Does negative really sell?
By Dan Campana
You don’t write tickets to meet quotas. Reporters don’t write stories to sell papers.
In nearly 10 years working for daily newspapers, I got the same modest paycheck, no matter what our circulation numbers were, how many times crime news made the front page or how negative readers perceived our coverage to be.
What people think is quite the opposite. My finances would be in a much better place if I had a nickel for every time someone told me a certain story was in the paper or on TV because it sells ads, moves copies, raises ratings, etc. etc. etc.
Law enforcement, in general, dings the media by suggesting it’s only interested in portraying what’s wrong with the world. Law enforcement officers get even more irritated when what’s wrong involves one of their own in the media spotlight. By default, the media is often accused of reporting things in order to make a buck.
That’s a quick and convenient retort, but is it reality or simply a defensive response by police types and supporters who are protective of their own? My time in newsrooms tells me the idea of “bad news” equaling sales is a red herring. Declining newspaper circulations and ad revenue during the past decade would seem to support the thought.
To explore this further, I turned to a couple of former suburban newspaper executives since local print media is what departments deal with most often.
Their short answer to all this is that murder and mayhem on the front page frequently generated complaints from business owners and public officials. If it was bad for business and it was bad for advertising, one of the former execs said.
Do splashy headlines and perceived “bad news” boost sales? The pair said single-copy newspaper sales and web traffic would probably increase surrounding a particular event, but it’s harder to say whether overall circulation – the number of papers distributed per day – actually increases because of such coverage.
There’s also the question of what’s actually news. It’s in the eye of the beholder, just as the perception of bias can be. The journalist’s definition of newsworthy is undoubtedly different than what the average person thinks. One exec pointed out that violent crime in the suburbs is still viewed as unique. That, in turn, makes it more of story than perpetually low crime rates in communities considered safe – even if that’s some of the “good news” police clamor for.
Barry Petchesky, writing for Deadspin’s less sports-driven website called Concourse, recently put it on news consumers for what media outlets choose to cover. He, like the newspaper execs, sees how the public says it wants more good news, but continues to flock to wall-to-wall tragedy coverage commonly associated with the 24-7 cycle of cable news. A point well-taken, though, remember, cable news is an orange to local newspaper’s apple.
Much like police officers, local reporters are tied to the towns they serve – sometimes as residents, but, in the very least, as people who invest a lot of time to understand their coverage area and report meaningful stories.
They don’t create the news. They don’t crave negativity or to make someone have a bad day. They follow a job description created years ago which doesn’t reward them for covering certain types of stories more than others. They don’t do it out of bias or to increase ad revenue – which shrunk as classified ads have all but disappeared from print because of Craigslist and the like.
Cops and reporters share a similar unpopularity because of what they are asked to do. Traffic tickets are the most common interaction the public might have with law enforcement. Some feel singled out and lob clichéd accusations about what motivates an officer to write a ticket.
Are you making that stop to raise revenue? Of course not. That doesn’t stop you from having to hear such complaints.
The truth is our respective professions are misunderstood because of how easily some want to misjudge the work we do without ever trying to find out. Not saying our jobs are anywhere close to being the same; just that there is some common ground among us to help get past misconceptions about what motivates the media.
If nothing else, consider this an invitation to ask the media in your community what is news and what makes a good story. The answers might surprise you.