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If Confucius is alive today, he would advise the Western media: “中庸”

If 孔子 (Confucius) were alive today, he would advice the Western media to heed his thoughts on “中庸” (Zhong Yong), or “Doctrine of the Mean“. Below is one of his key passages:

喜怒哀樂之未發、謂之中;發而皆中節、謂之和;中也者、天下之大本也;和也者、天下之達道也。致中和、天地位焉、萬物育焉。

When joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure have not yet arisen, it is called the Mean (中 centrality, equilibrium). When they arise to their appropriate levels, it is called “harmony” 和. The Mean is the great root of all-under-heaven. “Harmony” is the penetration of the Way through all-under-heaven. When the Mean and Harmony are actualized, Heaven and Earth are in their proper positions, and the myriad things are nourished. (Translation by A. Charles Muller)

“中庸” advises individuals in society to seek truth, moderation, centrality, and equilibrium; meaning individuals should avoid “spinning”, sensationalizing, polarizing, and bias.  Harmony is then achieved when emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure arise to their appropriate levels; meaning, individual’s actions and responses should be fair, just, and proportional.  When these conditions are achieved, society flourishes.

How is the Western media at odds with Confucius on “中庸?”  Every journalist in the West would argue their job is to seek and report truth.  I agree there is sincerity in that, and seeking truth is a very fundamental basis for their reporting.  However, there are also other factors which are very much at odds with “中庸.”

We only need to look at how Western media think about “What makes a good story.”  Below is a summary (over at sources.com) from the book, “In the News The Practice of Media Relations in Canada” by William Wray Carney, which answers that question.  It’s a quick read, and it generally fits well how journalism is practiced in the West today.  Following it, I’ll explain why this thinking is polar opposite to “中庸.”

What Makes a Good Story?
By William Wray Carney

The following is an edited excerpt from the recently published book, “In the News The Practice of Media Relations in Canada” by William Wray Carney.

Reporters – and readers – want a good story. The story should be interesting and relevant to the audience, and it must be written clearly enough that it can be quickly and easily understood. What makes a story interesting is often a combination of the interests of the audience, the interests and abilities of the reporter, and a long history of journalistic tradition.

The question “What is news?” is a primary philosophical issue in media relations. Many people are indifferent to sports, for example, yet it constitutes a major part of mainstream news. Every television and radio station devotes extensive time to weather, even though it is usually straightforward and it all comes from the same place. Nevertheless, without getting into that debate, we can identify a number of elements that characterize a good news story.

Drama and emotion. News is about people. When the driest statistical summary from Stats Can is released, reporters will look for people who either exemplify the statistics or are affected by them. This is backed up by a survey of 72 media professionals undertaken by Angus Reid in 1993. To the question of newsworthiness – that is, what makes something “news” – the greatest percentage of respondents (44 percent) found it in a subject that “affect people.”

Odd or unusual. Second on the Angus Reid survey of newsworthiness, at 37 percent, was the “unusual/unexpected.” This is the classic category of “man bites dog” journalism. That a plane landed safely is routine and expected; a plane crash is news. Third in the poll, at 33 percent, was “important”, a concept that is difficult to describe. What is important to one person may not be to another.

Local angle. Local news ranked next in the survey, at 17 percent, which reflects the media’s concern with its own audience and the issues that affect the audience directly. This angle, combined with an issue that affects people, makes front-page news. A plant closure that lays off thousands in Witchita, Kansas, for example, isn’t newsworthy in St. John’s; but if it happens in St. John’s, it’s front page.

Topical, timely. When you’re looking to get your story in the news, you must consider topicality and timeliness. Examples abound at every holiday season: Thanksgiving news comes complete with instructions on how to cook your turkey safely; Christmas comes with safety warnings regarding the dangers of Christmas tree fires. But local events, whether annual or irregular, can also lead to topical hooks. For example, a reporter might prepare a sidebar on fire insurance for rural homes to run alongside a story about a major forest fire; might interview a local cowboy poet during the Calgary Stampede; or might write a profile of a well-known local personality who has multiple sclerosis the weekend before the Super Cities Walk for MS.

Conflict. Disagreement is generally more newsworthy than agreement. This is why politics and sports make easy news: it is easy to find disagreement. As a practitioner, you need to give some thought to whether you want to expose yourself or your client to this phenomenon. Because the reporter wants a balanced story, he or she will often look for someone to disagree with the point of view you express, or at least to offer a different perspective.

Relevance to audience. Although stories sometimes run because of their sheer oddity, more times than not they run because editors know what their audience is interested in. A human-rights ruling extending retirement age, for example, will be of more interest to senior’s media that to YTV or MuchMusic. As we discussed in Chapter 3, many media outlets have finely targeted audiences. Being sensitive to the market they are trying to reach, and demonstrating that your story idea is relevant to that audience, will increase your chances of getting coverage.

Universal appeal. Stories that affect, or have the potential to affect, everyone are also newsworthy. A story about a child with a rare disease is interesting because it is unusual. But it is also effective because all parents worry about the health of their children and are interested in children’s health generally. Reporters like stories that their audience can relate to, no matter how unusual the topic may be. Universality is closely related to relevance to the audience.

Out of these seven attributes on “what makes a good story,” they are ALL geared towards attracting readers and viewers by appealing to their wants and desires.

The negative side effect with dramatizing a story too much is the audience losing the ability to distinguish the relative importance between one story and the next.  It is thus hard to achieve harmony when society’s emotions arise to inappropriate levels.

Too many odd or unusual stories only means the audience sense of what is normal and usual becomes warped over time.  For example, the U.S. media spent tons of attention on Britney Spears when she was caught driving with her baby on her laps.  Unusual, yes.  Are U.S. celebrities generally crazy?  I don’t think so.  Since people have limited attention-span outside of their work, why not spend media attention on something more “important.”  The opportunity cost of spending time on the unusual often means less time spent on the relevant.

