Tricking news providers to report on serious issues.

January 24, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More

It’s certainly not breaking news that the commercial news media tends to abhor careful detailed rational discussion.   This reluctance of local media outlets to report meaningful news has been going on for many years.

But what is “news”?  In my opinion, the most important news is information that sheds light on the way our community functions.  High quality “news” informs us of the way our government is working.  It warns us of collective dangers, including those dangers that we will face in the distant future.  It gives us the information we need to take steps to protect ourselves, both as individuals and as a community.  It is skeptical of outrageous claims, and honors the scientific method.  It repeatedly reports on information that many viewers/readers might find inconvenient or disturbing, although it also balances this with information that makes us celebrate the state of our community and nation.

Reporting the “news” accurately means holding up a big mirror to viewers/readers, and those who report accurately will work hard not to be community cheerleaders who filter out “bad news,” no matter how much they want to please, distract or entertain the audience.   Couple this definition with the fact that the most serious issues of the day are unwieldy.  They are either legally or factually complicated, or they have been so corrupted with political spin, that reporting on the issues meaningfully will require long hours of one or more aggressive veteran reporters who are constantly being supported by his/her editor and employer.

I recently attended a conference sponsored by True Spin.  My take-away is that that the majority of what passes for local “news” is starkly at odds with the above definition of “news.”  Mason Tyvert summarized the types of things that are now required to pass as “news”:

  • Controversy (Including pissing matches between politicians, celebrities or experts)
  • Familiarity (It’s Christmas, and people are putting up their holiday lights!)
  • Oddity (Two-headed snake)
  • Humor, or
  • Entertainment (Guess who just won a Grammy Award?)

I would add that news sources also obsess over stories having to do with sex, whether someone’s sexual behavior or whether the story gives the news source a chance to publish an image that provokes sexual thoughts in the audience.  Bonus points for stories that are voyeuristic (disclosing private matters of politicians and celebrities) while pretending to be news.   More bonus points for schadenfreude:  taking cheerful joy in the misfortunes of others (although these stories are always spun as stories of social concern.  I’d also add that a prerequisite for a modern local news story is that it be simple to understand, often simplistic.  It needs to be so simple that a ten-year old could get the point.

Notice that careful rational discussion of systematic serious problems gets little attention.  Nor will you find much, if any, investigative journalism anymore. I’ve repeatedly heard editors and reporters give me excuses for the lack of extended serious coverage of complicated issues, including investigative journalism.

  • It’s too expensive.
  • The audience doesn’t have the intelligence or attention span.
  • The news publisher won’t support the story.
  • We can’t carry that story, because Company X is a big advertiser.

Consider, when the last time that you watch a local TV news show where considerable time was given to carefully discussing a topic with serious ramifications for millions of people, where name-calling, putdowns, vague assertions, refusals to answer questions were not allowed?  . I should add that the above criticisms often apply to national media too, as well as most local media.

The True Spin conference was eye-opening for me, in that it reinforced this message repeatedly:  It is almost impossible to get local news media to report on important news events.  I attended four sessions where individuals or groups worked hard to successfully get their message picked up by the media.  None of these groups used the straightforward approach of presenting their story to the media and having it picked up by the media because it was an important story.

Mason Tyvert wanted to change state and local marijuana laws because current laws are actually promoting abuse of alcohol, because enforcing marijuana laws is a massive abuse of the criminal justice system, and because the current system is needlessly damaging and destroying people and families.  In order to get this message out in the local media, the straight-forward approach didn’t work.  He succeeded only by engaging in a provocative campaign.

Reverend Billy Talon’s message is the destructive power of rampant consumerism, for which there is ample evidence, but what commercial news source wants to tell its audience to not buy things?  Therefore, he dresses up like a preacher (of the “Church of Stop Shopping”) and preaches his message, assisted by the 40-member Church of Stop Shopping Choir.

Media consultant and writer Jason Salzman (organizer of True Spin) explained in detail that there usually isn’t a story unless there is an entertaining or intriguing image to go with the story.  Therefore, having a devastating factual analysis of a serious social issue often means that a story goes unreported.

Rashad Robinson works for GLAAD, which has been incredibly successful getting out its message of non-discrimination regarding gays.  GLAAD often circumvents the media altogether, instead working with Hollywood to promote positive images of gays.  Only later, when a celebrity makes a strong stand, or comes to town, does the news media show interest.

I have already reported on Tyvert’s savvy and successful media campaign.  I will be reporting on the other three examples in the near future.

Bottom line: In order to get a serious message across these days, you need to “game” the traditional media. This means that many serious messages are not getting any coverage at all, because there is no one to put on a clown suit, generate conflict through the use of a clever campaign, manufacture clever images, or circumvent the news media and penetrate the mass market by using Hollywood productions.  Nowadays, a straight story needs dressing up to the point where the dressing up is essentially the story, and the real story tags along.  It reminds me of how I sometimes coat my dog’s pill with peanut butter to make it interesting.

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Category: advertising, American Culture, Communication, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    "News" has been so thoroughly redefined that I sometimes have trouble convincing other people that certain topics should not qualify as news. Hysterical, catastrophizing crime reporting, for example. While a robbery or horrific killing may be current, it shouldn't normatively be 'news' in the same way that a more prevalent, less exciting crime rate ought to be. If the news is made to impart vital, current knowledge, then a super-rare, super-scary murder should not receive top billing over local government events and crimes that strike many people.

    Sensationalistic crime-reporting may be more a flaw in local news, but 24-hour news networks have their own similar oversights. A congressman's sexual dalliance should not receive more attention than hundreds of instances of sketchy lobbyist behaviors and on-the-sly campaign contributions. But a few shady dollars here and there are so less sexy than a politician screwing around in a more obvious way.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    So instead of news, we are being expose to pornography of the third kind.

    According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary pornography is :

    "1 : the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement

    2 : material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement

    3 : the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction "

    It seems to me that what passes for news, particularly political news fits the third definition quite well.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Noam Chomsky and Neil Postman would add that the structure of the medium functions to select for exactly this type of news. Chomsky would say that there's no way to present complex ideas or ideas which conflict with conventional wisdom in between commercial breaks. One can easily parrot conventional wisdom given those time constraints, because everyone already accepts the premises or is at least conversant with them.

    Additionally, there is a product being sold. One could be forgiven for thinking that "news" is the product, being sold to you, as a "consumer". In truth, you are being sold to the advertisers. News is a way to attract a certain demographic, which is then sold to advertisers seeking that demographic. I just realized this the other day, and it was one of those huge "paradigm shifts" for me. When viewed in this way, quaint notions of newscaster's obligations to provide the "truth" or "careful detailed rational discussion" obviously matters far less than simply attracting large numbers of viewers.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Brynn: I like your recent paradigm shift–it works for me too. I'm the product being sold to the advertiser. That means that what passes as "news" need not be any beyond something that superficially qualifies as news and that otherwise keeps the audience members (the products) from switching channels or putting down the newspaper. Those quirky items of "news" need not be there to teach us important lessons to heal social rifts or to make the community a better place to live. In fact, it might be better for most "news" providers to flash some far away conflicts or curiosities, and then reassure us that all is well so that we sleep well.

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