Tag Archives: News reporting

It Started With A Wire And A Key

David Sarnoff, young telegrapher in 1908. The Sarnoff Collection, TCNJ.
David Sarnoff,  Marconi telegrapher and future President of RCA, in 1908.                The Sarnoff Collection, TCNJ.

Give those early innovators their due. It all started with a single wire carrying words coded in simple on-off pulses, hardly more than a long-distance doorbell.

When did we pass over the threshold into what has become the consequential change in the human condition known as the “Information Age?”  Many would perhaps place this monumental transition around the 1920s, with the popularity of radio and the early attempts to make “smart machines.”  But the real beginnings of our obsession with electronic media began much earlier, with a simpler but demonically influential breakthrough.

The telegraph began as a system of wires and keys that could send text-coded electric pulses over extended distances. Wires on poles spread rapidly throughout the eastern United States in the 1850s. And with this growing network, information began to move at the speed of light rather than the pace of a horse or locomotive.  By the civil war era Boston could “talk” to New York or Washington D.C. in real time.

We had entered the age of harnessing electrons for communication, making distance insignificant. The process of shrinking the world had begun.  Gradually news came as easily from 300 miles away as from down the street.

Sterling Colorado Railroad Station, 1880s
          Sterling Colorado Railroad Station, 1880s

The change is easy to visualize with two iconic forms of communication usually built side by side.  Old images of railroads stretching across mountains and prairies usually include telegraph poles marching along the line. The single wire literally ran through each station along the route, and through the dispatcher’s desk key before exiting the other side of the building.  Telegraphy not only made train travel safer, but the thin metal wire also began to carry news from one location to the next at far greater speed. These included accounts of local happenings that were reported in the 19th Century equivalent of a “breaking” story.

We had entered the age of harnessing electrons to make distance immaterial; the process of shrinking the world had begun.

Learn-Morse-Code-2015.05.02- Lincoln became addicted to telegraphy. Throughout the civil war he spent ours across the street from the White House at the War Office, waiting to hear from his generals in various battle locations which had been wired by the military.

News of Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theater spread in the east within hours. But it would take up to ten days for word of the tragedy to reach portions of the country west of the Pony Express origination point in St. Joseph Missouri.

New telegraph lines passing through New England led transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau to note that “we are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”  The same could be said about phone obsessives today.  But that’s another story. The race was on to build news networks to be known as “wire services” that terminated in most city news rooms, providing local papers with much more coverage of events that had occurred in distant cities.  To this day The Associated Press still depends on local reporters to feed local stories of potential national interest to their far-flung subscribers.

Fittingly, the most important thoroughfares in some cities carried the name of the new network that was beginning to knit the country together.  Telegraph Road is arguably Detroit’s best-known Street, and somehow fitting in a city known for technology and innovation.  San Francisco and Berkeley California have their own versions, and do many other towns.

So when you wonder when we became addicts to the effects of charged electrons traveling at the speed of light, give those early 19th Century innovators their due. It all started with a single wire carrying simple on-off pulses, technically little more than a long distance doorbell, but one that would eventually summon us all.


Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


News Inversions: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

crime sceneThe more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely that its crime category represents a serious threat to other citizens. 

A few years ago political communication scholar Doris Graber published a study of crime news in the city of Chicago. At the time her focus was on the reporting of the Chicago Tribune (Mass Media and American Politics, 1993).  But almost any major news outlet in any region would have probably yielded the same eye-opening results. She found what most of us sense but too easily forget:  The more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely it is a crime category that represents a serious threat to other citizens. There is an inverse correlation between space and time given to a crime story and the frequency of that kind of crime in a city.  In her study the most reported category was murder, which in 1991 was 0.3 percent (925) of all the crimes documented in the city’s Uniform Crime Report.  But in the Tribune murders got 64% of the coverage. That added up to a lot of column inches. The same was true for assaults.  By comparison, more common crimes like theft got comparatively little coverage.

I doubt the passage of time and the presence of online media have changed this equation. By definition, news is the unusual. Think of CNN’s current preoccupation with global terrorism.  It is both a serious problem and seriously over-covered, at least in relation of other pressing world concerns. According to the Global Research Center we are about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than a terrorist attack.

There can be exceptions to this pattern, but it’s common because it is so easy to convert a single example into a rule. Our brains are hardwired to want to generalize to the whole from a few specific cases.  Rhetorically, this is the function of a synecdoche, a fancy word for the straightforward idea that we like to use a single case to stand for the whole. It’s one of the most efficient rhetorical tropes a news organization can employ. Using it one might conclude that the 1999 actions of mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Colorado point to what is ostensibly “wrong” with kids raised these days in the United States.  But perhaps there is no emerging pattern at all.

The truth is that seriously deviant actors engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions usually known only to them.

As with Columbine, there are always an abundance of experts ready to take the bait of television notoriety to speculate on what an event like this “means” to the nation. Most commentators cannot resist the synecdoche. It makes the world simpler. It makes for good television. And it saves the expert from the potentially embarrassing but intellectually honest assessment that a given case, even a mass murder, is perhaps significant of nothing. The truth is that seriously deviant individuals engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions known only to them. But to actually say that is to leave the third act of a traumatic episode unwritten.  And so we write social significance scripts based on mostly unrepresentative cases.

This explains the perpetual panic mode of the 24/7 “Breaking News” cycle. Everything covered is urgent. Everything represents an early warning of a bigger and ominous trend.

How do we counteract this compulsion to find meaning and and at the same time maintain our own sense of equilibrium?

Step back. Tune out. The world is not ending. The awful events documented and reported on a given day frequently make sense only as single aberrations.

More specifically, limit you time and your children spend in the presence of television news reporting. This is especially important for the nation’s population of seniors, who typically gorge themselves on video news.  We have solid evidence that, like most of us, older Americans generally over-estimate how dangerous their community and the world really is.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu