News You Can Lose

An informal look at the things that Fark up our local media coverage

Feature Story

by Mike Gibson

Fark is what fills space when mass media runs out of news. Fark is supposed to look like news, but it's not. â"Drew Curtis, It's Not News, It's Fark

"Germs are lurking where you least expect them.â” The voiceover intones ominously, introducing a recent local TV news segment portentously promoted as the latest hard-hitting installment in an ongoing series of pseudo-investigative featurettes.

The setup is this: TV reporter and scientist-type collect a sampling of common and seemingly harmless household objects, items most of us are liable to come across any day of the weekâ"a kitchen washcloth and sponge, a toothbrush, cash money, a telephone, a keyboard, a restaurant menuâ"and cart them off to a laboratory to test for â“bacteria.â”

Once the suspense quotient is suitably elevated, the horrifying results (both the washcloth and the sponge have high bacteria counts!) are revealed, in a solemn pronouncement punctuated by the appropriately mortified reaction of a local homeowner. â“It's gross!â I don't know what's in thatâ"bacteria,â” she tells the camera, her faced scrunched in the manner of someone who's just opened a lunch pail and unwrapped a sandwich made of poo.

But belying all the ominous buildup, and casting doubt on the validity of the whole endeavor, is the fact that the most malignant types of bacteria, E. coli and fecal coliform, are nearly absent from all of the sample objects, according to the lab results. And also the simple scientific reality that there are many, many, many types of â“bacteria,â” most of which are benign, or even vital to sustaining carbon-based life. And also the fact that the general bacteria counts on the other sample objects are so low as to suggest that perhaps the cleaning woman at the laboratory mistook them for something else and accidentally sprayed them with bleach.

What stands out for me when I watch the reportâ"other than the fact that it is a patently ridiculous piece of televised journalismâ"is that I have seen it done in other media perhaps a dozen times before. The â“Oh My God, There's Bacteria on Everythingâ” story has been done so many times in so many different places, in fact, that Fark.com website founder Drew Curtis devotes roughly five pages to the phenomenon in his recent book , It's Not News, It's Fark (How mass media tries to pass off crap as news ).

â“One of the staples of Media Fearmongering is the Bacteria Is Found Everywhere article,â” he writes. â“These stories are particularly silly because there isn't anything to worry about. Yes, there are a lot of bacteria on household objects. They rarely kill anyone. You can tell by the lack of general warnings we've been given about not touching money or not using keyboards for fear of killing ourselves.â”

Maybe you've heard of Fark.com . The site was founded in 1999 as a repository for â“weird, funny, and unusual news.â” (The word Fark was invented by Curtis, apropos of nothing, in a desperate quest for an unclaimed domain name.) It has grown so popular in the ensuing years that Curtis' publicist says it is now the second largest independent news source on the Internet, behind only the Drudge Report.

The site began as a hobby of sorts, a way for Curtis, whose background is in computer science, to kill time and amuse his friends. In the early part of the 2000s, with the dot-com boom at its frenetic zenith, it took off and became his full-time job.

But as Curtis pored over thousands of print news articles every year, and watched countless more video links from local and national broadcast news, it became yet something else, again: a window from which to observe and catalog the profoundly weird behaviors of our modern media culture.

â“Four or five years ago, I started noticing patterns, and writing things down,â” says Curtis, a cynical but imminently approachable and irreverently funny Lexington, Ky., native who describes his lifestyle as â“reading 2,000 articles on weekdays and on weekends frying my brain by drinking beer all the time.â”

â“I noticed types of stories that repeat,â” he continues, â“stuff like somebody getting their dick chopped off, or Jesus' face appearing on something, all these individual things I saw time and again. Then an agency contacted me about writing a book based on the website. So I sat down and did the really hardcore work of asking: What kinds of patterns have I actually seen here? How is this working out? The book is taking a step back and looking at the website.â”

Curtis sent drafts of his book to friends in journalism, and most of them affirmed that he was right on the money. â“It's been a big hit with anyone with any journalistic background,â” he says. â“They really like it, and usually say â‘I've been saying the same thing for years.' They're complaining that a lot of coverage consists of stupid crap, and this is not what they went into journalism for. They were out to change the world, not to report on $1,000 hamburgers or grandmothers taking their clothes off for charity.â”

After reading the finished productâ"one of the few unsolicited freebies received at this office that's actually worth the paper it's printed onâ"I had the same reaction. Curtis describes nearly everything that's gone wrong with modern journalism with remarkable clarity and insight, not to mention loads of wise-ass humor, an accomplishment made all the more impressive by the fact he's never been a journalist himself.

