Ken Schramm is a commentator for KOMO TV in Seattle. He does a good job although I find myself disagreeing with him more often than not. Last night he commented on the numerous comments that the station received about coverage of the recent gunman incident or incidents (I forgot whether it was Colorado or Omaha coverage that drew the ire.) The concern of the viewers was that extensive coverage of such acts only encourages further incidences by giving the killers what they want–fame and notoriety. Ken responded by asking the viewers in effect to comment on what should be on the news. He said that news organizations work very hard to understand what audiences want in the news coverage and providing that. So, what do you want? Do you want coverage of such horrible events? Do you want to know these things are going on? Are do you simply want the nice, the kind, the encouraging, the namby pamby, the feel good stuff? That was in essence the question he posed.
But he also said that news organizations maybe ought not to think so much about what audiences want, but what they need.
What struck me about his comments, and strikes me about almost any person in the news business commenting about the news business is the refusal to note the obvious and driving truth, which is that they are in the business of gathering and selling an audience. That is how they survive. That is ultimately the final question–other than basic morality on the part of the decision makers–that determines what coverage will be provided and what will not be.
Here’s what he should have said: we live and die by ratings. Continuously. We decide what will be covered and not covered primarily by the impact it will have on our audience numbers. The higher the numbers, the more we get paid. We don’t really have a choice in this matter because we are in commercial television and we are hammered by competition every day. So, the choice dear viewer is yours. If you don’t like bloody news stories about maniac murderers, turn off the damn tv, or switch to the Golf Channel. Nothing there on mall murders. And if you feel strongly about it, tell all your friends and family to turn off the bad news too. If enough do that, we won’t cover it, because we’ll be too busy covering what our audience wants us to cover. Don’t like our news coverage? Don’t blame us, blame yourself and all others who tune in to what you think they ought not to.