Missing The Forest For The Trees

This journalism maxim usually holds: A story is only as good as its characters.

One of the year’s biggest stories has a compelling protagonist: Edward Snowden. He is a hero or a villain, and the government is his adversary. The NSA documents Snowden leaked to The Guardian—showing that the government agency is collecting cell phone and email data from millions of Americans—is an important story that, with Snowden’s self-outing and his run from the authorities, has become an exciting tale.

Good journalists emphasize such human drama; it helps to give readers a personal stake in a thorny issue—such as, say, describing government computer programs that analyze communications “metadata.”

But in a blockbuster news week of the ongoing international spy chase, historic Supreme Court decisions, and George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the media’s focus on the individuals at the heart of these stories has too often obscured why these stories are important. The protagonists have overshadowed the issues.

In an essay published on Monday, atop their daily Wonkbook at The Washington Post, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas made an astute observation: “Everyone is talking about ‘Edward Snowden.’ The whole world knows what flight he was supposed to be on this morning and which countries he’s considering as safe harbors. The term “STELLARWIND,” by contrast, has largely dropped out of the news.”

Klein and Soltas note that The Guardian, The Washington Post and McClatchy have continued to publish new stories on the surveillance programs. But much of the coverage in the mainstream press–including from The New York Times, NPR, NBC, ABC, and CBS—have largely stuck to the story of The Chase for Snowden. It started out as a story about privacy, surveillance and security. Now, it’s a manhunt.

A similar trend has occurred in the coverage of the Zimmerman court proceedings. Many stories by these same national news organizations have focused on the day-in, day-out of the trial.

And in one way, that’s fine—as a daily news reporter, I would do the same thing, especially when there remains a deep public interest in the outcome of the case, and when the counsel arguments and the testimonies are so riveting.  But there was a time when Trayvon Martin’s murder was about more than George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. In the aftermath of Martin’s murder, the case incited a thoughtful public discussion about the credibility (or injustice) of “Stand Your Ground” laws, and about what it meant to be a young black man in today’s America. Every website and newspaper does not need a repetitive daily think piece about these issues. But it seems a long year away from the days when the media’s reflective mood gave a sense that attitudes and laws might change.

Thankfully, many reporters have taken a wider view about some of the other biggest stories of the week—the Supreme Court’s decisions on Voting Rights Act, DOMA and Proposition 8. At The Root, Corey Dade lists the number of voter ID laws that are set to be enacted in the immediate aftermath of the decision, and in both the Times and the Post, columnists have sounded concerns about the effects of both decisions.

Unfortunately, the same wide concern has not been granted to the Snowden and Zimmerman stories. While it’s easy to see the appeal of following the human drama inherent to the stories, each is in danger of becoming mere thrillers and character studies. The media and the nation would do well to more forcefully and relentlessly ask deeper questions: Why is the government collecting this data? What is the NSA doing with the records it collects? Are Stand Your Ground laws still on the books? How can police departments and security officials combat the profiling of young black men in America? In following and covering Snowden and Zimmerman, as journalists and consumers of news, we would do well to keep in mind what made these stories important in the first place.

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