman sitting beside me said she was relieved to see three officers patrolling our compartment. “Anyone could be on this train. There could be a terrorist here. For all anyone knows, there could be a bomb in your bag,” she said, nudging my modest tote bag with her foot.

Deep down, I think she probably knew the chances of a terrorist riding from Los Angeles to Lancaster were slim to none.  Even someone concealing a weapon would have been a stretch. Though I know this to be true, I am not immune either to letting irrational fears take over, to surveying fellow passengers, strangers and classmates, and sometimes wondering, What if? I am not immune to jumping at an abrupt sound, only to realize it’s the loud slap of a flip-flop coming down a stairway.

In an attempt to combat the paranoia I sometimes see in myself and in others, I decided to analyze what could possibly allow our minds to overhype normal, day-to-day activities and transform them into the next potential Columbine.

The answer, I believe, lies in my chosen career path, my self-imposed calling: journalism.

Here’s the thing about what I write and what I read in the news: It’s almost entirely depressing. A father worried about the economy kills his family and then himself. Identity theft is on the rise. Disabled people are more likely to be victims of crime than anyone else. The top three viewed stories on CNN.com right now are, “Suspect named in death of actress’s fiancé,” ”Former Japanese finance minister found dead,” and “Beaten teen’s funeral held in Chicago.”

But before I continue, I want to be clear that I’m not arguing we shield ourselves from the ugly in the world. Journalists have a responsibility to report what’s going on, even if that means reporting the disheartening and the scary. I don’t expect, nor do I think, that bad news is going to go away. However — if journalists are going to engage in this type of reporting, I am calling on them to take a look at how they present these stories, to ask themselves why they’re presenting them that way and to take a moment and consider the effect that presentation can have on an impressionable public. Though fear mongering and sensationalism are by no means new to journalism, the enhanced pressure of deadlines and competition in the 24/7 news era lends itself to irresponsibility in the newsroom. This, in turn, fosters an unrealistic sense of imminent danger and perpetuates feelings of anxiety for both journalists and news consumers.

Just by considering the very definition of news, it becomes immediately apparent why the stories we read are making the front page. News, by definition, is something new. (Earth-shattering, I know.) If it happened every day, it wouldn’t be newsworthy. It is supposed to take us by surprise, or at least present something unusual. By that definition, it makes sense that headlining stories involve car chases, gang wars and homicides. What is ironic is that the more we read and watch stories about danger and violence, the more we begin to think these aren’t just isolated, extraordinary circumstances — which is the very reason they made the news in the first place. They are so prevalent in everything we read and watch that overtime they begin to fuse, creating a horror-filled world. They begin to manifest as real threats and trends. When a channel dedicates 55 minutes of its hour-long news program to evildoers, kidnappings and shootings, it impresses upon us that this is the end-all of what’s happening in the world.

Because of this, a “culture of fear” has emerged. Author and USC executive vice provost Barry Glassner’s book by the same name, subtitled “Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” argues that the media are very much responsible for the widespread pathology of paranoia in the United States.  Though journalists have a right and a duty to report distressing statistics and stories, he makes a convincing case that they are also misreporting, focusing on the wrong topics, and in some cases, creating doom and gloom where it isn’t called for.

In one example from Glassner’s book, he addresses a common fear: the fear of flying. He says the media does relate to audiences that people die in car accidents three more times in any given year than the number of people who have died on flights in the history of commercial aviation. At the same time, they continue to play up the fear of going on flights. Misunderstandings also lead to misreporting. Glassner cites a 1998 story in the Washington Post called “Airline Accident Rate is Highest in 13 Years” (Glassner 183). In actuality, Glassner said, the rate of accidents was on a decline. The number of accidents had gone up because more flights were taking off — but this didn’t affect the rate. We will explore possible reasons for such false reporting a little bit later.

Like the plane example, reporters tend to invoke fear over the wrong topics by blowing isolated events out of proportion, distracting us from more worthwhile fears. With so much bad news to choose from, editors and journalists sometimes pick the wrong bad news, emphasizing illegitimate concerns instead of the real problems. One story that garnered a lot of attention back in the 1990s was the “growing epidemic” of road rage. In a Los Angeles Times article, the reporters opens with an anecdote, as the L.A. Times is apt to do, about an instance of someone being shot on the road. Several paragraphs down, the reporter writes:

“Road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country, but nowhere has it been more painful or pronounced than in the Pacific Northwest. Five drivers or their passengers have died since 1993” (Murphy).

Given that the article was written in 1998, that statistic averages out to about one person per year dying from road rage, which hardly classifies as “an exploding phenomenon.” The topic was not confined to this one article. Just last year, the L.A. Times ran another story called “Road-rage killings strikes again: They are random and senseless” (Vartabedian). The reporter says that neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the California High Patrol keep track of how many people are shot on the road by other motorists. Regardless, he says, shootings have a long history — the most famous being John F. Kennedy’s. That calls into question exactly what falls under this ambiguous “road rage” categorization. I was under the impression JFK’s death was a planned assassination, not a kneejerk reaction incited by JFK motorcade tailgating another driver.

