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Sunday, June 10, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reader Advocate

Hard News, Soft News - Putting It All In Perspective

READERS have complained that many stories in the media lack ``perspective'' - enough background for them to either fully understand or care about the story.

I agree, and so do many other journalists.

Here are some examples of non-perspective stories: Owls vs. loggers. Another man shoots and kills his ex-wife and children. Another drive-by shooting in the Central District. Another battle in the Middle East. Another drunk driver kills someone. Another multibillion

dollar bill for taxpayers for fallen S & Ls.

Knowledge (information) is supposed to make us feel more empowered and capable of handling our lives. If that's true, then why is it we sometimes feel less powerful and more vulnerable after we've had our ration of daily news?

I think it's because sometimes the news item doesn't have the kind of information that tells us how the story makes a difference in our lives.

Nowhere has the lack of perspective in reporting been more apparent regionally than in the coverage of the spotted-owl issue.

Not too many decades ago, there were 40 timber companies flourishing in Washington logging communities. Today there are four. Is this the fault of the spotted owl?

The owl was dubbed the ``indicator animal'' of the Northwest forests by the U.S. Department of Interior. That is, the well-being of that animal indicates the status of its environment. The owl is considered endangered, and therefore so is its habitat. Is the bird responsible for the Interior Department decision? Is it to blame for the fact that the government only uses only an animal, and no other measure, to determine the relative health of a forest?

Lest you think I'm getting on the environmentalist bandwagon, the plea for more perspective and for a halt to pitting owls against loggers was made to me by the executive director of the Washington Commercial Forest Action Committee, Ann Goos, which represents timber-industry interests.

She urges journalists to understand that loggers need to care about their environment as much as conservationists, because it is the base of their livelihood. Goos points out that loggers and owls need to live, and thrive, together. For headline writers to pit humans against animals makes it a battle of emotions and rhetoric, not one of clearly defining and solving a problem.

Unfortunately, the headlines helped foment the issue to the point that one leader in the logging community called for his followers to ``shoot the owl.'' Killing the birds would only devastate his own cause, since the Interior Department would consider the state of the disappearing owl the ``state of the forest.''

While the media are not responsible for his actions, the attitude of making the owl a scapegoat was encouraged by too many headlines throughout the Northwest (alas, I found The Times' headlines to be among the worst offenders in day-to-day coverage).

It's not only the forest controversy that misses perspective. Media also fall short in explaining the violence that is such a routine part of daily news.

Psychologists agree destructive behavior that takes the form of alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse or violence is almost always caused by the inability of individuals to cope with their feelings.

In the world of journalism, two forms of news are generally acknowledged: ``hard'' and ``soft.'' Hard news is considered more important. It's timely, it usually carries an impact, it's brief and usually it's negative. Perhaps ``harsh'' news would be a better term. Murder and mayhem often top this list. A good news story, such as a medical breakthrough, also can be considered ``hard.''

``Soft'' news is considered less important, often more personal, historical, relationship-oriented or ``feature-ish.'' The sexist implications of the two terms aside, I think it might be good to re-examine our news-reference vocabulary.

The ``soft news'' (for example, coping with emotions) would often appear to be the cause; ``hard news,'' their result (``Man kills wife and children''). There is room for both. Perhaps we might call it ``complete news.''

The ``real news'' is always instigated by the presence or absence of what have become known as ``relationship skills.'' In fact, after Gorbachev's recent visit to the U.S., one headline said that the most important element of the Soviet Leader's trip was solidifying a good relationship with President Bush.

Reporting the causes of ``hard'' news more completely would not be done to excuse the perpetrator (''Oh, he was an abused child . . .''), but instead to give a more complete perspective to the story.

It is important to acknowledge these causes in a way that also allows us to deal with them openly, honestly and effectively. We need to deal with these issues factually, rather than continue to discount them because they are only considered ``feelings.''

Questions? Call the Reader Advocate at 464-8979 or write: P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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