If you missed the news about the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean, you must have been buried in sand. For three weeks, we have been bombarded with theories – was it terrorism? Pilot error? Something else? Now the story has evolved. Were pieces of the plane found? Is everyone dead? How do the families of the presumed dead feel? (This is a really stupid question. How does the clueless reporter asking such a question think the people feel?)
CNN may well have been called MPN – the Missing Plane Network. An evening of watching covered the same angle with a different host and guests. Some of the focus was certainly understandable, but other networks managed to find news of things going on that did not involve Flight 370. Still, the prevalent and relentless emphasis on the missing plane was excessive.
Couldn’t some of the airtime granted Flight 370 have been used for equally critical matter? There were 239 people on that plane, and there were more than 300 killed in 2013. I’m not suggesting an equivalency in the two types of tragedies, but I am suggesting that the media might focus more on gun violence, its sources and possible solutions to end senseless violence. Of course, that might anger the National Rifle Association, whose specious slogan – “Guns don’t kill, people do”– ignores the harm done by the proliferation of guns in our nation.
President Obama has challenged our nation’s educators to increase the percentage of young people attending and graduating from college, so we might better compete with other industrialized countries. People applaud at these sentiments, but these educational goals get little media attention. Yet, such coverage would raise an important issue and, perhaps, push us toward solutions.
I do not begrudge the extensive coverage of Flight 370. The disappearance of a plane is both a mystery and a tragedy. But the excessive coverage of Flight 370 reminds us of the power of the media. If something is repeated enough, and repeatedly enough, it wiggles its way into our consciousness. Thus, the pilots have been tried and convicted by media speculation, without anyone actually knowing what happened.
What if such repetition were used to highlight some of our nation’s most serious social and economic challenges. What if we could get a couple of networks, just for a week, focus on reading proficiency, or the environment, or poverty and inequality? Perhaps we can’t focus on these issues because we can’t agree on their causes, not when the likes of Rand Paul are running around excoriating the poor and the unemployed every chance he gets. Or with, despite this long and frigid winter, the global warming deniers won’t give any ground.
Media coverage is used to rivet attention toward an issue or challenge. Unfortunately, it has rarely been used for good, although it could be. What if viewers demanded that there is some focus on essential issues? What if there were a media campaign to encourage children to read more, and encourage parents and teachers to encourage this reading? Such a campaign might include paid advertising, but much of it might be driven by news stories.
May I have your attention, please? Might I have your attention about poverty and unemployment? May I have your attention about the status of our young people? What about the literacy issue? The paucity of open space in some cities?
May I have your attention about the importance of getting out the vote? I want your attention about the effectiveness of standardized tests. I need your attention on the automobile manufacturers who sell defective cars and take a whole three years to recall them.
In the wake of the Flight 370 tragedy we will learn, undoubtedly, about those who lost their lives because of the tragedy. Only rarely, however, will we learn about the most recent victim of gun violence. May I have your attention? Please.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.