Other times, a fear is warranted, but it lacks proper context. Sometimes only a few minutes more of information gathering could put a story in perspective. Let’s go back to that headline about the disabled being the most likely victims of crimes (Freiden). As soon as I read this story on CNN, my mind raced to my autistic brother, a sweet, unassuming little boy, who would never hurt anyone. This story would have me believe my brother is just another statistic waiting to happen. What the story didn’t tell me is what percentage of disabled people are assaulted. My guess is there are millions of disabled people, which means that, hypothetically, maybe 3 percent of disabled people are ever victimized. Also, what types of people are being defined as disabled? The story is vague and could mean anyone — from someone who is temporarily on crutches to someone who is dyslexic. Journalists, so pressed for time, don’t stop to consider the bigger picture or the effect their words might have on a reader like myself.

This leads me to my next question: Why is this happening? I’ve been taught in journalism school to put aside my biases, but I firmly believe that most journalists who aspire to write hard news enter the industry with good intentions. Why does ethical, thorough reporting become skewed and sensationalized?

More than ever before, journalism has become a profit-driven industry. To stay alive in an era that my professors are more or less referring to as the demise of the print industry, reporters have the pressure of fierce competition from all directions, including the blogosphere. Looking back at the airline story where the reporters and editors mistook the word “rates” for “incidents,” it is possible it was a careless mistake made under a tight deadline. It is a writer’s job to ask all the right questions and make sure he or she understands the concepts behind whatever technical jargon their interview subjects may spit out. If the reporter asked for clarification, it’s possible the “rates” versus “incidents” misunderstanding could have been avoided. Also, because of layoffs in the newsroom and time pressure, there isn’t as much staff or as much time to double check and question what a writer puts down on paper. Writers have to rely on themselves to get things right more than ever.

Picking the stories that will generate the most attention is an unfortunate given. Unfortunate, but necessary in order to keep afloat among such fierce competition. In Social Marketing in the 21st Century, Allen R. Andreasen set out to explain, like Glassner pointed out, why the media acknowledge it’s more likely to die in a bathtub than a plane crash, yet continue to stir up alarm over flying:

“Crashes make for vivid reporting, tragic human interest stories, and sometimes episodes of bravery and sacrifice. Such stories play out over many news cycles and can reinforce a common fear that flying is quite risky” (44).

The problem here is that we, the news consumers, buy into these stories. We eat up tragic stories. It’s like driving by an accident; it’s upsetting and scarring, but we slow down though our instincts tell us to look away. It’s a symbiotic relationship: The readers are feeding the journalists, and the journalists are feeding the readers.

Profit-driven reporting spills over into how the news media brand events. As a viewer is flipping through channels, the news organization knows it has about a five-second window of opportunity to grab the viewer’s attention with a compelling phrase. For example, Virginia Tech wasn’t just a mass shooting. CNN dubbed it “Virginia Tech Massacre” — the text oozing down the screen in red, bloodlike script. Here, although sensationalism sells and scare tactics do attract immediate attention, the media are also running the risk of turning away the faint of heart. I personally know people who can’t stand to watch the news, because it’s so overwhelming and emotionally draining. Language is a powerful tool, and journalists who are mindful of their audience would do well to wield their newspeak carefully.

The last explanation I will offer for journalists’ fear mongering is the least mainstream, but something I see from personal experience as having a large impact on the way reporters report: the psychological effect of news on the journalist. If the constant barrage of bad news has an effect on the news audience, consider the effect it has on the journalist, whose life is dedicated to scoping out these stories in the 24/7 news age. Because of the Internet era, readers can pick and choose what they want to know about. They have the option of filtering out the disillusioning and the depressing. They can choose to stock up on the latest from Perez Hilton instead. For journalists, on the other hand, if they aren’t practicing community journalism — which is more attune to local Little League victories than catastrophic events — or entertainment journalism, they can either grin and bear the downpour of bad news they’re dealt, or they can submit to it.

One indication that journalists are negatively affected by what they report is their reputation for smoking and drinking, not only because of the stress of deadline—although that is no minor factor—but also because of the nature of the stories they cover. Truman Capote said, “”I drink, because it’s the only time I can stand it” (Waldron).  Similarly, photojournalist and recovering alcoholic David Ogot, said “most journalists smoke and drink to drown the images and pitiful stories they have to cover” (Arogo).

