MTA Crisis Reminds Journalists About Chicken Little

Seeing the lurid headlines and the endless scare stories on television makes you wonder: are we doing our jobs as journalists? Or does the never-ending emphasis on gloom and doom seem designed to terrify rather than inform people?

The swine flu story is the latest case in point. Experts have told us again and again that the current evidence suggests this may not be a serious threat to health. Yet, the drum beat of sensationalism continues and sometimes grows louder. As we compete furiously for the audience, we tend to chase the more sensational angles. Thus, we de-emphasize the words of a scientist who says that, as of now, there's little to worry about.

We keep a statistical count of the number of cases of this so far relatively harmless malady. A toll, a list, is always more dramatic than the monotonous, if reassuring, words of a scientist. It's almost as though we'd be disappointed if the illness doesn't turn suddenly and become deadly and widespread.

Then there's the MTA -- sounding the alarm day after day about "doomsday" approaching. Subway service may be cut off at night. Bus routes will be discontinued. Fares will be raised. Unless a care package arrives from Albany, all will be lost.

Talk about scary scenarios -- these guys at the MTA should be writing horror stories. The MTA guys are the Stephen Kings among so-called civil servants. The subway and bus system are the lifeblood of New York. Neither the governor nor the mayor, nor the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, nor Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith can afford to have a major calamity befall this system that carries millions of New Yorkers to work every day.

Of course, the sensational stuff makes good copy. And, in the feverish drive to outdo the other guys, some of us journalists, I am afraid, lose our perspective. Balance in telling these stories has never been more important than it is now.

The economy is another example. Many millions of Americans have been affected. People have lost their jobs or have been forced to take part-time work after being laid off.

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the The New York Times, wrote a column defending the depressing stories his paper has published in recent months, stories with headlines such as: "As Jobs Vanish, Motel Rooms Become Home", "A Gloomy Outlook for Big Season in Home Sales" and "So You're Dead? Don't Expect that to Stop the Debt Collector."

Hoyt quotes a Times editor as saying that the trick is to keep it all in balance, "to divorce yourself from whether a story is going to be positive or negative ... write it and let the chips fall where they fall." Like the proverbial baseball umpire, this view holds, a newspaper must call 'em as it sees 'em. And I think, in general, journalists have done a good job in maintaining balance in stories about the economy.

Yet there are bound to be more sensational stories in the future. And it still challenges all of us in this news-gathering profession to adhere to an old adage:  "Get it first but, first, get it right."

There's an old fable about Chicken Little, a distressed chicken who runs around warning fellow animals that the sky is falling. It happens after an acorn falls on her head. As she sets out to tell the king, other animals rally to her side. A wily fox joins the group and, taking advantage of the panic, manages to eat some of his new colleagues.

So, is there a danger that the press can be Chicken Little, needlessly scaring people? Maybe. Yes, we have to balance the facts we impart -- with a healthy dose of realism and, if need be, skepticism. Chicken Little got hysterical. We've got to do better than that.

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