The News: We are what we Read

As a follow up to the last article about the news, Bob Hill commented that newspapers, television broadcasters and bloggers are first and foremost out to make money. So what happens when our primary sources of information are all companies and individuals who are selling a product?

We end up with branded stories. The now becomes important because it is the only thing that hasn’t already been covered by the competition. It becomes important, not just to cover a story, but to report it first. In the headlong rush to be first and therefore gather the most readers much is lost. Reporters who are constantly hurrying to turn in a story rarely stop to contemplate the larger picture. They constantly hunt scandal, tragedy, and corruption on the theory that these stories make the best copy.

This rarely true in its entirety, though those stories are important. Readers are left wondering if the now is the only thing that matters? The house fire with the quote from the neighbour and the picture of the burning house. The politician’s speech with the picture of him at the podium while the latest policy change is relayed. The weight gain or loss of the latest celebrity. The score of last night’s football, baseball or hockey game. The price of gold. Does this snapshot define our country? Perhaps a better way to approach this question is to ask: can someone foreign to our shores learn about us from our news? The way it is currently presented, the answer is no. No more than we can learn much about the people of Turkey from the news that their leader has succeeded in stopping a military coup.

Yet, the wider story could tell us a lot. Take that recent coup in Turkey as an example. Erdogan used social media to call on his people for help. There is little coverage of the matter, but presumably the people answered his call since the military had seized Ankara but were later repelled. Then the world heard nothing. Order was restored and order is boring.

But less conventional coverage says that Erdogan used the coup as an excuse to purge the universities and install his own people in the place of well respected academics. He also attacked politicians and diplomats in the name of national security. The wider story appears to be much darker than the snippets covered by the mainstream media which portrayed an embattled leader fighting off military extremists. This is one of the reasons better news coverage is needed. Without the whole story it is very hard to form an opinion on anything as pieces of the picture are always missing.

Editorials attempt to fill in this interest in the larger picture. Editors look over the vast array of facts that come through their desk and try to string it into a more coherent picture than the piecemeal approach of traditional news stories. So there is an attempt to balance the public cry for instant information with a need for accurate views of the larger situation.

Without context, many stories are hard to understand. Still, how much does the responsibility for this lack fall on the journalists and how much of it is a result of the current cultural belief that the internet means instant access to information. In a consumer driven society how much push back against consumer demand can be reasonably expected? Is it any surprise that the news has devolved into what the public claims to want instead of trying to train the public to be more responsible readers? What do you think?

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