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The past two years journalists in Italy have lost two of their favourite and easiest newsmakers.
We must see this as an opportunity and improve our coverage of what is truly important.

by Eric J. Lyman

In each of the previous two years, April has been the cruelest month for Italy-based journalists like me.

It was April that witnessed the end for Pope John Paul II (in 2005) and for media tycoon cum Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi (in 2006) – both figures I and my colleagues never tired of writing about.

Other than the fact that the media could not resist them, John Paul and Berlusconi had little in common.
The late pontiff was thoughtful, pensive, even saintly; Berlusconi, on the other hand, has always been
colourful, iconoclastic, and sometimes even vulgar. John Paul lived his life obeying a vow of poverty;
Berlusconi is one of the richest people on the planet. And two Aprils ago, John Paul died, while
Berlusconi was merely swept from power by an electoral defeat the following year.

It's also worth noting that both leaders were replaced by men who advocates and critics alike say are
unusually intelligent – Benedict XVI and Romano Prodi, respectively – but whose un-dynamic and
professorial personalities usually push their exploits into the back pages of the newspaper (if they
appear in print at all).

But I am not concerned here with these leaders' politics or personalities. Instead, consider the way these
factors influence the media.

That the media looks at the world from a different perspective than everyone else is not a new idea. I
lived in Peru in the 1990s – when the country was in the grips of the Shining Path insurgence – and that
very idea was never more apparent to me than when I ran toward a bomb blast that sent everyone in the
area fleeing to safety. Another time, I decided to vacation in Colombia after calculating that Ernesto
Samper, Colombia's president at the time, might fall victim to a coup d'état while I was within the
country's borders.

There are other existential factors gripping the news media these days -- the blurred line between news
and entertainment, for example, or the impact that muck-raking investigative Internet bloggers have on
established media – but I find none of these issues as troubling as the under-the-radar media preference
for easy-to-write about figures like John Paul and Berlusconi.

Philip Graham, the iconic former publisher of the Washington Post, famously said that journalism is “the
first, rough draft of history”. But truth be told, journalism is in many cases the only real draft. The way a
group of influential journalists first interprets an event will often determine how it is interpreted from
that point on. And I believe this kind of preference is influenced too much by what those on the scene see
as the most interesting point of view to cover and far too little by the story that needs to be told.

The Fourth Estate's defenders – a group I usually find myself in – would argue that this is simply the age-
old debate about journalism's reason for being: do newspapers, magazines, Internet news sites, and
television and radio news programs exist to tell the public what it wants to know? Or what it ought to
know? It's too often the former, the defenders say, because journalism is a business and colourful figures
like John Paul and Berlusconi sell papers.

I see that as a tempting but dangerous excuse. It should not be the media's role to report what is
interesting rather than what is important – the role should be to take what is important and make it
interesting.

Figures like John Paul and Berlusconi make the job easier, but when journalism focuses on the what's
easy rather than uncovering and compellingly explaining the less-known factors that have a real baring on
peoples' lives, then it does a real disservice.

Eric J. Lyman is a freelance journalist working from Rome since 1999. His personal website is www.
ericjlyman.com.
This article originally appeared in

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Home » Stirred Up Magazine » April 2007, Volume 2, No. 4
April Fools: Telling Us The Easy Story