His book inspired this (very) informal, somewhat haphazard sampling of our own local mediaâ"print and broadcast television alikeâ"with some observations from a few local media experts thrown in, just for hoots. Consider it a cursory effort to take the measure of our media according to the principles of Fark.

It's not a very well-calibrated samplingâ"a few weeks of taped television-news broadcasts, and some stacks of saved newspapersâ"but it probably has as at least as much scientific validity as the average Bacteria Is Found Everywhere TV news featurette. And in the interest of fairness, I took a glance at our own publication, too, as well as some of the stories I've written myself for various East Tennessee newspapers over the 15 years or so I've been a reporter. Just so you'll know I'm not picking on anyone in particular.

Curtis has cataloged several broad categories of Farkâ"let's call them Farketypesâ"based on his years of website research. Some are sensationalizing, some are self-serving, and some are just plain easy, as readily digestible for the media consumer as they are simple for journalists to produce. Notables include Media Fearmongering, mentioned above; Celebrity News; Seasonal Articles; and something Curtis calls Equal Time for Nutjobs.

He also notes a handful of Fark subtypes, mini-categories such as Missing White Chicks, Shark Attacks, Disasters, and Penis Amputations, among others. There are still more Farketypes yet to be mapped and defined, I believe; I'm going to go so far as to suggest that the last item, Penis Amputations, should be included in a larger category, entitled Anything Related To Sex.

The problem is not that these things never bear mentioning in the news media; many are at least modestly worthy of our attention. The problem usually has as much to do with the treatment of storiesâ"emphasis and spin and volumeâ"as it does with content and selection. University of Tennessee Broadcasting Professor Dr. Mark Harmon, also a Knox County Commissioner, appropriates a phrase from Econ 101 when offering his own critiques of modern media. â“It's about opportunity cost,â” he says. â“If you spend too much of your time on certain stories, you might not have time to do other stories that serve your community better.â”

Perhaps the cheapest and most insidious of the Farketypes is Media Fearmongering. Steve Crabtree, news director at Knoxville's WVLT Channel 8, describes the phenomenon as â“scaring instead of preparing.â”

â“Consultants tell you the way to get viewers is to captivate them,â” he says. â“And if your emphasis is solely to captivate, you run into segments like â‘Tapwater can kill you. Film at 11'.â”

He acknowledges that the problem is particularly rampant in broadcast news, where such stories are readily presentable visually, and make for easy drama. The aforementioned Bacteria Is Everywhere TV story, which aired locally on WATE Channel 6, was the best specimen I could find in my limited sampling of recent media. But the Best of the Rest award goes to one I found in my personal archives, in print.

Appearing in a daily paper in another East Tennessee county in April of 1995, it's an article that attempted to put a local spin on the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which had taken place only days before the story ran. In the second paragraph, the local sheriff of the county in question is quoted saying that, â“You never know when someone's going to try to come and try to blow you away. You can imagine if someone wanted to blow up the courthouse hereâ. The whole affair just goes to show the kind of vulnerability we have.â”

That one had my byline on it, sorry to say. To the best of my knowledge, that particular courthouse is still standing.

Curtis has saddled a second Farketype with the unwieldy designation of Unpaid Placement Masquerading as Actual Article. Interpreted broadly, what he's talking about is actually something occasionally referred to as press-release journalism.

As journalists, we're constantly inundated by press releases and PR requests for everything from products and services to political causes and charitable institutions. Some of them are obvious, directly seeking coverage for their cause. Some are sneakyâ"seemingly independent research studies or opinion polls that are actually sponsored by groups with an agenda to push.

And sometimes, because media outlets are desperate for ad revenues, or because journalists are lazy or else just don't read the fine print, these requests see the light of day in broadcasts or on the page, undifferentiated from other editorial content. One of the best places to observe the phenomenon is the Business page of almost any local daily.

