By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, May 9, 1986
Periodically, I hear the complaint from readers that we in the press, myself included, focus on bad news, accentuate the negative, harp on failure. There are times — say, after writing a series of columns about abuses by people in public and private high places — when I ask myself the same question:
Have I unbalanced the picture?
The simplistic answer is yes, but the honest answer isn’t so simple.
That’s because the definition of news in our society has always been man-bites-dog. As John Bogart, city editor of the New York Sun in the late 1800s, explained: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often.”
What this means is that the norm — what’s happening most of the time to most people – is not perceived as news to anybody and therefore doesn’t need to be on the front page, or at least not very often.
Maybe we need to reconsider this definition of news. Maybe, as some people think, journalists should write more stories about public officials who are honest, about dedicated teachers, about neighbors that look after each other and about high school kids who aren’t dope addicts.
But wouldn’t this put us in the position of congratulating ourselves for doing what we know is positive and right?
Wouldn’t it also define us as people who require such self-applause as a public pep talk to keep us from sliding into sin?
In any event, I already see a lot of good news, happy news, on the pages of our newspapers. The stock market has been booming, the real estate industry in New York City is making fortunes, taxes are going down.
Prosperity isn’t around the corner, the news tells us, it’s already here — there’s more money around in this city than there are safe deposit boxes to stuff it into.
Happy news is found, too, on the so-called lifestyle pages, where recipes and fashions and parties bring us the good life.
So while I am never certain that the news balance is perfect, I do not think we are the “nattering nabobs of negativism” that a good-news vice president once called us.
Bearing unhappy information is not a negative act. It’s an attempt to fill out the picture, to correct the balance.
Most of the people may be doing well, but that’s all the more reason to bring to their attention the difficulties of those who are not. It’s not a crusade, just a little remedial reading.
To cite but one example, stories about the homeless have increased in recent years, but not at a pace to match the increase in the homeless themselves — and these stories do not dominate our newspapers and are rarely on the front pages.
I have heard it said that people are tired of reading about the poor. I can understand that. The poor are a burden and a blight, nothing but wet blankets trying to take the edge off our good time.
I think this explains some of the annoyance with those of us who write stories about the people who are having a bad time.
About a week ago, a highly regarded civic organization, the Regional Plan Association, issued a report that didn’t offer much relief to those opposed to bad news. It said that despite a hearty business expansion in New York City and its suburbs, the gap between the area’s rich and poor is getting wider.
In the self-interest of the affluent, if for no other reason, ways must be found to narrow the gap because, as the report pointed out, this condition, unless relieved, will place terrible strains on housing, public schools and social services.
“Poverty in the midst of plenty could become intolerable,” said the chairman of the Regional Plan group, William Woodside, who is also chairman of American Can. “More than anywhere else in the country, we are creating a two-tier society of the haves and have-nots.”
The report was full of research and statistics that affirmed his bleak conclusions. For example, the poor comprise 42 percent of the households in the metropolitan region but had only 14 percent of the income, whereas 17 percent of the households — those making over $35,000 a year — account for more than 40 percent of the income.
The trouble with such stories lies in the very statistics. People find it easy not to get concerned about pie charts and graphs and rows of percentages. It looks like an annual corporate report, something to be tossed without thought into the basket.
And then, when reporters write personal stories about individuals who are poor, describing their plight in human detail, the same people who suffered ennui from the statistics now respond that the personal stories are merely anecdotal vignettes that fail to provide the larger picture and don’t necessarily indicate a widespread social problem.
We have become, almost without noticing, a Third World city — one of those places where the upper classes have painstakingly developed mental blinders to shut out the unpleasantness that would otherwise irk them whenever they stepped onto the streets from their protected villas. Such unpleasantness consists mainly of the people who live and sometimes beg on their sidewalks.
For generations, it has given us a sense of moral and social superiority to read vivid accounts of the thousands of people who live exposed on the streets of Calcutta and Jakarta at a level of poverty described as “aching” or “grinding.”
Now we have our own thousands of sidewalk people — and no claim to moral superiority. Men and women stand on our street corners holding signs that say, simply: “Hungry.” And many of us are developing blinders and passing them by.
Is it negativism to write about this and other have-vs.-have-not situations in New York City? Or is it simply an act of correcting the news balance?
And if some people are tired of the have-nots now, what will their stance be should this poverty spread and grow and take root as one of our norms?
I force the days when the bored people will argue that if the definition of news is man-bites-dog, that if the front page belongs to the unusual and the unexpected, then the homeless and the poor — having become ordinary and predictable — no longer command our attention. Maybe you can’t win.