Gwen’s Take: Once Again to the Split-Screen

Posted: Thu, 07/11/2013 - 5:47pm

This week’s Time magazine cover landed on my desk just as I was puzzling through another week of split-screen politics in the nation’s capital.

The divided image was of a crowded Tahrir Square in Cairo. With the word Egypt in the middle of the page, the headline “World’s Best Protesters” was superimposed on the left side -- “World’s Worst Democrats” on the right.

Both things are arguably true, and therein lies the dilemma for the Obama administration, which finds itself stuck in its usual rock and hard place deciding whether the protesters are right, or whether Egypt’s leaders -– often more dictatorial than democratic -– are.

As I’ve written in this space before, we live in a world of split screens. We watch sporting events with our Twitter feeds scrolling on our laptops. We watch live concerts while recording them on our phones. I’ve seen people forget to shake the president’s hand because they were so busy snapping his picture.

This is ever true in the news business. If you had the luxury of watching daytime television this week, you were likely to come away believing that the most important, if not the only, story of the week was happening in a courtroom in Sanford, Florida.

It was, indeed, often riveting stuff -– full of compelling characters and genuinely confusing testimony. (Who was the aggressor? Whose voice was screaming on the tape? How many lives were forever altered by that night’s tragic encounter between two men who had never previously met?)

But the scenes in Tahrir Square were compelling, too. The spectacular explosion that killed a presumed 50 people and all but leveled a remote Canadian town deserved attention as well.

And for my money, the most enlightening story of the week aired on the PBS NewsHour Wednesday. In a report prepared in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, photojournalist Larry C. Price told the heartbreaking story of the children of Burkina Faso, who labor underground mining for gold by hand, earning as little as $2 a day.

The West African nation is among the poorest in the world. Its children exist at the bottom of the totem pole, yanked out of school for the dusty, dangerous work because their small bodies can more easily fit into the cramped and narrow mine shafts.

A story like this does not come close to airing on cable networks obsessed, O.J. Simpson-like, with a single one-on-one calamity. It does not even come close to competing with the arresting sight of a burned-out airline resting on its belly at San Francisco International airport. Tens of thousands of people rioting in Tahrir Square? Come on.

This is just scratching the surface of our split-screen existence. One of the measures we use at the NewsHour and at Washington Week to determine what stories we will tell on a given day is: How many people does it affect? We don’t always make the correct choice, but it is always part of the conversation.

That is, of course, not the only gauge. We want to air stories people will watch. And any time a debate breaks out about a topic at our morning meetings, it’s a good sign that it’s a story worth telling on the air. We’re pretty sure viewers will have the same questions we do. (Except hockey. I draw the line at hockey.)

So I have become resigned to the split-screen, which imposes immense responsibility on those who distribute information, but also on those who consume it.

Thanks for listening. I’m going to check my Twitter feed now.