On Sunday, May 20th, 2012 I was at home when ABC World News Tonight came on TV. The top four stories were: a devastating earthquake in northern Italy, a devastating tornado in the Wichita, Kansas area, the development of Tropical Storm Alberto off the coast of South Carolina, and the ongoing wildfires in central Arizona. Because this was network television, only a few minutes was spent on each story. I am sure that had I turned to one of the twenty-four hour cable news stations, each of these situations would have been examined at much greater length. In fact, I am confident that the Weather Channel was spending most of its time on Alberto.
Furthermore, these and other stories of the day (and it was Sunday, a slow news day) will be dissected, explained, and analyzed ad nauseum on the 24/7 news channels. And at that, these stories were weather and natural disaster related. When the stories are about political crisis or involve crime and violence, the repeated showing, analysis, and dissecting is tenfold. This simple Sunday night news observation says something important for understanding the American psyche.
We live in an “all news, all the time” world. This means:
**What was once far away is now here, and vice versa. The ease of world travel and the speed of communication in our flat world mean that the other side of the world is no longer that far away. What used to happen in distant and isolated lands we now know about instantly, usually before it is even over. A natural disaster, a military coup, an act of violence – these are not only reported instantly, in many cases people all over the world can witness them in real time. What is happening “there” can be experienced immediately “here.” What is happening “here” goes “there” during the actual event.
**What once few knew about, we now all hear shouted again and again. This ability to give immediacy to any event is because the technology to report “live” is now not only in the hands of the professional journalist, but also in the hands of anyone who owns a cell phone. On the one hand, there is the professional “24-hour” or “24/7” news cycle. In one sense, this is not new. Newspapers have always had “late editions” to cover the latest news developments. Radio and early television could interrupt any programming with breaking news. The desire for journalists to scoop a story and gain both the first and the biggest audience has been part of journalism for over a century. The difference now is technology and the number of all-news television stations. They are in fierce competition (as newspapers were and still are) and have twenty-four hours of time to fill up with interesting programming or viewers will switch to the competition. Not so important stories will be hashed and re-hashed. Political intrigue, crime and corruption, violence, and the private lives of celebrities are the subjects of the most intense examination and voyeurism. You know news coverage of an event has gone too far when journalists (or celebrity reporters) are interviewing their peers because there is no one left to talk to. And that follows the examination of every psychological, economic, political, sociological, and environmental implication of the event in question. In the end, a heinous murder in Belgium, for example, can be reported and analyzed worldwide before the bodies are in the coroner’s care.
Positively, this amount of news reporting means that there is no excuse for being misinformed about world events. It is all available now. Negatively, the competition is so fierce and often so ideologically driven that the average person tends to follow a particular personality or ideology driven news vehicle with little filter or content analysis.
On the other hand, “news” is no longer solely the purview of the professional journalist. Cell phone videos, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter mean that any person in the world can “report” on any event. Sometimes this is valuable and groundbreaking. On occasion, entire “revolutions” are text and Twitter based, as were the student demonstrations in Iran a few years back. Sometimes information about atrocities can only be reported because a local person posted it. Furthermore, professional journalists often compete with bloggers for scoops and influence. Unfortunately, this lay reporting is often inaccurate, out of context (not that professional journalists do it perfectly!), and difficult to verify.
Positively, there is a level playing field and a democratization of news reporting. Anybody can put forth an opinion and show the “truth.” Negatively, the overwhelming quantity of this reporting can be disconcerting and in great need of filtering; and, consequently, the “truth” can be even harder to distinguish from mere opinion and ideological rants.
**Over reaction is the norm. Immediate over-reporting on 24/7 news services, blogs, and personal opinion vehicles, and the ability to respond to these immediately, also means that knee jerk reactions and shouting have displaced thoughtful debate. Now, I will not agree that our political discourse is that much more divisive or uncivil than it used to be – previous centuries were often worse. What is different is that political, economic, and social/cultural discourse is now done primarily in sound bites and tweets. This means that not enough thought goes into a statement and even less into the response. Rather than having to read a well thought out position paper or op-ed, we watch a two minute video on YouTube, read a 140 character tweet, or listen to a 12 second sound bite on TV. Response, or more often overreaction, is immediate and even less thoughtful. In the end, the winner is the one who can shout the loudest or come up with the cleverest sound bite.
**Privacy is virtually non-existent. This is both good and bad. Positively, it is harder and harder for scoundrels to hide. Corruption, unethical, and even criminal behavior is easier to find and expose. Be sure that a blogger will find your sins out. Negatively, innocent lapses in judgment, honest mistakes, and youthful indiscretions are paraded publicly and never forgiven. Furthermore, so much reporting noise contributes to our society’s celebrity worship. Although celebrity worship is nothing new, 24/7 television accessibility floods us with the mundane and incredibly unimportant details of the lives of sports and entertainment celebrities.
**The line is blurred between news and entertainment. This confusion has been discussed and debated for decades. It is getting worse because the technology is available for anyone to tell the story and even participate in the story. Through social networking media, viewers and readers can respond to a news story almost immediately (in the case of television and the internet; the next day in the dying newspaper medium). In fact, many news broadcasts show Twitter responses on the screen as they report the story. Is this news, entertainment, or social networking, or the blurring of all three? How is it possible for thoughtful discussion to take place in this environment of immediacy? It seems that it is getting harder to separate facts, opinions, and simple entertaining sound bites.
So, what does all this mean? Is news a bad thing? Certainly not. Let me suggest, however, a few things to keep in mind as you take in the latest information:
1. Be wary and suspicious of “National Enquirer” type headlines, especially on the internet. If it sounds alarmist, accusatory, slanted, over the top, obnoxious, or agenda driven, it probably is. For example, I am amazed at the “news” articles that get regularly shared and re-posted on Facebook. I notice that the content of the article often does not really match the headline. And, the content is often so slanted that my only thought is . . . really?
2. Remember that the news business is just that – a business. They will do whatever they must to get you to watch, listen, or read. It is a dog-eat-dog money making business.
3. Work at developing some filters. It is not that every newscast or article has to be “objective.” None really are and that is OK. But, are at least attempting to be fair?
4. Avoid the ideological extremes. Or, if you must consume one ideologically driven news vehicle, occasionally watch the other extreme to gain some perspective.
5. Finally, as Grandpa used to say, “Don’t believe everything you read or hear.”
Next article: Cultural Musings: Why do we fear the wrong things? Part 2. The Business of Fear and its Results