Journalistic "5 W's" and More Important "C's" (3 March 2015)
By the time they get to where they have an audience, most American journalists have pretty well gotten down "the five W's": Who, What, When, Where, Why, and for more technical stuff, How? (which isn't a "W," but, then, I didn't count it). Now, guys and gals, let's move on to the more advanced "Whole bunch of 'C's": considerations of characters in conflict and crisis vs. concern, plus context and maybe contemplation.
If you're writing an exciting story, as in story story, if you're writing a story, for entertainment, it's good to have conflict that moves to a crisis and then a resolution. And violent conflict and some sex can be effective.
About 2100 B.C.E., King Gilgamesh (the story goes) can't live a quiet life and oppresses the people of his city of Uruk, so the gods send a wild man, Enkidu, to oppose Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh gets Enkidu drunk and laid and (therefore) civilized, and they fight and travel and have adventures and — SPOILER ALERT — Enkidu gets killed, and that story-line wowed 'em four thousand years ago and has worked well ever since.
That's a story story, or one form of fictional narrative, and not the only form; a news story, however, is different, and writing it as a story story can be a temptation, and a problem.
Look, journalists; you don't have First Amendment protections because anyone has ever liked you. Often enough, the larval form of reporters is gossipy little teen-weasels ferretting out rumors to spread about other kids justifiably more popular than they are. Reporters have special protection because journalism performs a public service, and entertainment isn't particularly it.
For entertainment we go to the Class Clowns, not the ferrets and weasels, and it's one of the ironies of our time that for the last couple decades the class clowns like George Carlin and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done a better job than most journalists not only entertaining but in doing what we privilege journalists to do: provide information and analysis needed by citizens of a republic.
And sometimes the "Who" in news stories are particularly interesting characters, and/or don't have to be developed as characters at all. And we don't always have characters in conflict and crisis.
Sometimes there are just matters for concern, but often matters for a whole lot more concern and action than they're getting.
E.g., we don't have a crisis of rapes occurring on college campuses as such, nor is there a crisis epidemic of suicides among current military personnel, recent military veterans, and/or teenagers: these are not conflicts with heroic whistleblowers fighting the forces of indifference and reaction. We have matters here of concern, and we would know to be concerned and concerned enough to act — but not panicked — if we had more news stories that give context.
For a "W" of context: What is the rate of rape and other sexual assault among American women 18-22 generally? Last time I checked, "the National Crime Victimization Survey revealed that college-age women who are not in school […] are actually more likely to be victims of rape and sexual assault" than American women in college. Or, what is the rate of rape and other forms of sexual assault in US prisons? Apparently, it is high. Human Rights Watchreports that "In December 2000, the Prison Journal published a study based on a survey of inmates in seven men's prison facilities in four states. The results showed that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facility. A 1996 study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of these, over 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least once. Extrapolating these findings to the national level gives a total of at least 140,000 inmates who have been raped."
If there isn't a crisis in prison rape or rape of non-collegiate women, there is not a crisis with on-campus rapes.
More obviously, these are matters for concern and for considered action, and for reporters supplying more context, including history.
Ill-considered crisis reactions on campus sexual assaults are an invitation to return to parietal rules, "women's hours" — probably expanded to males and the transgendered — and the doctrine of "in loco parentis," where the school is in the place of the parents of students assumed to be children.
(Or, if crisis mode gets both extreme and truly serious, there could be enforcement of the prohibition of underage boozing.)
Such consequences would not be progress for undergraduate Americans, including women undergrads even if the "in loco parentis" authoritarianism is equal opportunity.
Similarly for suicides among teens and the US military: suicide rates are low for teens as Americans go, but still too high, and the rate for suicides among the military is about the same as in the relevant civilian populations. Concern here would be good: getting more aid to vets and young people. If there's no crisis of suicides among Americans 45 to 64 years of age — the Americans with the highest rate of suicides — there isn't a crisis among teens. It's proper to value the lives of teens above those of their elders (insofar as they should have longer to live), and military personnel above civilians (we owe them, and they've been trained at some expense to defend the State), but talking about an "epidemic" of suicides in these groups adds to the teen-bashing idea of pathological kids and the harmful stereotype of the battle-crazed veteran.
So come on, reporter-folk, you're not creative authors selling tales of action and adventure.
I realize that we Americans need to be hit over the head to get our attention, but American journalism is in a vicious cycle of hype and more literal hyperbole, and you're messing up your function in the Republic.
So, newsies, do tell us who, what, when, when, and why — and sometime how — but hold off on the crisis's until we really have them, and give some bloody context, already (including honest numbers). Then you might get us to show some significant concern and maybe, just maybe, now and then to contemplate solutions to problems.