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County Hall Corner: Behind the Headlines

Back in the days when newspapers were the primary means of information, the size of the headline signified the importance of the event being highlighted. There is actually a science behind this. Try this experiment. Take a regular sheet of white paper, make a small black dot in the middle of the paper, hold it up, and ask someone what they see. I would wager that 99 percent would say, “I see a black spot.” Why don’t they say, “I see a sheet of white paper with a small black spot in the middle?” We instinctively focus our attention on the unusual.

Psychologists tell us that to take in any information at all, we must give it attention, which is through our senses of hearing, seeing, feeling, etc. Now, here is the catch. There are two kinds of attention — conscious and unconscious attention. Conscious attention is what you are doing now; you are consciously using your mental skills to read and understand what I am writing. But the moment a bell rings, or something just happens around you, you break your concentration and pay attention to that other thing, which we do instinctively, using our unconscious attention. It may be just a moment, but that distraction kept us from focusing on what we had been giving our conscious attention to.

Thus, we need to realize that what we know of as “news” is simply what someone has chosen to be a focus, not for purposes of information, but rather that would get our attention, which could then be used to advertise products. Hence, the old adage in the newspaper industry, “If it bleeds, it leads.” And from the business side, the more it bleeds, the better.

Objectivity is NOT a consideration — the more fantastic the story, the more it will capture our attention, and the more we will desire further information. (And the more money the advertisers will be receiving…)

What have been the most important events that have occurred in Lycoming County in the past fifty years? Arguably, it would be the impact that the floods have had on our area. The 1972, 1975, and 1996 floods had a tremendous jolt on our city and towns and area in general. At the time, they received monumental amounts of attention because it impacted almost everyone.

So, if that were true, would not the recertification of the levee be one of the most important stories we should be hearing about? Yet, I call it the greatest story never told. The levee along the Susquehanna River is almost a hundred years old and getting it recertified is critical to the future of Lycoming County. So, why have you not heard about this?

Because it has no bite. Why care about a dike along the river? A whole book could be written about the incredible challenge this project has been and the decade-long effort to get this far by uniting municipalities and engaging officials all the way up to Washington, D.C. To the public, this is just geeky administrative stuff. Now, if we had a major flood and the levee failed, THAT would be news — that would get lots of attention.

News outlets are like stage magicians. They perform ‘magic’ but almost always have alongside them a beautiful young lady dressed in a rather skimpy outfit that naturally draws attention. While our eyes are on the “assistant,” the magician is using sleight of hand to produce the illusion. Media outlets use tantalizing headings and exaggerations of events to get attention, just like the pretty girl, but the real news is what we are not seeing or hearing about.

So, reader, beware. Just because something is the news of the hour does not mean it is as big a deal as the media makes it out to be. I sit through long government meetings and try to pull something out that I believe would be interesting and useful to the average reader. It may not be exciting to hear that the coroner is finally, finally, finally getting a new morgue and facility to work from, but it is incredibly important and impacts us all in ways we cannot see. So, pay attention, everyone!