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:: What's wrong with journalism today

Recently read the (very dry and mostly boring) Gatekeeping Theory, which is the theory behind why certain happenings successfully make it through the obstacle course of tipsters, editors, journalists, corporate wariness, etc -- i.e. gates -- to become a News Item, and some don't (more here, for you intellectual masochists in the audience). I'm intrigued by media today: why news is the way it is, why some things get so much airplay (OctoMom, anyone?) and some get almost none (the manufacturer chosen for the H1N1 flu vaccine sent a toxic batch to Czechoslovakia last year, for example), why there seems to be so little actual journalism going on vs sensationalism and hyperbole and controversy-fostering.

This book did somewhat enlighten me, although because it's mostly a compilation of findings from various studies so it presents a collection of (sometimes conflicting) conclusions. The first section talked about the obvious influences such as corporate philosophy and personal bias. I was most interested in Chapter 6 where they explored the "social institutions" that play into it (markets, audiences, advertisers, financial markets, sources, public relations, government, interest groups, other media, news consultants).

However, Chapter 6 gave two conclusions which by themselves seem like "so what?" but combined are, or should be, alarming. 1) The market (which is comprised of both the viewing/reading audience and advertisers) dictates media content and coverage and 2) Journalists have a vague or nonexistent idea of what their viewing/reading audience actually wants ("news selection has 'no direct relationship to the wants of readers' "). Do you see what this means? Since they don't know what the viewing audience wants, the only market they have left is advertisers, which provide a clearly quantifiable measure of their satisfaction in terms of ad dollars. So rather than news outlets working to provide the accurate, thoughtful information needed for a democratic society to operate effectively, they choose whatever brings in the most cash. In other words, advertisers to a huge extent control what you see -- not just the ads but the main program content -- and therefore what you think. The actual viewing audience is, in essence, powerless. I kind of knew this, but I hadn't seen it stated so clearly before.

It follows that since ad dollars are important, risk-taking is discouraged and media outlets tend to rely on stuff that worked before -- hence the proliferation of reality television even though the viewing audience is utterly sick of it -- and on sensationalism. To me, this also suggests that audiences attracted by sensational stories are also more susceptible to advertising; they don't say this but it's implied by the fact that sensational stories, like the OctoMom thing, also attract lots of advertising dollars.

The other disturbing point was the lack of competition in the media and how unhealthy that is. The "five dominant media firms operate more like a cartel...[and] maintain their cartel-like relationships with only marginal differences among them, a relationship that leaves all of them alive and well, but leaves the majority of Americans with artificially narrow choices in their media."

So all in all it was interesting but also hugely depressing. Dad says it all goes to back to the change of news departments from cost centers to profit centers -- that is, when networks decided that the news, rather than being a public service, needed to turn a profit. I suppose we have that decision to thank for both Keith Olbermann and Glen Beck. Bleah.


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Aug. 30th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
Why is it that they just report stuff that's just plain inaccurate? How do they get away with that? Our office is having a hell of a time over swine flu and the media.
Aug. 30th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
According to the book there could be several reasons. If the truth would take too long or cost too much to find out, smaller media outlets can't afford to pursue it; instead they rely on the larger outlets like AP or UPI or New York Times, so if those guys don't follow up, the smaller outlets won't either. If the truth is, or is feared to be, unpopular with their advertisers, it could get downplayed or stifled. If the truth is, or is assumed to be, not of interest to the viewing audience, it can get discarded. If the truth is, or is projected to be, a less lucrative story, they'll choose the less-accurate but more-profitable one.

None of these are good reasons but they're all perfectly plausible.

Media here is just as loony over swine flu. Thousands of people will die!!!! without mentioning that thousands of people die EVERY YEAR from regular flu. Silliness.

Edited at 2009-08-30 04:03 pm (UTC)
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