Location, Location, Location

January 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a much more important story than Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. But it’s the Bridge that’s getting far more attention in the media. 

Anne Marie Cox has a good piece in the Guardian (here) about “how it came to be that Bridgegate continues to attract punditry while West Virginia only generates the kind of sympathetic-if-distant coverage we usually grant far-off and not too devastating natural disasters.”
In West Virginia, there are 300,000 people without useable water, and an unknown number who may fall ill because the warning to avoid the tainted supply came seven hours after the leak was discovered – and perhaps weeks after it happened. (Neighbors of the plant have told reporters they detected the chemical’s odor in December.)
Surely, that’s more important than four days of traffic jams, which, truth be told, are hardly a strange and new horror for New York and New Jersey drivers.

Cox has several explanations for the disproportionate weight given to the Christie story. Not only might Christie be president in a couple of years, but he’s known. He’s a political celebrity.* And for some reason, stories about the personal deeds and misdeeds of celebrities are newsworthy. Apparently we prefer a story about personalities rather than about policy (especially policy that involves science, especially environmental science). 

Cox lists other reasons, but the one I think is most telling is geography.**
It is taking place in the literal backyard of most national political reporters. It has very little to do with.
In the old days – with no satellite transmission, with no Internet –  stories from New York, Washington, and perhaps a few other places dominated the news because that’s where the news business was located. Stories from other places were more expensive to produce and transmit.  Film would have to be flown to production studios in New York. 

Today, remote stories do not run up costs. And in many ways the chemical spill should make for better news – the visuals are potential more striking, the potential interviews with the plain folks who are affected, the corporate baddies (it doesn’t get much better than “Freedom Industries”), the political influence, etc.

But it’s not just the cost. The sophisticated, cosmopolitan news people turn out to be just as provincial in their own way as are the rubes they tacitly disdain.  If the 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol had been polluting the Hudson or the Potomac, it would have been a national story.  As it is, the unstated message in the media coverage is, “Forget it; it’s only West Virginia.”

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* Christie’s celebrity status is not an accident. One of the nuggets that the investigation has unearthed is that in choosing an ad campaign for the state to show its miraculous post-Sandy recovery, Christie chose a $4.7 million ad campaign over one that cost about half that much.  The pricier PR job Christie chose gave much greater prominence to Christie himself.

** Social scientists and media experts who know more than I do about how news is made must have written about this, but I have not come across any posts on these two stories.

2 comments:

Arnie said...

Readers can access an archive of news items concerning News Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge lane closings and the post-Sandy recovery ad campaign at: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/cope6025

Paulo said...

Well... the Christie story didn't get a great deal of traction outside local papers before the emails last week. I'm sure if the situations had been reversed and Bridgegate was still little more than speculation and the press had a smoking gun statement from someone at Freedom Industries, the amount of coverage would be very different.