Gwen’s Take: Navel Gazing and Other News Dilemmas

Posted: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 2:58pm

Working in the news business means making critical decisions every day. Everything we choose to cover – and more importantly, the stories we do not cover – is affected by judgment (much of it subjective) and resources.

So with that in mind, I was intrigued to read a new Pew Research Center report on the amount of time television devoted to two huge stories this month – the record-breaking Typhoon Haiyan and the fractured rollout of the health care law exchanges.

Haiyan became the strongest typhoon in the world this year and possibly the most powerful ever to hit land [Photo: CNN]

Four thousand people and counting were killed in the Philippines, and recovery could take years. As far as we know, no one has yet died at the hands of Obamacare, but political fights seem to consume us.

Pew compared coverage provided by four cable news networks, which, to be fair, also have to make choices. Reporting process and debate from Washington is inherently less expensive and less difficult than sending correspondents and crews halfway across the world.

But according to Pew, the resulting coverage turned out to be driven far more by brand identity than by the weight of the news.

Domestic healthcare news consumed more time on MSNBC and Fox News, according to the Pew study [Photo: CNN].

The typhoon disaster was a story of great interest to climate change activists, America’s robust communities of Filipino immigrants and descendants, and ordinary viewers transfixed by the scope of the damage.

But for MSNBC and FOX News, two channels that assiduously cultivate liberal and conservative identities, the domestic health care story consumed far more time. After studying 20 hours of programming, Pew found that MSNBC devoted four times as much time to the partisan health care fight at home than to the unfolding disaster abroad. On FOX, the domestic coverage was 80 times greater than that of the storm aftermath in the Pacific.

By contrast, CNN and Al Jazeera America – with their global focus, spent more time covering the typhoon than the health care rollout.

(Pew did not include PBS in its study, but a quick scan of newshour/ would show we devoted a robust chunk of our nightly programming to health reform and the Philippines.)


I’m no media critic. I am pretty clear that these decisions are driven by factors that have more to do with money than ideology. It costs money to cover the news. Studio debates are cheaper to mount than unfolding disaster. The farther away the story is, the tougher it gets. I get that.

But viewers can be forgiven for being confused about why they see what they see (and don’t see) on the news. Perhaps the story of a deeply flawed health care rollout that could cost you health and wealth does provide a more compelling narrative than bad things that happen to someone else.

But for those who want to know more about the world beyond our borders, there’s got to be some place to go where the story gets told. Fortunately, there is. News consumers just can’t be lazy about finding it. Otherwise, our eyes turn to our navel and remain there.