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IN 2019, attention is a precious commodity. Everyone’s fighting for our time. News outfits, too. One way to get those precious eyeballs is the newspaper way: Give people the news—what they need and want to know—in the form of breaking stories, investigative articles, sports, features, critiques, business, etc. Oh, and sometimes add a dash of commentary and opinion, as long as it’s thought-provoking, and separate from the other parts of the paper.

Another way is the talk-radio method, more specifically the commentariat. (Not to be confused with the sports jockeys, who actually do a good job, especially locally.) The rabble-rousers among the radio commentariat know they have to get ears, or they’ll be replaced soonest. We imagine them frantically going through newspaper websites, Drudge, Fox News and CNN each morning, trying to find the most outrageous article—local, national or international—then beatin’ that sucker for an hour or three until the broadcaster is red in the face, along with his listeners. The next day, it’s a different subject with the same old outrage. And on and on it goes until a more shocking shock jock fills the seat and air time.

We hope newspapers don’t take that path. To wit:

A few days ago, The Washington Post ran an article titled, “‘I been eatin’ like a boss’: Federal prisoners served steak by unpaid guards during shutdown.” Cue the outrage. How dare those prisoners get steak when hard-working guards go unpaid amid the government shutdown? We imagine it worked quite well as thousands of people clicked into The Post’s website, shared the article on Facebook and generally helped lower the level of public discourse.

But anybody digging a little deeper into the story would find that holiday meals are planned weeks in advance by prison staffs, and the shutdown really didn’t affect that planning one way or the other. Like television and snack machines, holiday meals are used by prisons as incentives. Jailed people who get such rewards for good behavior are better inmates, and that works to the advantage of guards.

There’s no scandal here. Or shouldn’t be. We imagine that this story wasn’t an exposé that took months of difficult research and 100 man hours. More likely it was a quick online story in which a few reporters and editors fueled fake outrage to drive web traffic. Give them credit. It worked quite well.

A writer for Vox, German Lopez, hit the nail on the head with this fake prison food scandal story: “To put it another way: Federal workers should be paid for their work, and it’s horrible that they’re not, due to a political dispute. But giving inmates good food a couple times a year isn’t the cause of that, and the goal shouldn’t be to make others suffer more just because federal workers are.”

The Great Steak Story wasn’t quite clickbait—where a headline tries to draw a reader in with some gimmick like “These 15 spiders could change your garden forever. You won’t believe No. 6!” But it was only a couple notches above.

WANT TO know what a good newspaper story would have been? How about figuring out the average food budget at federal prisons across the country? Or looking at statistics on prison violence to see what kind of reduction in fights and attacks, if any, occurs the closer we get to New Year’s Day food. But that would have taken more work and probably wouldn’t have landed as many clicks.

Content strategies like this carry some wide-ranging consequences for the media as a whole. We’ve already got an image problem thanks to shoddy behavior from 24/7 cable news. (“The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if it were.”—David Brinkley.)

So let’s tone down the fake outrage stories, Washington Post. Leave that kinda stuff for radio.

We’re better than that. Or should be.

Print Headline: All sizzle, no steak

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