There are some news stories that catch the imagination of the American public and become obsessions.
O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1995. Casey Anthony, the “Tot Mom” we called her. George Zimmerman. The missing Nigerian schoolgirls and Boko Haram. Every pinging noise believed to be the site of downed Malaysian airliner MH370.
And then we get over it. We rarely go back to revisit the story. Once we’ve made the investment of time and caring, we’re through, waiting for next season’s entertainment to start.
Does that say something about us Americans?
Not really, according to Al Tompkins. He’s The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online.
“I think often what happens is that journalists get sick of covering something and move on,” he says. Tompkins was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and in 2008 was awarded The Governor’s Award, the highest honor given by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. During his two and a half decades as a journalist, Tompkins has won the National Emmy, the Peabody Award (group award), the Japan Prize, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel for Court Reporting, seven National Headliner Awards, two Iris Awards and the Robert F. Kennedy Award. In other words, he knows his stuff.
PODCAST: Houston's Morning News with Matt Patrick welcomes Al Tomkins, Sr. Faculty member of the Pointer Institute, to discuss how Americans forget very quickly, news stories that captured our attention. Media attention having gone on to something else is probably part of the problem, Tomkins says. Tomkins explains the connections the difference between listeners and journalists. Listen in for details.
“I don’t think the public’s job is to engage in every single little thing. I think it’s the job of the journalist to explain to the public why this is important,” Tomkins tells KTRH News.
The immigration story is a worthy example. Most people were unaware of events transpiring at our southern border until the massing of Central American women and unattended children reached critical mass and it became an interesting human interest story that complimented our polarized political landscape. Tompkins cautions that reporters could easily tire of it and move on.
“And you can’t stop covering it because it’s not over. It’s not near over. “
Another area where Tompkins sees journalists failing the public is in providing context, without which events have no more significance than a distracting reality TV show.
“We’re very much right now into the ‘what happened’ mentality. Instead of ‘why did that happen’, or ‘so what’, or ‘what does that really mean’, ‘when did that happen last time’, ‘how did it turn out?’”
The craft of journalism is suffering, Tompkins says, because there are far fewer working journalists than there just a few years ago, and only a fraction of the number of newshounds as there were 20 or 30 years ago. And in this global world of instantaneous communication there are far, far more news stories to cover.
“We’ve lost an amazing amount of institutional knowledge in journalism,” he says. “The people who had the most experience, the people who had been around, who had covered stories for decades, many, many of them are gone now. They were in buy-outs, layoffs and retired, and we didn’t replace them with people who brought the same knowledge or experience.”
Tompkins says today it is the non-traditional journalist who is filling in the gaps, who may or may not have training as a journalist. We live in the era of the news blogger. And there is no telling how it will all shake out. As technology expands at head-spinning rates and more outlets are made available to the public, where people will chose to invest their time is anyone’s guess. Whether journalism will return to the standards and ethics it once held in a bottom-line-dollar-sign world will have to be worked out. Or not.
But for now, the Mid-Term Election Show is coming up soon. We’ll be captivated, for a while.