Alison Gerber: Bedbugs, doomsday and news

Alison Gerber: Bedbugs, doomsday and news

December 16th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Hopefully, this will not be my last column.

If you believe the doomsday theories about the so-called Mayan apocalypse, the world might end on Friday. Of course, that's unlikely to happen. Even NASA scientists have jumped in to reassure us with a video debunking the Mayan Calendar predictions. "Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012," NASA's website states under the header "Why the World Won't End."

Nevertheless, news stories about the Mayan calendar are popping up, the Twitterverse is abuzz and Web rumors abound. Some are serious preparing-for-the-end-of-the-world stuff; others are lighthearted. ("Don't forget: Next year there will be 13 fewer shopping days before Christmas," Mayan Calendar 2012 tweeted).

But the Mayan calendar stories are a good example of what happens when the media - be it the traditional or new media - clamps onto a storyline with a vicious chomp. All of a sudden, the story seems to be everywhere, from big city papers to small weeklies, from international news websites to basement blogs.

It's hard to argue with criticism that the media often exhibits a "pack mentality" when stories like the Mayan calendar are barked out on scores of outlets across the country. A story that, at its core, is kind of minor, gets pumped up like it's on informational steroids and suddenly it's a behemoth.

Take the "fiscal cliff." The cliff and the resulting tax increases and spending cuts have been looming for months, but the problem didn't take off as a major news story until immediately after the presidential election. Now you cannot get away from it.

Granted, the cliff is getting closer day by day and certainly that makes it a timely story. But the story also got suddenly big because the election is over, and the nation's army of reporters were looking for something

else to cover.

And the term "fiscal cliff" helps make the story an easy sell - a catchy phrase that puts a complex economic problem in simple terms. We either go over the cliff or we don't. What that means is up for discussion, but the cliff metaphor is an undeniable attention-grabber.

Still, by trotting out the snappy "fiscal cliff" label in every report about the subject, the media might be trivializing what could be a major economic problem for the country.

Another news story that seemed to swell all at once focused on a subject far less important than the nation's fiscal health but far more icky - bedbugs. In 2010, you could not pick up a newspaper or click on a website without hearing about how bedbugs were infesting the nation. One of my coworkers mused that the bedbugs story got hot after the swine flu turned out to not as big a public health treat as initially predicted.

Yet the bedbug narrative deftly illustrates how stories go national quickly.

It started in a large media market with complaints about the blood-sucking insects in New York City hotels. A storyline that starts in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago gets a lot of attention on a national scale. From there, the story often trickles to smaller markets where journalists think, "Hmmm. We should look into whether this is happening here. Does this apply to us?"

The Times Free Press ran a wire story with this alarming headline: "Bedbug infestation inevitable, unstoppable, experts say." Like many others, we covered it from a local angle.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a resurgence of the nasty little bugs after five decades of a relatively bedbug-free existence. So, yes, the story was legitimate. But some readers thought it was overdone and that reports were feeding off each other.

And there are certain types of stories that will almost certainly be widespread. If there's an outbreak of a disease somewhere in the country - swine flu, West Nile virus, meningitis, food poisoning - media nationwide will localize the topic. A story usually will be done even if the focus is: Yes, we have no disease.

Part of it is the relentless, never-ending news cycle. Papers must fill their pages and TV must fill air time, preferably with local stories. We call it feeding the beast.

But that 24/7 news cycle has its own dangers. If you open your paper, click on a website, turn on your TV or radio and hear the same story over and over, stretching out sometimes for days, the reaction is to tune it out after awhile. In doing so, you may miss important information.

The challenge for journalists is to balance on that tightrope, to not ignore a story because it doesn't seem to have any connection to your community, but also not to instantly leap on the bandwagon and ride it just because everyone else is onboard.

If people are talking about it, it's news, but we don't want to carry on the conversation until it turns to mindless blather.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfree Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfree