Assessing the Day 4 newspaper coverage of the Giffords shootings.

Assessing the Day 4 newspaper coverage of the Giffords shootings.

Assessing the Day 4 newspaper coverage of the Giffords shootings.

Media criticism.
Jan. 12 2011 5:38 PM

What the Press Reports When It Has Little To Report

Assessing the Day 4 newspaper coverage of the Giffords shootings.

Paper with hole in it.

There are many days I'm happy not to be a daily newspaper reporter. Jan. 12 is one of them.

The big story driving the news today remains the Giffords shootings. But despite the heroic efforts of reporters from dozens of publications parachuting into Tucson to advance the story—the press has devoted thousands of column inches to it so far—today there doesn't seem to be that much story to tell.

The Washington Post puts boots down on the Arizona ground to report a Page One, double-bylined piece: " 'We don't understand why this happened,' parents say." The parents, of course, are those of accused killer Jared Lee Loughner, who released a statement expressing their grief and condolences. That the parents issued a statement is news, small news, made smaller still by the fact that they don't know why their son may have done what he stands accused of.

Have any parents of an accused killer ever issued a statement in which they banged their fists to their heads and said, "Damn, we knew he was plotting mass murder"? No, of course not. Nobody expects even their closest, most disturbed relatives to go off in such a manner. So while the Loughners' prepared statement deserves play, the fact that it's on Page One is a function of the press reporting something when it has nothing to report. Had this story—which also reports President Obama's impending visit, Gabrielle Giffords' medical condition, the now-abandoned plans of the Westboro Baptist Church gang to picket the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, and other odds and ends—been an Associated Press round-up and not a Post staff-written piece, it probably would have gone to an inside page.

The same is true of the Post's other Page One report from Tucson, "Before the Safeway, Four Lives Intersected at the YMCA." The take-away from this story is that Loughner, two of the murder victims, and Giffords had all used the Northwest YMCA. What will the sequel be? "Before the Safeway, Six Lives Intersected at the 7-Eleven"?

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Inside, the Post offers "In Loughner's Neighborhood, Times Have Been Tough." It informs us that the Loughners' North Soledad section of Tucson is working-class, transitory, a little ramshackle, divided over politics, and suffering the same recession pains as much of the rest of the country. It adds almost nothing to the shooting story, not even a comment about the Loughner family from a neighbor. An inside piece about gun control competently presents the topic's back story and explains why new laws are unlikely. But even this piece stretches the material at hand, as does the nearby piece "Could This Be a Moment for the Political Middle?"

The New York Times joins the Post's no-new-news strategyby giving above-the-fold, Tucson-datelined Page One treatment to "Police Say They Visited Tucson Suspect's Home Even Before Rampage." Disappointment arrives in the second paragraph, which reports that a Pima County Sheriff's Department spokesman "said he did not know what the calls were about—they could possibly have been minor, even trivial matters—or whether they involved Jared Loughner or another member of the household."

The rest of the Times' story provides a round-up, adding more anecdotes about Jared Lee Loughner's exotic, paranoid behaviors. The report quotes neighbors talking about the family's general weirdness—"I'd tell my son, those are not normal people over there." One neighbor gives Randy and Amy Loughner credit for paying respects when her husband died.

Elsewhere on Page One, the Times runs "Legal Strategy Could Hinge on Mental Assessment" and "Threats to Lawmakers Rarely Lead to Charges," neither of which I can really fault, as they make their points with economy and don't over-promise. The remainder of the Times coverage—Tucson-datelined coverage of Giffords' health and news analysis about Arizona's reputation, as well as a Washington story about Speaker John A. Boehner's handling of the shooting's political fallout—filibuster the story's other odds and ends in a professional manner.

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The Post and the Times shouldn't take my kvetching completely to heart. I'm not accusing anybody of goldbricking or hackery. I commend both papers for sending boatloads of reporters to Arizona to cover the story and budgeting multipage coverage to it. But by Day 4, when there is more enthusiasm for the story in newsrooms than there is actual story, my gratitude begins to dim. Half as many column inches would have been twice as good.

The surplus in coverage is, in part, institutional. Having sent reporters to a scene of a natural or human disaster, an editor never feels good about spiking copy just because it's not all hot, breaking news. Because the pages and airtime may have been budgeted for the ongoing story before all of the copy arrives and has been edited, newspapers and broadcasters have a natural tendency in the early days of a story like this to run almost everything they've produced. Almost nobody will notice, and only one or two consumers will complain.

If only there were a way for editors and producers to express honestly that they've emptied their tank, as the BBC once did. According to Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff's 1991 book, A Social History of British Broadcasting: 1922-1939 Serving the Nation,the BBC's "austere conception" of the news produced surprising results. Scannell and Cardiff continue:

When news of the quality required was lacking no efforts were made to pad out the bulletins to a standard length. On Good Friday 1930, in the view of the news editors, "there was no news of the normal type or standard for broadcasting, and as a result no news bulletin was given. The announcer simply declared 'there is no news tonight.' "

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On that note, I'm content to conclude that I have no more press criticism tonight.

******

No means no. No more room in my slate.pressbox@gmail.com inbox and nothing in my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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