The Most American News Story
A report of poverty and systemic failures becomes a tale of individual moral failings.
If you live in Pennsylvania, you’ve no doubt heard about the Pennsylvania state gaming board’s recent ‘Don’t Gamble With Kids’ campaign. They’re in the midst of a full media roll out, complete with dozens of articles, TV news appearances, and newspaper columns discussing the new “awareness campaign” telling parents not to leave their kids in the car while they gamble in the casino lest they suffer criminal penalties. This campaign has been launched, ostensibly, in response to a twofold increase in 2022 compared to 2021 in the number of cases of children being left in cars in casino parking lots while mommy and/or daddy go inside to play the slots or blackjack table. CBS 27 reports that “since January, 269 incidents involving 441 minors have been reported at Pennsylvania casinos. Sixty-eight six years old or under, that’s up from 171 incidents involving 279 minors in all of last year. That’s an increase of 57%.”
How the dozens of articles, TV News segments, and columns cover this issue is a useful object lesson in the ideological limitations of journalist norms, which ask the reporter and reader alike to shut down their moral intuition and, instead, adopt the simplistic, capital-friendly framing of Random Bad People Doing A Random Bad Thing.
Here one has a manifest, horrific social problem that needs addressing. 269 cases of children being left in cars while their parents, many of whom, by definition, cannot afford childcare, go inside and engage in an activity that poor people, again, by definition, cannot afford to engage in. A twofold increase in the number of people willing to endanger their children’s lives to either get a gambling fix or attempt to win some marginal amount of money. Indeed, studies show poor people gamble not just because of addiction issues, but because it’s rational when you’re facing extreme poverty to play long odds to try and have any chance of escaping poverty, even on a week-by-week basis.
There are two ways a reporter could address this issue: (1) as a series of discrete moral failings demanding scolding and criminal sanction, or (2) a societal failing demanding social solutions. Without exception, our media is systematically capable of only engaging in (1) despite there being no law of nature requiring them to. There is nothing inherent in reporting that prohibits journalists and columnists from asking deep and difficult questions about (2). They’re just conditioned, from journalism school to the corporate limits of news organizations, to internalize the framing of those in power—namely, law enforcement of myopic politicians.