Our news media today is full of things that are not actually news. What are they and why is this so? The basis of the ideas for this post come from the excellent book No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle by Rosenberg and Feldman. Read the book. It will transform your perception of news media forever. Read it if you would like some insight into how organizations are making serious errors, presenting opinion as fact, warping our politics, and increasingly trying to manipulate you.
Collusion of news makers and news reporting
Some of the things we see today on news channels are video press releases that are meant to look like real news. In truth these things are just corporate or government advertising, improperly labelled as news. In the case of the government this can be regarded as propaganda underwritten with taxpayer money.
The news organizations know what is going on, so why don’t they make it clear what the sources for these things are? They are not serving a mandate of informing people. They are making money in whatever fashion they can. This includes selling air time to be used by propaganda masquerading as news.
The news organizations get paid, and the didn’t have to do the work to produce these videos. For them this appears to be a win-win situation financially. The problem is that these ‘news’ organizations are essentially selling off their credibility.
Because we can
Once the technology existed to perform live reporting, it was embraced by our news media. Live reporting creates a sense of urgency and a sense of ‘being there’. It is very different from constructed journalistic reporting because it is intended to be a direct experience for the watcher/listener. It is not intended to convey more information, but to give the illusion that we are experiencing our news first hand.
Why go live? Because we can. Rosenberg and Feldman are clear on their opinion that most events are covered live not because they are worthy of covering, but because the technology exists to do so.
Feeding the beast = money
Rosenberg and Feldman use the term ‘feeding the beast’ to describe news media’s desperate attempts to find enough ‘news’ to keep their viewers. Filling 24 hours with fresh news is very difficult, so news organizations cut corners. They deliver ‘live’ things to suck up a lot of time.
An excellent example of this came about during the O.J. Simpson trial. Before there was any real news to report, there were entire teams working on the case. Before the court case had even started, the media was completely full of references to the case. Rosenberg and Feldman point out that when big money is spent covering a story, ‘news’ will be created whether or not there are real facts or events to report on.
This is not to say that news is outright fabrication. It isn’t even a claim that most news is a fabrication. It may be that the vast majority of facts being reported are true, and some of the work that mainstream news does is informative for us. What they are pointing out is that both our desire for news of this sort, and the news itself, are deliberately constructed to serve a purpose other than inform the populace.
What is the intent of the organizations that are presenting this news? To make money. Charles Feldman sheds some light on the topic with the following statement:
The purpose of television is not to entertain, not to educate, not to enlighten. If it does any of those things, that’s terrific. Its main purpose, though, is to keep you glued to the screen from one commercial to the next.
Reporting of news becomes news
Live coverage carries an air of importance. The event is important because it is being recognized with live airtime. The people interviewed and/or filmed are obviously important as well. What Rosenberg and Feldman clarified was the media’s self-promotion. With regards to ‘going live’, news reporters and talking heads become the news that is being reported. That is, we are watching the story of a reporter interacting in some sort of environment, whether it be a political protest, daycare, or war zone. We are following their story as they dutifully report back to us their experiences. This is a far cry from journalism that reports facts, and attempts to not get in the way of the message of what is really going on. Again, Charles Feldman is unequivocal: “Live shots are not about journalism, they have nothing to do with journalism.”
News before it happens
How can you report news faster than live? Well, you can’t, but you can pretend to by predicting what is going to happen. This is isn’t news because it is talking about things that haven’t happened yet, but we have gotten used to predictions being most of the ‘news’ broadcasts that we see. A lot of what we see on the 24 hour news channels is opinion that is masquerading as news.
Instead of stories on local, national, and world events, we see soapbox commentary, opinions, tirades, and rants. Before a major media reporting event, ‘experts’ are often asked about what is going to happen with statements like, “tell our viewers what they can expect tonight.”
John Caroll aptly labels this Pseudo-Journalism, where news organizations are aiming to manipulate their audiences. This is propaganda masquerading as news.
Journalism has shifted from questions to answers. The facts are no longer as important as the opinions being presented by talking heads and talk show hosts.
Lastly on this topic, I find it really funny that the tagline for the social news website Reddit is “News before it happens”. The Internet has shown itself to report faster than traditional news organizations. The rampant speed and inherent problems of the Internet’s mediascape may serve as a poignant lesson to our TV and print media, but it may also be interpreted as an encouragement to push for even greater speed so that they are not left behind.
We want real news
News media cannot currently compete toe-to-toe with the Internet in terms of speed. It is my hope that they will dial it back a couple of notches and return to the creation of quality, trustworthy publications. I know a lot of people who want real news in our news broadcasts, and we hope that other concerned news consumers join us in this statement.