Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BREAKING NEWS: There isn't any!

Am I the only one who's majorly irritated by CNN's habitual insistence on keeping that damned BREAKING NEWS banner up on-screen anytime there's some ongoing "situation"? It was right there above the crawl when I went to bed last night, and it's there again now as I tune in the network's coverage of the wildfires in Southern California. Presumably it remained there while I slept.

It'd be easy to dismiss this as a "harmless" promotional ploy, but I'm quite sure the tactic isn't so harmless. For one thing, touting the fact that there's BREAKING NEWS makes journalists more inclined to want to sound like they've actually got BREAKING NEWS, which reinforces an inclination that's already pandemic in today's 24/7 news culture: the desire to be "fast and first." In such an equation, being right often gets swept aside. Ironically enough, during the coverage of the current fires, I've already seen three or four cases where CNN's BREAKING NEWS consisted mainly of correcting something reporters said in a previous BREAKING NEWS bulletin…. Now how silly is that?

That same incentive also encourages stations to find filler for those considerable interludes between news that is, in fact, new. That filler usually takes the form of "expert analysis" or some other kind of "contextualizing." The experts are often way off base—what they're giving you, after all, is just one man or woman's opinion. (Remember those dire "expert" forecasts about Bird Flu? Mad Cow? Lyme Disease? Remember the grim predictions before the first Gulf War? All those planes we were going to lose? The almost-certainty of bio-contamination in the region? The possible demise of Israel itself? What a joke.) What's more, the contextualizing often leads news stations down the road toward political spin, which is typically (word to the wise) what you're gonna hear when the network offers up one of those reports that start, "You might be wondering: How could something like this have happened? Well, let's look at…."

I know this is going to sound bizarre to some of you (if not most of you), and one of these days I'll try to flesh out my reasons for saying it, but I've long believed that news should have no nationality, no politics, no built-in morality, no inherent humanistic undercurrent. Journalists should not be in the business of telling us how to feel, or assuming how we ought to feel, about anything. Thus the reporting should not imply that Event A is objectively good while Event B is objectively bad, almost* regardless of what Events A and B are. That includes the fires. Just cover 'em. Report what's happening. Leave it to viewers to think what they think and feel what they feel.

* I put in the almost just to cover myself in case people bring up things like, say, the Holocaust or 9/11. But in truth, I don't think such events should be exempt from my expectations of a collective news media that behaves as if it has no dog in any fight. There may well be an objective right and wrongI personally believe there isbut I could be wrong, and that's a separate argument. The media should never takes sides, in anything.

10 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

As I posited privately, I think the "news services" relinquished the right to the title when they became profit centers, admittedly, through no fault of their own. Being a journalist isn't enough any more; one must be an entertainer, as well.

I still get a laugh out of the frequent use of the label "liberal media," since none of the media owners - outside of perhaps PBS - is even remotely liberal. If an ideological bias exists at all, it is borne of an awareness of the customers' desires, rather than some form of ideological purity. Whatever gets the best ratings - and therefore, the most advertising dollars - gets air time or print space. The only real ethics in the business arise from a need to provide the best returns for investors.

And so it goes...

Cal said...

Fox News does the same thing...except it's called a "Fox News Alert".

Steve Salerno said...

Right. FOX News Alert: "George Bush is God! Back with details after the break!"

Anonymous said...

Steve- You hit nail on the head with this one, I hate when they pull that crap! What they don't realize is it makes you take the real news less seriously when they finally get around to it. If they're going to hype everything and make everything sound almost like we're being invaded from Mars, it makes everything sound equally important, or trivial depending on your point ofview! It loses all sense of proportion.
-Carl

Steve Salerno said...

That's another good point, Carl. It's like the boy who cried wolf: How long can they expect us to pay attention and interpret every last factoid as A MAJOR NEW DEVELOPMENT!

gregory said...

the news is just a cry for help, it all started with runners... and it is really the "olds"....

steve, you come up with a lot of great topics, this entire media thing could be a book in itself, or at least another blog.... mediated experience.... tv hurts my brain...

here in london this morning the newstands are full of fire pictures... kind of cool in an art way...

Steve Salerno said...

Re "the entire media thing" being the makings of another book... Yeah, I thought so too, at one point. Unfortunately my agent and "the marketplace," as he put it, did not agree. Or at least, the marketplace didn't want such a book from me. But we shall see. I am working on a very interesting magazine article that could rekindle the effort.

birdflunewsflash said...

Yes there is!

If you are concerned about the Bird-Flu virus (and you really should be)then you need to go to www.birdflubreakingnews.com :)

luckycanucky said...

I'd say the book was already written - "It's Not News, It's FARK" is the brainchild of the guy who runs the fark.com website. It's illuminating and expands on the same problems you've mentioned here.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, LC. Looks like a funny book (and I'm surprised that it somehow got past me. I guess I'm getting old).

But actually I think there's an even deeper problem, which I'll address in my forthcoming piece for Michael Shermer's Skeptic Magazine.