Mama Says
Let’s be careful news consumers

by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, February 2005) I was chatting with a couple neighbors when the subject of grocery stores came up.

“This really stinks,” one of them said. “They’re closing all the Tops stores. The one at Westown is the closest store to my house. Where am I going to go to shop?”

“And what about all those jobs?” the other neighbor asked. “I bet they’ve got fifteen or twenty stores in Cleveland. Must be thousands of jobs.”

Wait a minute.

I had read the same story in the newspaper that morning. Sure, it was bad news — but not this bad. Two stores were to close in Cleveland and four more in the northeast Ohio region. I pointed this out.
No way, they said. Tops was closing its Cleveland stores.  They’d seen it on TV.

“I heard it while I was getting my daughter ready for daycare. They said, ‘Tops to close Cleveland stores,’ or something, and then went to a commercial. It really stinks.”

When I got home, I was able to doublecheck my sources. Sure enough, Crain’s Cleveland Business identified the six stores that Tops had decided to close. Two were in Cleveland — one on Broadway and one on St. Clair. Seven more Cleveland stores will remain open here, including the stores at Westown and at West 30th and Clark. But of course by the time I found my proof, it was too late to set anyone straight. Assuming anyone welcomed more accurate information.

For a number of reasons, this conversation has been a burr under my tail this week. What’s going on here?

Partly, it’s a problem of someone not having listened either long enough or with enough attention to hear the details. A lot of us get much of our news on the run. In a global information society with thousands of news sources, we often catch only snippets of stories, and frequent misinformation is inevitable.

I suspect it’s also a case of a news source “playing up” the bad news with a mildly misleading teaser. This is nothing new, or even surprising. We like our good news to come during family chats at the dinner table, in friendly letters from our relatives, and from our boss when she’s handing out the holiday bonus checks. But when the TV news shows start offering up too large a portion of good news, we begin to suspect that they’re not doing their jobs very well.

The more disturbing issue is the extent to which, as news consumers, we’re satisfied with our first and most depressing impression.

Cleveland has plenty of bad news — maybe even more than its share. So why go looking for trouble? Isn’t it bad enough that we’re losing 390 jobs and two stores that had each served their neighborhoods for more than 30 years? Is it really necessary to imagine ten times that trouble?

If for no other reason than self-preservation, Cleveland news consumers need to take a share of the skepticism we’ve long had for politicians, statistics and survey data and reapply it to headlines and TV news teasers. Perhaps then — as we all become more skilled at distinguishing between challenges and catastrophes — we’ll also get more skilled at finding solutions.


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