For all the post-election coverage on the moral values debate, there is a disturbing lack of morality in the way media covers most news. The increasingly short news cycles for both television and print media, coupled with commercial pressures on networks by corporations, have resulted in a focus on non-substantive stories by many television news stations and networks. The discussion of moral values has therefore been relegated to a politically charged conversation focused on a few hot-button issues. Meanwhile, news items that have an inherent moral component, such as health care, Social Security and the minimum wage, are not covered through a moral/ethical lens.
Television news usually reduces complex stories to 30 to 60 second segments and complex arguments to short “sound bytes.” News is packaged to fit between commercials and give advertisers an environment that optimizes their product. In-depth news stories that highlight moral conflict and trouble viewers distract from commercials and are undesirable to advertisers.
Many times, television news focuses on stories that have no substantive content at all. Though these stories pique viewers’ interest, they do not inform. Many are soap opera-like stories, such as the Michael Jackson trial, the Runaway Bride story or the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction.” These are “morality plays” – shocking tales that strike an emotional chord but cover no pressing issues and stimulate no public debate. However, they can be packaged in short dramatic segments and do not afflict viewers too much.
Stories that have moral relevance – like the Terri Schiavo case – are often oversimplified and packaged in a sensational way, so that the moral issues are buried. In the case of Schiavo, the media boiled this complex situation down to a simplistic, dramatic question: whether it was right to disconnect Schiavo’s feeding tube. Many in the media answered their own question, and made the removal of the tube tantamount to murder. This case could have stirred a debate on our society’s duty to alleviate suffering, as well as a discussion about the right to die. Instead, what many in the public saw was an emotionally hyped story that vilified Michael Schiavo and championed the government.
Even though the American public may watch such hyped stories, their concerns go deeper. Americans care about values and do not define them narrowly as issues of human reproduction and sexuality.
Health care, in particular, is an issue that Americans care about deeply. According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, a solid majority of Americans favor a government guarantee of health insurance for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes.
The rising cost of health care threatens the economic viability of families, as each year families are unable to afford insurance premiums and still pay other basic living expenses. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employee-sponsored health insurance in the United States in the last five years have been rising five times faster than workers’ earnings. Even though healthy family life is a core American value, the media rarely covers health care through a moral lens. To ignore the moral aspects of health care is to overlook that an administration that claims to value a “culture of life” scandalously allows more than 45 million Americans to go uninsured.
The same neglect extends to Social Security and the minimum wage. Though these are moral issues as well as economic ones, the arguments presented are often limited to economics. The discussion around the privatization of Social Security is typically confined to the $2 trillion price tag of changing the system, when there should be a moral dimension to this discussion. After all, FDR signed the Social Security Act to serve as a safety net for the most vulnerable in our country – the elderly and disabled.
The minimum wage was created to guarantee workers a decent standard of living, yet it has not been raised since 1997. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage was 26 percent lower in 2004 than it was in 1979, meaning that employees are being paid less money than 26 years ago. News stories highlight the possible costs of raising the minimum wage, but what about the millions of Americans living below the poverty line even when they work full-time jobs? Furthermore, the vast majority of Americans support raising the minimum wage.
For a number of reasons – from caving in to commercial interests to lack of initiative – most local and national television news does not reflect the values Americans hold important. Nor does it clarify the debate around many of our society’s most pressing issues. The superficial nature of commercial news distorts the public’s understanding of the moral consequences of political action (or inaction) – and has serious consequences for our society.
Journalists should invest more time and effort in expanding the debate on issues that Americans care about. They should do more to connect news stories with the moral/ethical realities of people’s lives – not through “morality plays,” but through in-depth, ongoing coverage of substantive issues that affect Americans.
Teresita Perez is a fellows special assistant at the Center for American Progress.