Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Halloween clichés bring out the worst in journalism

Being a journalist, I take an especial pride in being critical of my chosen field of work. Of course, if someone else criticized journalism I come to its defense because I can criticize journalism, “civilians” can’t and shouldn’t.

It’s like the old schoolyard thing where I could say what I wanted about my parents, but would get into fights and defend them if someone else criticized them.

While I like to lampoon TV news for its tendency to overstate stories and inflate fears, the truth is that the newspaper is just as guilty. Every paper I’ve worked for has found countless reasons to spread fear and worry as late October turns into Halloween and bleeds into November and then December.

I joked recently that we were running out of time to put out our “costumes for children are too sexy,” “watch out for adulterated candy,” “your kids could get hit by a car or truck,” “perverts will try to kidnap your kids while they’re trick-or-treating” or “here’s a ‘safe’ alternative to trick-or-treating.”

Some of these themes have been around since I was a little kid, I hasten to add.

The “costumes are too sexy” theme usually follows on the theme of kids allegedly dressing as someone in the news, like Martin Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin. “It’s out of control!” the TV newsreader declares as photos of 8-year-old girls in princess costumes roll across the screen. Invariably, a clergyman or “concerned parent” comes on to give an “expert” opinion about how our society is “sex-mad” and turning kids into sex objects.

It’s been going on for decades, and there really is nothing new under the sun. Soon, it’ll all blow over and the “experts” will go back to telling us how Thanksgiving stuffing is the stuff of immediate death or harder arteries.

Candy has been the “enemy” since humans first figured out that they liked sugar and chocolate. Indeed, handing a child candy (see “perverts” below) is akin to walking up to a kid in your community and handing him your car keys and telling him or her to go ahead and take your car for a spin.

Various methods to prevent the presence of candy and chocolate on a school campus have fueled the entrepreneurial motivations of many a child. The thing is that while a candy bar in the store may cost 65 cents, in school you can charge whatever the market will bear and pocket the difference. In the TV series “The Wire,” one kid starts buying candy in bulk and even puts on lower-grades uniform shirts to mix in and expand his clientele.

Banning the stuff just makes it more desirable, as was known with liquor during Prohibition.

A story from the 1960s that someone used candy to poison their children has fueled nearly 50 years of terror around Halloween. In journalism, there’s the inevitable story that the local hospital or MRI joint is going to be open on Oct. 31 so that parents can bring in the children’s candy to be scanned or X-rayed in case someone has injected something in it.

Invariably, there’s a hospital spokeswoman talking about how dedicated they are to the children, and maybe a shot of a Snickers bar being bombarded with photons. On TV, there’s the shot of the reporter in front of the hospital’s sign, giving the days and hours for scanning or X-raying.

What worries me is that if I get into a mishap and break multiple body parts, will I have to wait in line behind the Hershey bars to get an X-ray? Maybe the bigger hospitals can use their da Vinci surgical robots to dissect the $100,000 candy bars while they’re at it.

Working for a newspaper in Polk County is fun because we have the real deal when it comes to old-time good-ol’ boy sheriffs. Sheriff Grady Judd makes much of his religious faith and determination to protect the children, and I know that if he’s like most sheriffs, he’ll be out there in front of the TV cameras personally delivering his “tips for a safe Halloween.”

An integral part of that protection is the protection from perverts. In the past, sheriffs have used Halloween to make much of their efforts, including requiring sex offenders – regardless of offense – to not give out candy, not decorate their homes and even report on Halloween night to a specific location for “a program” so that they are not tempted to snatch children off the street.

Local law enforcement makes much of these efforts, almost to the point where it’s comical, but the news media eats it up with lots of ketchup. It’s a good way to raise fear among parents and spread a few urban myths, as well as the bullet-point list of “tips for a safe Halloween” and “tips for safe trick-or-treating,” including not participating in the holiday at all, on the chyron.

If you manage to somehow survive Halloween, don’t worry that we’ll run out of clichés, either at the newspaper or at the TV station’s news operation. We have plenty more coming for Thanksgiving and, of course, the very beloved Black Friday, including hand-wringing over how “it’s earlier than ever this year.”

Oh, and we’ll be sure to explain – for the umpteenth-thousandth time – what “Black Friday” means.


October 28, 2013 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

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