Back in the early 1980s, when Japan’s economy and influence on the world was ascendant, I made a bet with a colleague at Adweek that New York City, not Tokyo, would still be the media – and cultural center – of the world by the year 2000.
I won the bet.
And 22 years later, New York City still is the media capital of the world.
If you have any doubt, just consider what happens when there is a mass shooting on a Manhattan-bound subway car in Brooklyn during rush hour.
It blows all other news off the air, the streams, and of course, Twitter, as the world’s media attention shifts to what’s happening in Media Town.
Thankfully, nobody on the subway has died or is expected to, but to put the news value into perspective, I tried searching for how many civilians died in Ukraine on Tuesday.
While Google isn’t that discrete – or omniscient – in rendering search queries, it did produce a recent stat from Statista reporting that as of April 11, 1,892 civilians have died as a result of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.
And 153 of them were children.
While it didn’t report stats for Tuesday, the average would have been 47 Ukrainian civilians killed daily.
My point isn’t about the relative tragicness of the two events, it’s about the nature of media industry news values.
If you slap someone in the face live onstage at any other awards show and it very well could go viral, but do it during the Oscars telecast and it becomes one of the year’s biggest media events.
If someone shoots 10 people on a subway car in Brooklyn, it becomes the center of the media universe.
There have been 159 mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year. They killed 205 people. Remarkably, only one of them -- the January 13 shooting of four people in a rental hall in Canarsie Brooklyn, in which nobody was killed – was the only other one in New York City.
As a life-long student of news values, I understand what makes news news. And the No. 1 attribute is relevance, meaning why it is more important than other news to the audience it’s being reported to.
My point is that when something happens in the Big Apple, it becomes disproportionately relevant news to the rest of the world.
Part of that is because so much media is actually headquartered in NYC, but a bigger part is that the city is a symbol for the rest of the world.
It is, in effect, a media standard for what others around the world think of a standard bearer for media culture.
If there is any upside to the mass shooting in Brooklyn yesterday it is:
First and foremost that nobody died.
The images and video of New Yorkers immediately coming to the aid of other New Yorkers.
The massive coordinated law enforcement response proving that for all its soft targets, New York City likely is as secure as any city could possibly be in an era of ubiquitous gun violence.
I would think most people scattered around the United States find it remarkable how 6-inch snowfalls, freak 100-degree days, deadly apartment fires, and remarkable rookie pitchers are much more newsworthy and significant when they happen in New York than they are if they happen somewhere anywhere else.
The problem is that people love stories, and journalism is very good at telling them. But, as I put it in Where Journalism Fails https://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2019/07/23/where-journalism-fails/ , stories are about characters with problems moving toward resolutions. Dead nameless children in a country locked in a war that starting to look endless is a statistic. An incident. Not a story. Same with Covid stats. A million dead now (or soon) in the U.S., and yet it's just a statistic with no obvious movement (other than sadly upward). It should be THE biggest topic of our time, since nearly all of us by now know someone who has been killed or terribly sickened by Covid. Dig this: https://www.yahoo.com/news/least-6-conservative-radio-hosts-181500159.html According to that story, seven anti-vax and anti-mask talk show hosts are dead of Covid. Yet hardly a mind has changed, because sides have been taken, and that too is a huge part of human nature. Pro- and anti- vax and mask sides have been taken. The result is a conflict rather than a conversation—just like abortion, The Wall, declaring gendered pronouns, guns and so on. People identify with sides, so those make stories too. So do characters. You can't keep Fauci off NPR or MSNBC, or while he's a big punching bag for Fox News and all of right wing talk radio. Wish I knew a fix, but I don't.