Glancing through recent issues of the News Sentinel , for instance, in the Business section, you'll find everything from announcements of promotions at local banks to upbeat â“storiesâ” about local companiesâ"such as a recent bylined piece about a Sevier County restaurant. The story in question is allegedly justified by the premise that the restaurant's â“value-addedâ” (means: making lots of different stuff from a single product) approach to utilizing produce is a novel business innovation, but I think we know the score. Items such as these routinely run side by side with legitimate news stories about cable industry regulation and takeover attempts at major corporations and such.

As it happens, I did my fair share of those stories, back in the day, as an intern at a small paper in another neighboring county. The paper's policy was that every time a new business joined the local chamber of commerce, we wrote a â“storyâ” about themâ"a task that, for obvious reasons, none of the regular reporters were inclined to do. Consequently, all of my earliest newspaper clips are fatuous advertorials.

My own favorite Farketype is something Curtis calls Equal Time for Nutjobs, which he describes thusly: â“This pattern takes its name from the fact that, for whatever reason, Mass Media feels compelled to insert â‘alternative viewpoints' into scientific articles from people who are obviously complete loons.â”

Harmon has his own phraseology for Nutjob reporting, tooâ"â“obligatory balancing.â” â“It's a technique of reporting that drives me nuts,â” he says. â“If a guy from the Flat Earth Society comes, you don't have to give flat earth versus round earth equal time and suggest that both are equally valid when anyone can look at the shadow of the earth in an eclipse. There's news balancing, but there's also news judgment.â”

I haven't noticed any choice examples of local Nutjob reporting lately, although I did pick up an anecdote from an area news director, about a sighting of the infamous Skunk Ape a few years back. The Skunk Ape, in case you're wondering, is a furtive Bigfoot-like creature who intermittently pops out and shows his hairy visage at various points around rural East Tennessee, usually at late-night field parties that involve lots of pot smoking and many kegs of beer.

When the Skunk Ape last appeared in these parts, in Campbell County back in 2003, two of our local TV stations mentioned the sighting in brief on nightly news broadcasts, passing the story along with a chuckle and a wink. A third station, however, reported it with all the breathless urgency of a legitimate breaking news story, going so far as to visit the scene with a local crypto-zoologist (i.e., Nutjob) in tow.

The most hackneyed of the Farketypes, and one of the plagues of every cub reporter's existence, is the so-called Seasonal Article. Or if you're an especially lazy cub reporter, it might be considered a welcome break from actual research, since seasonal stories can often be written quickly, weeks in advance, or even recycled, with a few minor changes, from the previous year.

Examples include the Holiday Traffic story, the Black Friday day-after-Thanksgiving shopping story, and the always-popular Heat Wave story. Curtis notes that Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick even poked savage fun at his own paper's over-the-top weather coverage on one occasion, spurred by a particularly frenzied spate of July Heat Wave stories. â“For those of us in the news biz, there is only one thing more exciting than heat,â” Ferrick wrote. â“That is record heat. For record heat, we will remake the front page and use Pearl Harbor-sized type and write headlines that say: â‘Record Heat Scorches Region!' We will then proceed to tell you that it was hot yesterday.â”

At my first full-time newspaper job, one of our seasonal mainstays was the Leaf Report, a front-page feature tracking fall colors in the mountains for several weeks out of every year through September and October. Duties shifted to a different reporter every week. A sampling of scintillating Leaf Report quotes, taken from October of '95: â“The colors haven't been as spectacular this year.â” â“We haven't seen anything spectacular yet.â” â“It's not spectacular overall, but the undergrowth has some fine reds and oranges.â”

One of those quotes was taken from my turn at the Leaf Report. I can't remember which.

There are many, many other recent examples of Fark in local media. Take the Penis/Sex Farketype, for instance. Only a couple of weeks back, we heard various titillating reports about a dull-witted Tennessee State Trooper who allegedly received a hummer from a porn starlet during a traffic stop, in exchange for overlooking the contraband prescription pills supposedly found in her vehicle. That one received top-of-the-page coverage in the News Sentinel , and I'm willing to bet it got the same treatment in a few other Tennessee county fishwraps as well.

Less common in local news is the Celebrity Story phenomenonâ"a constant in today's national news media, where Paris and Lindsay and Anna Nicole seemingly share top billing with our President's foibles and the war in Iraq. But it happens; check out the front page of nearly any area daily the next time Dolly Parton swings into town.

