An expiration date for the news

It was a quiet weekend, so I indulged in a practice I seldom have time to address, checking to see how many times a story has been covered, and by how many television stations. When reaching for a glass of orange juice, I noticed that on the container was an expiration date: July 19, 2012. Why is there an expiration date for orange juice, and not for news stories? Can it be called “news,” after all, if a story is dated?

No one can fault the print media for, as we’ve seen, by the time a story hits most of the major newspapers, it has already appeared on the Internet, and hence has passed its expiration date. But, for broadcast news, how many times does one have to watch a re-run of a story on how bath salts have become a growing problem for youngsters who want to get high, and instead end up hallucinating as they do on PCP? One network, CNN, ran the identical story all weekend long.

How often, too, does the same story that was broadcast on cable news networks appear on your local eleven o’clock news? Not new at all, but recycled.

How much credibility can one impute to a print newspaper when it declares election results twelve hours after the results have been disseminated widely on the Internet? And, more importantly, instead of sitting back and accepting this phenomenon, what kinds of changes can be implemented by the major newspapers to prevent it?

Some of the repetition of news stories can be blamed, of course, on media consolidation, or the idea that one or two conglommerates pretty much own all the newspapers, and television outlets in this country. News Corp’s own Rupert Murdoch has himself been in the headlines lately, ironically as a casualty of the very media consolidation he worked sedulously to implement.

But, some of this has to do with an egregious need for time editors, or staff that is devoted strictly to ensuring that stories like the non-stop coverage of all things George Zimmerman are remanded to the archives rather than being repeated ad nauseum, and updating headlines and news items as stories morph. Yes, we have the technology in place for this kind of editing, and these kinds of changes.

As for repeating news items, how many photos of Zimmerman does the viewing public really need to see? More importantly, why isn’t there any coverage of other incidents, like the murder of Trayvon Martin, despite the fact that youngsters are bullied, and sometimes killed, because of their race, or being in some way different, every day?

And, as McClatchy reports, despite reports from a London human rights activist group that, while difficult to trace, civilian deaths in Syria are actually down since the U.N. intervention in April while military deaths are up, all we see from Syria is non-stop coverage of horrible civilian massacres. What role is the media currently playing in the build-up to war with Syria, as it has done in the build-up to war in Iraq and later Libya, and why is no one questioning this?

While major broadcast news outlets have brought into our living rooms the decimated bodies of Syrian citizens, how many are reporting on the actual decrease in civilian fatalities in Syria, and why not? The loss of even one civilian life in a civil war, or any war, or even in an undeclared war, is always horrific, but it is equally horrific when those civilians find themselves victims of targeted drone strikes that seem to include an ever-growing target.

Clearly, when it comes to human rights violations, an expiration date is never appropriate, but the underlying premise behind assigning an expiration date is that of investigating in order to ensure freshness. Where is the investigating arm of the source that feeds us our information?

It’s getting harder to see who’s asking the hard questions.

The coverage by mainstream media, The New York Times, The Washington Post and, of course, McClatchy and Reuters, of drones in Pakistan, and Yemen, and the insistence on asking the hard questions about how many civilian lives have been lost in both countries as a result of drone use has been excellent, but I guess we don’t talk about civilian fatalities we inflict as massacres, but only those inflicted by leaders of foreign countries, and why is that?

In order for the flow of information to remain free and unobstructed by governmental pressure, there needs to be the same kind of investigative work that is done to determine whether the contents of a container of milk are fresh. The transmission of tainted, or uninspected data by the news media poses as grave a threat to the health of this democracy as spoiled milk does to American families.

Especially in this election year, the need for news that doesn’t aim solely to please, entertain, or distort world events in conformity with some foreign policy objective has never been greater. We can no more afford a fast food of news now than the kind of toxicity that comes from an undereducated, and underprepared electorate.

Jayne Lyn Stahl is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.

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