Local angle also implies selfishness.  While it is true of human nature to be most interested and attentive to ones immediate local needs, but doing too much of it at the exclusion of the needs of a wider community is problematic too.  Are there cases of Western media pushing their local communities to sacrifice on behalf of a wider community?  Will any Detroit based media be willing to report truthfully (and “offend”) auto workers for having too much benefits relative to Japanese auto workers?  Not a chance.

Topical and timely are neutral.

Conflict.  This is perhaps the biggest theme in Western media, especially the U.S..  Should media be always finding conflicts which polarize society?  I think it is fair to say that American society today is very “angry.”  In a June 29, 2006 Congressional speech, Texas representative, Ron Paul had this to say:

I have been involved in politics for over 30 years and have never seen the American people so angry.  It’s not unusual to sense a modest amount of outrage, but it seems the anger today is unusually intense and quite possibly worse than ever.

He went on to conclude:

The only thing that can lessen this anger is an informed public, a better understanding of economic principles, a rejection of foreign intervention, and a strict adherence to the constitutional rule of law.

For example, while playing up the fear of Iraq having Weapons of Mass Destruction heightened a sense of conflict for Americans, the end result was the U.S. committing to an unjust invasion.  The U.S. media was completely at fault for cheer-leading the war, because the American public may have otherwise opposed it.

A recent poll in the U.S. shows most Americans believe that China is a bigger economic power than the U.S..  Why is that when the U.S.’s economy is at least three times larger than China’s?  The reason has a lot to do with the U.S. media having been pushing a “red scare” agenda in their reporting, because conflict “makes for a good story.”

Furthermore, the U.S.-China relationship is very broad.  My hunch is that the American public can readily name three issues of conflict between the two countries, but they will not be able to name three benefits.  The U.S. media’s bias towards reporting conflict biases the population away from “中庸” on the world stage.

Even within the U.S. borders, the fights between polarized parties as depicted in the media seem so intense the society seems to be at a complete impasse on key problems such as budget deficit, health care, and social security.  Even the media itself have polarized themselves along the lines of Democrats (MSNBC/CNN) and Republicans (Fox).

Will U.S. society move forward with perpetual nasty fights between various groups?  Could it deteriorate to civil war?  Can harmony between these various groups be ever achieved?

Relevance to audience and universal appeal are neutral attributes, and its unfortunate that the list ends there.  What about the items Ron Paul mentioned in his Congressional speech – informed public and better understanding of economic principles?

Now, imagine all these seven attributes heightened by the fact that Western media are capitalistic media.   Fierce competition and revenue generation will push these attributes to their limits.  That, in fact, pushes against seeking truth, centrality, and harmony.  So, indeed, if Confucius is alive today, he’d advise the Western media to strive for “中庸.”

  1. r v
    May 8th, 2010 at 12:03 | #1

    Truth is water.

    Western media is an overused filter that is too cheap to replace itself, continuously injecting impurity of its past into the water.

  2. May 8th, 2010 at 13:13 | #2

    Some time ago, I read a book called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

    The booked discussed about the six elements to making stories stick:1. Simplicity, 2. Unexpectedness, 3. Concreteness, 4. Credibility, 5. Emotions, 6. Stories.

    Things that stick have nothing to do with truth. In fact, the book discussed how urban legends such as that of a man who succumbs to a barroom flirtation only to wake up in a tub of ice, victim of an organ-harvesting ring spreads and sticks.

    The American media is interested in selling sticky stories, not truth – since it is stickiness that sell, that get people talking, not truth.

    That’s the conundrum we find ourselves. In a society that prides itself on freedom of speech, we have created of an community of self-gratifying automatons that is more interested in creating and consuming juicy, sensationalism instead of trying to seek truth.

  3. George Monser
    May 9th, 2010 at 18:49 | #3

    Allen writes: “A recent poll in the U.S. shows most Americans believe that China is a bigger economic power than the U.S.. Why is that when the U.S.’s economy is at least three times larger than China’s? The reason has a lot to do with the U.S. media having been pushing a “red scare” agenda in their reporting, because conflict “makes for a good story.””

    I agree, the US media (and public officials) created this mistaken belief about relative economic power. But I think it is not a “red scare” agenda. Instead, Americans suffer hurt pride at the thought of losing the role of Number One in wealth and economic efficiency. Forty years ago, “red scare” feelings were common here, but now, everyone I know thinks that China is about 99% capitalist and 1% communist – so their feeling is not fear of “Red China”, but injury to the kind of pride that the ancient Greeks called hubris.

    My thought: If we don’t want to become number 2, we should stop griping and fighting each other, and work together as one people, to remain number 1. That’s what we did in the 1980’s, when Japan’s star was in the ascendent, and people thought it would soon overtake the US.

    As for the US Media, they are struggling to survive a tsunami of technological change, so they write things that arouse stong emotions – for example, conflicts over international trade – in order to sell their products. As a result, even when their reporting is literally true, they give the public an unbalanced picture of reality…as you said, Allen.

  4. Miao
    January 29th, 2011 at 07:18 | #4

    Truth may be water, but no matter how you try to lead horses on either side of the Pacific to it, you can’t make them drink.

  5. January 29th, 2011 at 11:42 | #5

    @George Monser #3,

    Many people confuse yinyang for me. While you are not the first one, I hope people start to take note that yinyang has been doing most of the blogging recently. I will continue to play a key role in this blog, but at present, yinyang is doing most of the blogging.

    yinyang and I are two different individuals and are under no obligation to agree with each other – or to speak for one another…

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