Much has been written about the media’s tendency to cover political issues by (1) Highlighting areas of turbulence and conflict rather than stability and agreement and (2) Treating the viewpoints they cover as broadly representative and of comparable accuracy. Thus, to cover the question of whether the city should build a new sewer system, a small amount of media attention is spent on the 90% of people who agree that the system is needed and can be paid for by a temporary surcharge on water usage. Instead the media is inclined to focus on the debate between the “equally valid” perspectives of a raging libertarian activist who thinks sewers are a government conspiracy and a loofah-and-sandals community organizer who says that taxes should be doubled but the resulting revenue spent, not on a sewer system, but on educational programs that teach everyone to compost their family’s feces in a sustainable fashion.
Less appreciated is that media often does the same thing in socio-cultural reporting. Here is a choice example from a few years back, an article that claims to assess the state of marriage. Five wives are interviewed, and each are given roughly equal space. They are:
A twice-divorced 59 year old swinger now in an open marriage
A stay at home mom in her second marriage
A teacher who has been married for four years and seems happy
A woman going through a bitter separation/divorce
A lawyer who is an immigrant and recently became married
The longest existing marriage mentioned in the article is 10 years! What happened to the millions of couples who make it past a decade? Boring, no drama to it. Does a swinger in her third marriage warrant 20% of the coverage on the state of the institution? Not really, but it adds spice and an angry letter from a clergyman would help fill out this week’s letters column. Is divorce really that prevalent (3 of 5 people divorced, the other two married a grand total of 6 years so too early to say)? No, but if it bleeds, it leads. Any widows and widowers out there who were married 30, 40, 50 years? Sure, but yuck, lonely old people are dull and downbeat.
One could argue that the poor reporting practices that bedevil political coverage are more damaging to the common good than they are in coverage of socio-cultural issues, and there is something to that (Although that view can devolve into an implicitly sexist stance that media consumed primarily by men should be serious, but that consumed primarily by women needn’t be). At the same time, while it is self-flattering to assume that your perceptions of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan are of great weight and will profoundly impact the world, it is far, far more likely that your life and the lives of those around you will be influenced by what you think of, expect from and understand about marriage. For that reason the distorted view offered in articles like this is certainly nothing of which journalists should be proud.