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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

When Suffering Becomes Infotainment   

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death
By Susan D. Moeller
392 pages; $25

Here's one of the perverse conundrums of journalism: If you fail to cover a story, you do wrong; but if you cover it, you can go wrong, too.

That is an exaggerated and unfair rendering of Susan Moeller's point in "Compassion Fatigue," but it gets at the nature of the problem. Moeller argues that the volume and character of disaster coverage can lull audiences into a "compassion-fatigue stupor" and damage prospects for remedy and recovery.

A former journalist who teaches at Brandeis, Moeller examines coverage of a range of calamities, from Ebola in Zaire and famine in the Sudan, to assassination in Israel and war in Iraq.

Almost always, she concludes, news coverage is formulaic and sensationalized. Stories "all sound alike"; causes and solutions are oversimplified; and characters must "fit into the parts of victim, rescuer and villain." As one crisis bleeds into the next, "it takes more and more dramatic coverage to elicit the same level of sympathy as the last catastrophe."

"Suffering becomes infotainment--just another commodity, another moment of pain to get its minute or column in the news," she writes. "Our experience and our understanding of a crisis is weakened, diluted and distorted." The images and story lines so overload the senses that public response can be exhaustion and defeatism rather than mobilization.

Moeller's proposed solutions include better overall coverage of international issues to prepare people for crisis outbreaks; better follow-up so the public understands that rescuers don't always rush in and fix every problem; and less dependence on sensationalism and graphic images in coverage.

Moeller offers a careful, thorough and convincing study, then ends it with a passionate reminder: "Reporting the news is both a political and a moral act. An element of shame is involved in not reporting responsibly and reporting equitably."

Girl Reporter: Gender, Journalism, and the Movies
By Howard Good
Scarecrow Press
216 pages; $35

Movies about journalists have long intrigued Howard Good, who's edited for newspapers and now teaches at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "Journalism films..aren't simply about journalism," he believes. They explore cultural and social themes, often involving gender.

Here, for example, he examines a body of B movies featuring the reporter Torchy Blane. The nine movies, released from 1937 to 1939, were "the only series of feature films ever produced by Hollywood about a journalist (not counting 'Superman')," Good writes.

On one level, Good finds simply "a stereotypical brash blonde in a series of low-budget films." The deeper message, he believes, is "oppression disguised as humor." The heroine, at first "the equal of any man," ultimately depends on a man to rescue her. This might not be surprising for 60-year-old films, but Good then compares the themes to many modern movies about journalists ("Absence of Malice," "The Paper," "The China Syndrome" and others). His depressing conclusion: "You won't find much progress."

Monitoring the News: The Brilliant Launch and Sudden Collapse of The Monitor Channel
By Susan Bridge
M.E. Sharpe
256 pages; $34.95

What happens when a serious news organization creates a serious television network dedicated to serious news coverage? Disaster all around, Susan Bridge shows in this account of the short-lived Monitor Channel.

By 1991, she writes, the respected Christian Science Monitor was a fading newspaper, and the Christian Science Publishing Society sought to diversify and reposition itself, in part through a CNN-style news network.

The Monitor Channel premiered that May. Its target audience was "high-quality viewers of the 1990s." Its content featured breaking news coverage, historical and educational programming, and upscale fare such as art films.

Within 13 months, the Monitor Channel had gone dark. It was a victim, according to Bridge, of economic recession, a competitive cable marketplace, and internal and external strife over how it fit into the Christian Science mission and financial picture.

Bridge, an insider on the Monitor Channel's marketing side, offers an ominous larger lesson. Many successful media ventures (she cites Sports Illustrated, Fortune and USA Today) took years to break even, but such entrepreneurial patience seems depleted today. Increasingly, she believes, news is "so expensive to compile, update and deliver" that "resources can almost always be more gainfully invested elsewhere."

Where does that leave news consumers? Bridge has no answer, but her book provides an excellent case study of the urgency of the question.