PR Journalism and Other Failures of Modern News

Breaking news: The Whitehouse has released the president’s birth certificate. That’s right we’re just about to kick start the election campaigns of 2012, and one of the stupidest controversies of the 2008 campaign is still being billed as BREAKING NEWS. I can only explain this by the malignant growth of what can be describe as PR journalism. I know many people in the PR business who work real hard to get their stories heard. They spend a great deal of effort to portray their clients or employers in the best possible light. Their employers should applaud them for their efforts; unfortunately, we the people are the worse for it.
This is not meant to be a rebuke of PR. PR is just people and companies putting their best foot forward. A simple resume is an exercise in PR. PR will always be with us. PR journalism on the other hand is the lazy practice of parroting the information held within a press release. The Birtherism phenomenon is a perfect example of this. There has been no evidence, ever, to suggest that president Obama was born anywhere other than Hawaii. Yet for over two years there have been tons of reporting on the claims of Birthers. Journalist and editors are giving ink and airtime to people with zero credibility. This I’m afraid is not reporting. Here is a news flash: People will believe stupid things, especially if it is told to them by someone they think is an authority. This is dog bites man territory.
A few weeks ago violence sprung up in Afghanistan because some idiot pastor in Florida decided it would be a great publicity stunt to burn Qurans. The pastor had a congregation number that listed in the teens yet somehow this man achieved national and international acknowledgement for his actions. A lot of this stupidity is hard to avoid because it takes things like integrity, courage, and conviction to not put this bollocks on the air. The news is supposed to be informative; it is supposed to feed the sole. Unfortunately like my chocolate coated granola bar with m&m’s the nutritional value of news is often a secondary thought.
Between Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, Fox News, and MSNBC and a whole host of other cable news channels we have over 150 hours of reporting a day, yet in all these hours of news little information is provided. Some of this makes structural sense. In the morning everyone is rushing to get to work, school, wherever and there are little things they need to know, but since everyone is on different schedule that little information gets repeated over and over again to make sure everyone gets it. This can be considered responsible. Unfortunately the rest of news day never seems to delve much deeper into the stories. Instead what we get invariable is people representing particular positions in a story bicker over who is lying, and the journalist in between like a referee… scratch that because referee’s call balls and strikes they act like well a bystander to the whole thing. It is all summed up in the Fox slogan: We report you decide. In other words will broadcast any and everything and you’ll decide if any of it makes any sense.
We’ve talked about bias in the media before so I don’t want to rehash that argument. Still I want to take a moment to look at what is called opinionated, or editorial news by J-school graduates, but whom the majority of people still just think of as news. One of the arguments they will make is that they aren’t breaking any news. By the time you sit down to watch your O’reily, Maddow, or Cooper, all the news for the day has been broken and everyone knows what happened so what they provide is the context and perspective you’d want to understand the news.
First off, can we retire the term breaking news. There are very few moments in the day that warrant the phrase. Breaking news should be reserved for emergencies, tragedies, and the absolutely unexpected. Anything that really could not be known ahead of time, but you should know now. Everything else is just news. A tornado is a good example of breaking news, it’s going to sweep in unannounced destroy everything in its path and leave chaos in its wake. A hurricane alternatively is not breaking news. Sure it too will destroy everything in its path and it too will leave chaos in its wake but it’s not like you didn’t have warning. Hurricanes are tracked days in advance and landfall can be predicted to the hour. It would still be logical and necessary to cover the storm 24/7 but to describe it as breaking news is to misunderstand the term. Think of it if we are calling it breaking news based solely on its size and impact on the world then shouldn’t every day start with BREAKING NEWS the sun is rising again today to heat the earth give food to the plants and allow us to turn off all the car lights on the planet.
Second I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding by these news people about what everyone else does with their day. Sure people can usually manage to stay somewhat in the know of what took place in the world today, but to describe them as informed or knowledgeable on the subjects of a news day is to do a disservice to their jobs and daily activities. Most people don’t have the time to read past the headline much less the first paragraph of any story. They are watching the news to get the news. Instead what they get is the reaction to the news. This is like trying to find out what happened in a movie by watching the people in the theater. Here is the thing, if you watch a bunch of people watch a funny movie you’ll get a sense that it was supposed to be a funny movie, but you’d never be able to tell whether you would laugh.
The problem with cable news is that it is a scaled up version of the evening news. This fundamentally makes no sense. The evening news was designed to be a condensed form of newspapers: A headline and an abstract of what the story was about, occasionally a quick interview with some of the important people in the story. Scaling that up is like trying to blow up a low quality picture it all ends up distorted. As a result we end up with giant artifacts that mess with our perception. One such example is the news anchor. Originally the anchor served the role of providing a familiar and comforting center to what was a chaotic news hour bouncing from politics, to weather, to economics, to sports. The anchor provided a cue to know that the subject was about to change. Over the years though, the anchor has become the voice of authority of the news, as well as the chief editorialist. This ballooned in the world of cable news to the point that the anchor is the news with the other reporters becoming all but invisible.
We deserve a better fourth estate. So much more can be done in a twenty four hour period. We could have interview and debates that last more than 3 minutes. We could have stories that take the time to go over the facts. I understand that this is a battle for ratings, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe what we have right now is a useful alternative.

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