What’s wrong with the news?

No one would dispute that news media are currently in bad repute. This was not always so, and in fact not that long ago some newspapers and newscasters ranked very high in public esteem. Some of this drop in the opinion polls is a result of extreme politicizing but there is plenty to criticize on a substantive level.

Here, I want to focus on one important failing that is rarely mentioned. Every story, whether on TV, in a newspaper article or an online report, starts in the middle. The beginning of the story is somehow lost or forgotten, and as a result the story is almost certainly misinterpreted by its recipients.

A new kind of ballistic missile is launched by North Korea. A speaker at a city council meeting is drowned out by angry demonstrators. A massive mudslide destroys homes. There is a confrontation between factions concerned with removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans. U.S. warplanes strike new targets in eastern Syria. There are severe outbreaks of measles in several Midwestern cities. Invasive Burmese pythons are changing the ecology of the Florida Everglades. The Cleveland Indians baseball franchise decides to remove its cartoonish mascot but retain its team nickname. Both Russian Premier Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping force legislative changes allowing them to retain power indefinitely. Average rates on individual health insurance policies increased by 12% last year. An unarmed black man is shot by police in a violent confrontation. The Supreme Court hears a Republican challenge to Maryland’s electoral map.

These are the headlines you read and hear. The latest facts of these stories are presented and discussed – sometimes endlessly and repetitively. Interested parties and stakeholders are interviewed. But all of these stories are half-told. What came before that leads up to this? That is absolutely vital to understanding what has happened, why it has happened, and what if anything is a sensible response.

It is fair to answer that it is impossible to flesh out the full history behind each headline. There isn’t enough time or space, and in any case the audience has too short an attention span to tolerate it. But still, much more effort is needed to fill this news deficit. And clever news organizations could do a far better job of establishing context if they wanted to and if that became the new norm.

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