Saturday, December 03, 2005

CRISIS IN (Insert Issue of the Moment)

At the gym at work, the television receives one channel, CNN. I tend to avoid television news when I can because it is almost always sensationalized and the information delivery rate is extraordinarily low compared to written news and even radio. But, other people always turn the monitor on, so I have to live with it. Thank God for the iPod with music and NPR podcasts.

I tend to work out some time between 6 and 8 PM, so depending on what time I get there I see some combination of Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room and Lou Dobbs Tonight. Before getting to the main topic, let me express that Lou Dobbs is a sheer and utter asshole. I don't watch enough to really know which way he leans politically, but that is beside the point. Lou Dobbs is a rude and pompous jerk. After most stories he provides a little extra commentary, usually well indicated by his leaning to the side and wearing a jackass smirk on his face. He proceeds then to make fun of people covered in the preceding story. I'm sure he thinks he's being like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, but he is neither funny nor does he expose hypocrisy like Stewart does. Instead he is simply mean.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to assail Lou Dobbs, but instead to express exhaustion at the use of the word "crisis." Or, I should say "CRISIS" as it's usually put on the screen. Every story on television news is a "CRISIS". There are crises in education, in immigration, with China, in Iraq, in the economy, in entertainment, in nursing. On both Thursday and Friday, nearly every story on Blitzer's Situation Room was a crisis. That's funny, when I read the newspaper that day, I didn't see any crises. When I look at, I don't see all these crises. It's only on television that they have to have some crises.

Let's look at the definition of the word crisis for a moment. From we see a couple definitions of the word crisis.

cri·sis Audio pronunciation of "crisis" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (krss)
n. pl. cri·ses (-sz)
    1. A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point.
    2. An unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change.
  1. A sudden change in the course of a disease or fever, toward either improvement or deterioration.
  2. An emotionally stressful event or traumatic change in a person's life.
  3. A point in a story or drama when a conflict reaches its highest tension and must be resolved.
Obviously, the medical and literary definitions (2-4) are not as important to us as the broader definitions of 1a and 1b. Given these definitions, let's examine the crises in education and nursing that were covered on CNN last week.

First, the education crisis story was actually about the state of Minnesota's instituting new accountability mechanisms for teachers based on student test performance. A certainly reasonable story to air, especially since it is a controversial concept. But does Minnesota's move constitute a "crucial or decisive point" or an "unstable condition"? Hardly. Likewise, the crisis in nursing story was about the drop in the number of nurses in America despite increasing demand for their services. Again, perfectly reasonable story about a topic that should concern the public. But like the educational accountability story, hardly a crisis.

I wonder why "crisis" is so overused in television news, as is the word "tragedy". Do television news producers think that unless something is a crisis or a tragedy, viewers will lose interest? Perhaps. It seems like it is a demonstration of the terrible information transfer rates of television news. Reading a newspaper with that many crises would get overwhelming and seem absurd. But to keep a viewer's attention from wandering because they get bored, they have to use exagerated words to bring them back. Maybe news producers should take a cue from drama producers, who realized that viewers are in fact capable of following fast-paced, multiple-thread shows such as The West Wing and 24. I'd take that over old-fashioned television news anyday.


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