Former reporter William J. Drummond warned his colleagues to take the proper steps to heal their wounds:

“When [journalists] tell stories of trauma, loss, suffering, they do not walk away clean. Yet, as an industry, the news media offer little if any preparation or comfort to its workers who face this kind of emotional meat grinder. Instead the journalists are expected to suck it up and move on. When somebody shoots up a schoolyard, the school officials routinely call in grief counselors to tend to the survivors. But the reporters and camera people who covered that story get no such attention. They saddle up and go off to the next crime scene” (par. 13).

What results, I believe, is that the more journalists report on bad news, the more their rose-tinted lens on the world turns to gray. Journalists are often cynics. I would argue that their psychology, their inflicted state of mind brought upon over time by the nature of their work, pours into how they approach every new story. What’s the catch? they wonder. It is understandable why writers might have a worst-case scenario mentality, since the worst case is often what they are exposed to. One recent example of a writer scrounging for something negative in what could have been an all-around happy story was an article about Elizabeth Smart finally getting her day in court to testify. “Too often, it seems, the world is filled with bad news,” the reporter began. “But every now and then […] a story has a happy ending.” Then, the article takes an abrupt turn for the worst, and unnecessarily, too. He concludes: “Thankfully, we aren’t left to deal with the aftermath of what may have happened had she not been found. Unfortunately, not all children are as lucky,” and then goes on to list statistics about the hundreds of thousands of children gone missing each year. The transition from happy to downright Debbie Downer was tangential at best. You can just see him floundering, trying to rid cynicism from his system and then…failing.

It’s almost as if journalists have entered a frame of mind where they so expect things to be wrong that, when they aren’t wrong, this presents a fear of a looming catastrophe — a fear of the unknown. This, in my opinion, is the worst form of fear mongering — when a writer’s own trepidation becomes warrant for a story. A classic example is a Newsweek story — “The Lull Before the Storm?” The article, written in 1995, begins by saying crime fell by 7 percent nationally since 1990 — a fact that mayors were “euphoric” about. The writer follows up that spoonful of sugar with this:

“… there is bad news ahead. Criminologists are already warning that the United States can expect another wave of violent crime in the coming decade, and some say it will be much worse than the one that is now subsiding.”

The writer next references another article that “ominously predicts ‘The Coming of the Super-Predators’—teenage boys who routinely carry guns, who ‘have absolutely no respect for human life’ and who ‘kill and maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive’” (Smith, Beals, Brant, Annin).

First, what sets “Super-Predators” apart from the passable, OK-At-Best Predators? Do they wear capes? Second, why are these fear-based predictions making national news? The effect on readers, especially young readers who have to worry about their lab partner becoming the next Super-Predator, is unnecessarily paralyzing.  The writer should hold off on writing about these mutant teenagers until that fear comes to pass.

Perhaps even more disparaging: As I read this story, I saw an adjacent and very graphic ad of a mutated, scabbed and pothole-infested back that read, “If you’ve had chickenpox, you’re at risk of Shingles.” Great. If I’m not worried about a Super-Predator killing my roommate, I now have to worry about my 6-year-old bout of chickenpox becoming a blistering skin rash. Dan Rather once said, “Once we begin to see ourselves as more of a business and less a public service, the decline in quality is accelerated” (Mindich 80). Though undoubtedly good journalism is practiced every day, it is disappointing when business considerations and scare tactics overshadow quality reporting.

Journalists owe it to their public and to themselves to take a step back and put the story in perspective — to consider the emotional toll that resonates with news consumers. “It can happen to you” and “you’re next” is not ethical, whether it’s allowing a suspect ad about shingles to interrupt the flow of text to make money, or letting an isolated road rage incident become an exploding phenomenon. We should remember that one of the most revered journalists in history is Edward R. Murrow, who incidentally made it his job to dispel irrational fears. News corporations would also do well to put scaremongers in check, acknowledge that happy stories sell, and realize that striking an emotional balance might not hurt sales.

What’s more, “real” journalists grumble about gossip magazines, entertainment television and tabloids. The proliferation of celebrity news disturbs some journalists who consider themselves the stalwarts of hard news, but they need to ask themselves why people choose to consume “guilty pleasures” so veraciously. The answer is in the word “pleasure.” It’s light. It makes people happy, and happiness sells. Journalists don’t have to smear their good name and debate “Who wore it better? Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan?”, but they can tell respectable, happy stories with no catch. In fact, one of the biggest stories earlier this year was pilot Chelsey “Sully” Sullenbergers’s successful landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Heroism and feel-good stories have a place in the market.

If journalists can temper their language and report the right stories the right way, it is possible that the faint of heart can watch the 11 o’clock news and still manage to clock in some peaceful sleep.  Misplaced fears are detrimental to the minds of Americans and are undermining the ability to address the truly pressing issues of the day. The world we see on our televisions is scarier than the world outside our front doors. Journalists are supposed to be the watchdogs of society, not the harbingers of hysteria.

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