Paying attention to the obvious

Searching for the hot new thing? Constantly checking your Twitter stream, RSS feeds, and breaking news alerts? It's great to stay informed, but don't forget what's right in front of you

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    One of the most famous obvious things was the round world. Long before 1492, mariners sailed to the horizon and returned to tell the tale. Another obvious thing was the way every school kid looking at a map saw that South America could snuggle under West Africa, indicating they once were stuck together. The round Earth and continental drift were common sense long before they were scientific dogma.
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The obvious gets a bad rap. You know the obvious, don’t you? It’s standing there – see, right there in front of you, plain as day, breathing heavily and looking like the world’s biggest wallflower. The obvious always hangs around with its close friends, the normal and the commonplace. Nice guys. Nobody gives them a second thought.

Every once in a while, however, it is worth looking directly at the obvious and asking, where’d you come from? I recently noticed these obvious things, for instance: Almost everybody stays in their lanes when they drive. Water out of the tap is fairly tasty. Public libraries – what a concept! Also: Walking along a sidewalk is a fun, safe workout. And most people seem happy most of the time.

Not exactly news flashes. The drama is in the things that don’t work and people who are upset. But if you are always looking at the dysfunctional or bizarre, you can miss the big stuff: the awesome deep of the night sky, the skillful way birds dart through traffic, the huge majority of people in the world’s trouble spots who just send their kids to school and go to work.

I have long advocated that news articles not just report the new and exciting but restate the obvious and basic: What exactly is a credit default swap? Who are the Taliban? We news people sometimes forget how important the non-new is. It is most of what is happening. To my chagrin, a former editor at the Boston Globe, Matt Storin, dubbed don’t-forget-the-obvious the “Yemma rule.” Not exactly a glorious journalistic legacy, but I’ll take it.

Around the house, I’ve won acclaim for being able to follow assembly directions for lamps and other consumer durables. Part A goes into Slot B. Obvious. And, yes, boring.

One of the most famous obvious things was the round world. Long before 1492, mariners sailed to the horizon and returned to tell the tale. Another obvious thing was the way every school kid looking at a map saw that South America could snuggle under West Africa, indicating they once were stuck together. The round Earth and continental drift were common sense long before they were scientific dogma.

A great story about the obvious is told by Everett Martin. Mr. Martin is a retired journalist who lives on Cape Cod. He had a full and adventurous career with The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and other publications, starting out in Boston in the 1950s with the Monitor. It was late summer 1954.

“It was a quiet day, and late in the afternoon I put in a call to Ed Mills at the State House to see if he was sending in any copy,” Martin recalls. “He told me that it was very quiet there – just a lot of trees down in the Commons and he heard that the steeple of the Old North Church had blown off. I was astounded. Sitting in our fortress building (Monitor headquarters), we didn't even know that one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit Boston had roared through.”

This was back when the Monitor had the staff and circulation to cover local Boston news, as well as news of the wider world, which was and remains its speciality. There was a common assumption, Martin said, that the Monitor didn’t cover natural disasters – though it had done a bang-up job covering the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and plenty of other disasters.

Martin and photographer Gordon Converse went after the story, and they did it in a Monitor way. Among the headlines: “Buzzards Bay Cottagers Act as a Team in Meeting Post-Storm Challenge,” and “Radar Proves Accuracy in Tracing Storm Course.” If you ignore the obvious, you miss stories of human resilience and ingenuity. It’s the way we’ve covered the Haiti earthquake, the east Asian tsunami, and many other disasters since then.

Two weeks after Martin and Converse hit the road, another big hurricane was approaching. This time, Martin recalled, “the newsroom was filled with dedicated hurricane hunters.”

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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