A discussion about “disaster porn” in class last week, as it relates to the 24-hour news cycle, reminded me of one of my ALL TIME favorite interviews: Rachel Maddow interviewing Jon Stewart in 2010. (Skip ahead to the 4:02 mark to hear what Stewart has to say about the 24-hour news cycle.) He says:
“The problem with the 24-hour news cycle is it’s built for a very particular thing: 9/11. Other than that, there really isn’t 24 hours of stuff to talk about in the same way. Now, the problem is, how do you keep people watching it? O.J.’s not going to kill someone every day. So that’s gone. So, what do you have to do? You have to elevate the passion of everything else that happens that might even be somewhat mundane and elevate it to the extent that this is breaking news. ‘This is developing news. This is breaking, developing news.’ The aggregate effect of that is that you begin to lose the lexicon…The language then has to become sharper—louder—to cut through more of the noise.”
I tend to agree with his take on the sensationalization we’re seeing more and more of—especially in TV news, but also in online news media.
The general public tuned in to watch every news network in record numbers during 9/11 and the aftermath, and they will still tune in to stay updated on major events, natural disasters, and other major events that have threatened the safety of innocent people in a major way. So many of us will do this because we care about the outcome of a disaster, about those who survived, about knowing the whole story.
However, this sense of urgency is not something that can be replicated everyday if you still want to call what you produce “honest journalism.” The heightened sense of imminence news producers cultivate is damaging because we lose an understanding of what “urgent” really means. The minute CNN interrupted programming to announce “breaking news” about Justin Bieber, I realized how little those two words have come to mean when they come from the mouths of reporters. And it’s not one station that does this; it’s just about all of them.
The content of a story is what gets people to turn on TV news in record numbers. An important story should be developing for that to happen. It’s not something that should be conjured if truth-telling remains the goal.
If there is some kind of immediate danger, the public should be informed about how government services and individuals are reacting. This accountability of people in power to the general public is part of what makes media so necessary. All of the sensationalizing is clouding that.
I propose treating sensationalized storytelling and news entertainment the same way reporters and audiences treat lying by omission. If and when news media omit important information, they are held accountable and criticized. To prevent poorly telling stories, good journalists double and triple check themselves to be sure they are including all important viewpoints and not leaving anything out.
Potentially dramaticized stories should be treated the same way: with judicious forethought. Its viewers will respect its creators far more if they don’t feel like they are being manipulated.