Tales Of Our Times: News Is The Rare Bead In A Big Jar

Tales of Our Times

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

News is the Rare Bead in a Big Jar

The jarful of beads standing by the window had as much to teach as any of the fancier exhibits at the big city science museum. The clear plastic jar was of good size, as might hold an ample stock of licorice sticks in a candy store. It got me thinking about motives, and why people are different from science.

The label on the jar said it held one million small colored beads. I read that most of the beads, some 89 percent of the jarful, were blue; 10 percent were yellow; and 1 percent were red. This means the jar had 10,000 red beads among the hundreds of thousands that gave a mainly blue and yellow look to the contents.

The label said the jar also held 1,000 white beads, 100 pink beads, 10 green beads and a black bead. The white beads could be spotted with a little effort. The pink took some time to find one. The 10 green and one black bead in the million had to be taken on trust.

The jar intrigued me. I thought about human quirks in the public issues I write about. The beads in the jar are like items in the news. Most events in our world-size jar are blue or yellow events. As a result, most of them get lost or overlooked in the sea of blue and yellow. One blue or yellow bead more or less is neither notable nor interesting. Each is just a spot of more sea to see. What could be less newsworthy? Nothing to report.

By contrast, one of the 1000 white beads draws more interest than the blue all around. Spotting one of the 100 pink beads in a million starts to be real fun. Then race your grandkids to be first to find one of the 10 green beads. The black bead is the prize, like an interrupting headline in the news.

The picture we get from the news begins to take shape. News is made of uncommon events, that is, events published for being newsworthy. News is the 1,000-plus white, pink, green and black beads out of a million. Never will we hear, “This just in: The sea is chiefly blue.”

Certain parts of the news are there to sum up events, with the only motive being to describe the scene as it is. This small category includes stock market reports, ball scores, team standings and the day’s weather. The news at times reports study findings about the broader aspects of some subject. Examples are the statistics of a disease or crime rates. Yet, even here the unusual gets the lion’s share of news space and time. In plain terms, “attention” and “normal” are clashing values.
Most news stories are picked with the motive of attracting interest. Novelty adds interest. As the world setting grows larger, and words grow noisier, getting noticed by dint of novelty continues to evolve. This means the background itself evolves further in noise and novelty. And so on … and so on.
From the news alone, we would conclude the jar contains almost no blue or yellow pieces. Yet the real jar is mostly full of them. The happenings in the news avoid most of the things happening. In some ways, we understand why. In other ways, think how strange this picture is.

None of this story gives us a problem when the workings are kept in mind. Simply remember the story: news events have a motive to draw attention from the ordinary.

The problem is that we constantly forget. We take the news as the picture of things, as the jarful of colored beads, rather than what news is, the notable exceptions therein. So our problems grow.