Along the Tracks

Thursday, April 17, 2003

What’s the ‘Summer Story’?

For several summers now, the media has provided its working journalists with vacations by hyping just one or two storylines - easy for a reduced staff to cover. Let’s see ... over the past couple years, we’ve had Chandra Levy, shark attacks, West Nile Virus and abducted children.

The obvious question: What’s on tap for this summer?

These summer-doldrums stories all have a few things in common. First, they are domestic - no overseas reporters necessary! Second, they’re - OOOOH! - kind of scary, in a gut-instincts way (disappeared children and sinister suspects, sea monsters, new illnesses). Third, they are mysterious - no easy solutions. Fourth, they have legs - approximately three months’ worth! A workplace shooting spree or collapsed bridge is fine and dandy, but after you’ve told the story, and the story behind the story, then what? No, we need repetition here - “It’s happened again!” or else a constant trickle of information (Chandra disappears; Chandra’s parents speak out; Gary Condit speaks out; the police look into a new tip; etc.).

So, what will get people to check out the papers or turn on FoxNews while at the lake or planning for a Disney trip?

A few of my own nominees:
  • 1. SARS. This one is the obvious front-runner - by June there are sure to be hundreds of cases in the U.S. But don’t jump on the bandwagon just yet. The American medical system is far better equipped to handle the severe cases than other countries now being hit, and by summer, a much-improved treatment regimen is likely to be in place. Ultimately, SARS will probably be no more dangerous than the flu - it just has the advantage of a bad reputation. Still, West Nile Virus doesn’t adversely affect the vast majority of people exposed to it, and look at the flurry of reporting which surrounded last year’s outbreak. SARS may be the “ace in the hole” if nothing else grabs attention.

  • 2. Sexual predators in our midst. As the “Megan’s Law” movement takes full effect, more and more people are getting the flyer in the mail with a photo, name, address and list of convictions. Until now, I don’t believe most people realized just how many convicts fall under the sexual predator classification - or how little time most serve. This is a real “hits home” kind of story, with ready-made “shocking tales,” and easy to investigate and report. This storyline comes in a close second to SARS, in my book.

  • 3. Food scare. This is a perennial possibility, but with both terrorism and pestilence high on the public’s agenda, this could be a two-fer. What, specifically, will be the focus? Meat’s been pretty well covered; restaurants, ditto; hey, what about grains? Between pesticides, genetic modifications, environmental factors and security issues, there’s bound to be a long-running story for an intrepid journalist willing to dig. Remember, it doesn’t have to be convincing, just compelling!

  • 4. Lost foster children. This story has been bubbling below the surface for a couple years now - many state children’s services departments are atrociously inept at protecting the most vulnerable among us. I think we’re likely to see several investigative reports on the departments in a number of states, and these will be centered on just one or two particularly heart-wrenching cases. Will it catch fire? If the networks want it to, it will.

  • 5. West Nile Virus, Part Deux. This year there probably will be about 10 times as many cases of West Nile Virus as last year. However, its prevalence will be its undoing, at least as far as the networks are concerned. At some point, a story like this ceases to be national, and becomes local. Who cares if 17 people are in Utah hospitals with WNV if there are six cases in your own town? Also, as with most diseases, this one will become less frightening as the medical community comes to understand it better - and develop successful treatments. Finally, there is an entertainment factor to consider. The average Joe already knows as much about WNV as he cares to, so why should he tune in anymore. Sequels rarely work in news coverage unless there is actually something new.

    Those are my top five nominees. Of course, other factors could come in to play - we could always have a scourge of rabid bats or new high-profile murder-mystery, and a domestic terrorist strike would supplant all else. Still, I think there is a fair amount of predictability here. If you’ve got a nomination of your own, send it in! I’ll print up the predictions I receive in a future post.

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