And lest I forget, the publication you currently hold in your hand is due some closer scrutiny, just like our brothers and sisters at that Other Paper here in town. We have a certain amount of (ahem!) plausible deniability here at Metro Pulse , due to the fact that we are an alt-weekly, with a more broadly defined mission statement, and not strictly â“justâ” a newspaper in the traditional sense of the word. Nonetheless, we're still capable of Fark, just like everyone else.

For instance: One of the common Seasonal Articles Curtis points to in It's Not News, It's Fark is the Year-end Wrap-up, a dandy space filler that usually involves some variation on the theme of â“Top Stories of the Year.â” Metro Pulse has not one but two issues devoted almost entirely to such every yearâ"our â“Year-in-Reviewâ” and â“Year-in-Previewâ” issues, which run in consecutive weeks in December and January.

Of course, what these issues do is provide our insightful staff of reporters an opportunity to take the measure of the events of the preceding year, and look forward with keen and discerning eyes to survey the challenges that lie ahead.

That, and we get to rehash, make stuff up and leave the office early during the holidays, rather than doing actual time-consuming research on fresh new stories when we could be out swilling spiked eggnog and shopping for Dirty Santa gifts.

At various times, we've followed up on self-serving press releases; we've written fluffy filler stories, usually out of desperation or fatigue; and once upon a time, we had our own version of the Business Section-type advertorial. We called it â“New Business Spotlight,â” or some damned thing.

And even now, we have at least two regular features that, for various Farking reasons, I would just as soon never, ever, ever see appear in this paper again. Not saying which.

Understand, however, that no one is suggesting our local news media is any more or less Farked up than that of the next town over. Dr. Peter Gross, head of UT's School of Journalism and Electronic Media, goes so far as to suggest that, â“In many respects, I think local media do much better than national media.â” In assessing the overall performance of local news outlets, Harmon notes that, â“I've seen a lot better, and I've seen a lot worse.â”

The problem is hardly endemic to Knoxville, and the examples I've pointed to are mere microcosms of the larger problem.

Which is: Where did all this Fark come from, and what can weâ"particularly those of us in the mediaâ"do about it? Answers aren't easy to come by, tangled as they are in a web of further questions. Such as: What is the role of traditional news media in a world where the Internet increasingly holds sway over our reading and viewing tendencies? And are audiences really ready to accept probing, thoughtful reportage in lieu of glitzy fast-food journalism?

Curtis is pessimistic, pointing out that stories about crime or sex or celebrities in rehab or catered birthday parties for dogs (another recent gem courtesy of our local TV news) are not only easier to produce, but also ever more appealing to an audience of media consumers with increasingly short attention spans.

â“I think we probably get the media we deserve, especially now that many publications are online, and they can look at traffic patterns for individual stories,â” Curtis says. â“It's interesting how at the end of year, everyone has their top-10 stories roundup. Only once have I seen it done based on traffic, and that was a riot. I think the publication decided never to do that again, because the No. 1 story of the year was some guy who got caught having sex with the dog in the shed.

â“As a news organization, you've got to scratch your head and go, â‘What the hell do we do?' What happens is you shuffle your feet and pretend it's news while you look in the other direction.â”

Maybe he's right. Harmon notes that in television newsâ"long a target of media critics for its Farkish tendency to dwell on car accidents and epic weather forecasts rather than issue-oriented current eventsâ"Fark appears to be on the rise. The percentage of classic â“sensationalistâ” stories (crime, disasters, accidents) on the average broadcast, for instance, has risen from about 28 percent to more than 40 percent over the last couple of decades.

â“As someone who serves in county government, I wish there was more attention to matters of common concern,â” Harmon says. â“Budgets, stormwater, they're not sexy stories, but they're important. They're tough to do and they're time consuming and they're not very visual. Can a TV station really afford a reporter and a camera crew for a three-hour meeting with no guaranteed result? But you have to find ways to approach those stories. It can be done.â”

Or can it? Maybe the jury is still out on whether we're really ready for news that isn't spoon-fed to us in sugary bite-sized morsels. Gross suggests that's the case. â“You have to ask yourself what it is the audience needs,â” he posits. â“I think we used to ask that question. I think what takes precedent now is the question, â‘What does the audience wan t?' And of course, what they want may be a far cry from what they need.

â“I think that discussion has not yet taken place within the journalistic profession, and particularly between the journalist and audiences. How do you balance what audiences want and what they need? People have touched on it in studies, but nothing serious has come out of it. We need to have that discussion.â”

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