Sunday, February 26, 2006

Headline News

I originally tried to submit this as a mobile post -- that attempt failed. So, this is a report using more traditional methods.

Being on vacation, I am somewhat out of touch with the daily news. I certainly lack the capacity to research any issue in detail. All I catch are headines and a few seconds of video on a monitor as I walk by.

Let's be honest. When news organizations create a story, they are mostly interested in how many eyeballs they can attract and place on an advertisement. Their interest in truth and accuracy is proportional to the degree that truth and accuracy attract eyeballs.

Newspapers want headlines that scream, "Look at me!" Television news channels want footage that shows dramatic action -- explosions, car chases and crashes, or something that will caue the common channel surfer to stop and look long enough for the station to break to a commercial.

This explains the phenomenon on 24-hour news channels of the "talking heads". The most successful model for television entertainment has been sports. Actually, sports broadcasting was the original "reality television" long before "survivor" and similar shows were such a fad. Indeed, reality television today is really nothing more than a new set of sports programs.

"Talking heads" is the News version of the sports program. Each of two teams is represented by a champion who enters the field of battle. Each contestant is expected to use a sharp whit and tongue to deliver punishing blows to the opponent. The only thing missing is the judge's decsion as to who won and the awarding of the championship cup at the end.

Whereas these partisan champions are often called "attack dogs", television news is really a 21st century version of the "dog fight" -- back when dog fighting was legal.

All of this is to say that whomever claims to understand an issue based on the news they passively receive through traditional outlets is seriously mistaken. Whereas I have not been able to collect nothing but such snippets of news while on vacation, I would be uncomfortable thinking thta I understood such an issue well enough to write on it.

However, I can still write on issues of general concern.

In this case, if one were interested in reforming the press, this could be best accomplished by training eyeballs to react differently to what the press puts out. The internet has given news agencies far more information on what eyeballs do than they have ever had before. Newspapers and news magazines could only measure newsstand sales and subscription rates and loosely connect those numbers to articles. Television news looked at the Nielsen ratings -- and paid a great deal of money even for this information (illustrating its value).

On the other hand, online news readers give these organizations instant and precise information on where their eyeballs are going. Each click on a story gets noted. Rest assured that if a story is collecting a lot of online traffic, that this story will make its way onto the television program associated with that online site (if any).

In light of this, it may be useful to pay attention to what one does while visiting an online news story. Each click is a vote. Each click states to the news organization, "I want you to focus more of your resources on stories of this type." Whereas each story skipped tells the news agency, "As far as I am concerned, you are wasting your effort on stories of this type."

I have been paying attention to my own use of online news outlets recently and noted that I had not, exactly, been "voting for" the types of stories that I would like to see organizations pay more attention to. So now, when I click on a story, I take a second to ask about the social significance of the vote I am about to cast. More people giving more thought like this to what they do online might start to have an influence.

What I would truly like to see is a news organization that is interested in informing its viewers more than entertaining them.

I would like to have a news channel that never invites a partisan attack dog. Instead, if it has a story about potential civil war in Iraq, it invites middle-east scholars on to explain the differences and the history of relations between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. When discussing federal warrantless wiretaps, its guests are legal scholars and editors of prestigious law reviews, rather than Ann Coulder and Michael Moore. Tuning in to a discussion on intelligent design, we would find ourselves listening to the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at some major university explaining, "No, this is no great modern breakthrough in science; it is an argument that has been around for centuries which few professional philosophers find convincing."

The best way to bring traditional news closer to this model is to stop for a moment before clicking a mouse button on a news story and ask, "Am I voting for such a news organization, or against it?"

However you vote, please note, your vote will be counted.

No comments: