Bad News & Journalism

by journojames on January 26, 2012

Originally published Nov. 3, 2010

Newspapers = Debbie Downer[1]

I’ll be honest. I’m a moron. Just ask my girlfriend. Here’s more evidence: I’m in graduate school learning the fine and important craft of journalism and I’m beginning to realize: I don’t like newspapers.

Maybe I should’ve completely read one — from the first page to the last — before applying to journalism school?

Have you actually read a newspaper lately? It’s a miserable experience. It’s like reading the Book of Revelations, horrifying and apocalyptic. But even Revelations is, at least, engaging with its interesting language. The worst thing about newspapers for me is their complete utter lack of any sense of humor. It’s time newspapers lighten up. Seriously. And, yes, even Revelations has humor in it. Evidence: apparently, one day soon — according to John the Apostle — the battle of Armageddon will be started by three obnoxious war-mongering frogs (vomited out by a dragon and two beasts) who travel the world’s palaces inciting kings to mobilize for battle.[2] World leaders taking advice from frogs that whisper sweet nothings about war in their ears?!? Comedic gold!

Let’s be honest, life, for the most part, is scary and full of dread; just awful. Do I really need to be informed about how ghastly it is, in gruesome detail? Look at these soul-crushing headlines: “Drunken Diaper-wearing Man Seeking Candy Arrested,”[3] “Man Charged with Assault with Sandwich,”[4] and “Congratulations, You May Now Kiss Yourself.”[5] Truly horrifying. Why has staying informed turned into an obligation that feels like I’m constantly being jabbed in the eyes with a sharp pointy stick? The Pew Center, in a revealing research, found that 42 percent of those with a moderate interest in international news report avoided it because there is “too much war/violence” and 51 percent avoided the news because “nothing ever changes.”[6]

A number of my defeated friends and weary acquaintances who have given up on life have echoed the same sentiments, and I completely understand. I don’t need stories upon stories of despair, sadness, fear, misery, and hopelessness in my newspapers. I have plenty of those things in my life, thank you. But, if newspapers insist on showing us how terrible our lives really are, then why not, at least, do it in an interesting way that engages readers?

That’s why I demand a little sense of humor in our newspapers. It’ll give us much needed perspective. Having a sense of humor is important. Laughing is important. What’s the first thing women usually say when they’re describing their perfect mate? It’s not something about being ethical, truthful or not having a bias. It’s usually something about him or her having a sense of humor. “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing,” said Mark Twain.[7] Psychologist Ed Dunkelblau, Ph.D, says “Humor gives us ballast and balance during difficult times.”[8] Preach on, Denkelblau! Humor allows us to survive all the distressing events around us. Whether we want to believe it or not, some of the things that happen in our lives is beyond our control — I’m pretty sure Zeus still controls most things — and the only control we have left is our attitude and reaction.

I concede that not everything in life is funny –- cancer, terrorism, assault (actually, this could be, see previous headlines) — and I’m not asking for news writing and journalism to become something that it is not: satire. I’m just asking for a little perspective and a little bit of sugar with our medicine when appropriate. There are a lot of pages in an online newspaper; there’s enough space there for a little humor, and it should be presented. “Comedic journalism,” when done well, can powerfully deliver the truth, cutting through the fog and minutiae of facts, while engaging the audience more effectively than a straightforward fact-filled article ever could. This is what I find makes the Daily Show so relevant and important, as well as popular.

If my point is still unclear, take for example, the latest gubernatorial race in California and Republican Meg Whitman’s unsuccessful bid for the highest office in the state. She spent over $160 million dollars on her campaign and lost.[9] There’s really nothing inherently funny about this story. It maybe hilarious to Jerry Brown and incredibly depressing for Meg Whitman and rich people everywhere, but it’s straightforward; shocking maybe, but straightforward. Perhaps a more interesting and comedic way to look at this would be: if Whitman just donated the $160 million to California to help the state’s economic woes, instead of spending it on her campaign, would she have had better results or even won?

Newspapers are supposed to be a record and a reflection of our times and our world. Laughter, fun, ridiculousness, absurdity, and humor are major parts of that world and to ignore it would be disingenuous. Let’s be real and include that perspective in our newspapers so that we truly and accurately record how awful and tragically hilarious people really are.

But, what do I know? Remember, I’m a moron.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debbie_Downer

[2] Bible, Book of Revelations, (16:13-14)

[3] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39954810/ns/us_news-weird_news/

[4] http://www.fosters.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101023/GJNEWS_01/710239899/-1/FOSNEWS

[6] http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=all_the_news_thats_fit_to_depress

[7] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mark_twain.html

[8] http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/content/43/13/5.full

[9] http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_16513454

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