Newspapers aren’t (just) entertainment

One of the biggest frustrations to me and journalists the world over is that people too often treat our work as just another diversion, something that can be tuned into or tuned out of as easily as the last episode of “Survivor” or the latest Lions game.

This isn’t entertainment.

At least, it isn’t just entertainment.

Hopefully, all of our stories are well-written in an engaging way, so you enjoy reading while being informed. And newspapers, as chroniclers of history-in-the-making, cover the fun things, too. The News, for example, has recently covered the charming story of a runaway dog brought home from Rogers City, given a rollicking review to a rollicking performance at the community theater, and detailed the cute-kids-athon that is the Optimist Club’s annual Spring Break Family Fun Day.

But most of our ink is dedicated to serious, real-life stuff with serious, real-life consequences.

Still, too many people — in society, in my own family, even in newsrooms in which I’ve worked — treat politics like it’s just another hobby, equal to woodworking or professional tennis or muscle cars.

“I’m not into politics,” they’ll say, as if it’s all just a channel they can turn off.

They do so at their own peril.

Newspapers cover politics because politicians are the men and women who have control over how much of your paycheck you get to keep, the safety of the food you eat, the quality of the schools where you send your children, the police who patrol your neighborhoods, the nuclear weapons not flying over your head.

In recent weeks, The Alpena News has carried Associated Press stories on the findings of a criminal investigation into the president of the United States, Congress’ debate with the executive branch over sanctions for a hostile nuclear power, a rash of suicides claiming the lives of people affected by uniquely American gun violence, and much, much more.

And local news is even more consequential. Or at least more immediately consequential.

In recent weeks, the front page of The Alpena News has carried stories on police liaison officers who protect our students (and cost taxpayers money), faltering health statistics in Northeast Michigan, environmental cleanup efforts in Alcona County, taxpayer-funded pay hikes in Alpena Township, and a profile of the undercover agency working to combat drugs in our neighborhoods.

That’s not reality TV. Any one of those issues, local or national, could come squatting on your doorstep at any moment, costing you money or your freedom or even your life.

Reporters, especially political journalists at the national level, sometimes cause some of that disconnect themselves. They cover White House palace intrigue as if it were the latest episode of “Days of Our Lives” and write about presidential campaigns as if they were a horse race on ESPN 2.

They do so, I think, because they’re trapped in a Washington bubble, writing about rumors and mini-scandals because that’s the talk on the cocktail circuit in the District.

They need to get out into the countryside more often.

And they often seem to forget the most important of the “five W’s”: Why?

As in, why is this worth writing about, in the grander scheme of things? Why does this matter to a journalist’s ultimate mission of making government work better for the governed?

There are legitimate answers to those questions even in some of the palace intrigue and horse-race coverage. A presidential contest is a grueling endeavor, for example, that requires thick skin, endurance, smart strategizing, and the ability to pick the best minds to act as your advisers. Campaign performance can be a pretty good test of how well a candidate might act in office.

If a candidate falls behind in the polls because, say, he forgot one of his key campaign platforms in the midst of a debate, one has to wonder if that candidate would fall apart under the intense, hair-graying pressure of the White House. If a candidate finds himself batting down scandal after scandal among his campaign staff, one has to wonder if he would fill West Wing offices with folks who would grift the public coffers.

Political journalists often fail to make that connection for their readers, who instead only see under newspaper bylines another poorly written episode of “24” or “The West Wing,” so they turn it off to catch a rerun of “King of Queens.”

Still, we as readers and a democratic populace have our own responsibilities, chief of which is remembering that changing the channel or ignoring the newspaper doesn’t make the issues go away.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.