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Keeping today’s media within reason

Andy Ziccarelli | Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Here is a hard truth: Media outlets are businesses. Sure, they provide an essential source of information to the general public regarding the state of the world. But at the end of the day, their goal is to make money. If they don’t make enough of it, the media outlet fails. We see this in the newspaper industry today. With the Internet making news articles available for free, hard copy paper editions are quickly becoming obsolete, and newspaper companies are losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Media outlets know that their financial success is based on one thing: audience. For television news networks, that means ratings, and for newspapers, it means readers. So all media outlets face the same question: How do we attract an audience to follow our news and not the others? For cable news channels, the answer seems to be differentiation by political party. Fox News is the channel for conservatives, MSNBC is for liberals, and CNN walks a tight rope relatively close to the center. So we have a news industry in which people will likely watch the channel that is in line with their own views. But the problem still remains, how do these channels make sure that people are watching at all? The answer to that question is sensationalism.

Sensationalism is the over-hyping of events, making them appear more important than they actually are. This happens every day in the mainstream media. This is because the idea of ordinary does not make for strong ratings. The general public does not want the media to tell them that there is nothing particularly special about today. Controversy and hyperbole sell.

To make this possible, the media needs characters who are willing to embody this idea. These personalities need to be loud, brash and intentionally controversial. The content of their shows is based in news, but is presented in such a way that the primary goal is to entertain the viewer and keep him watching. To do this, the media ask overly dramatic questions that are intended to increase the perceived gravity of a situation, such as “How will this incident permanently affect President Obama’s legacy?” Obviously, nobody can answer that for years. But questions like that play off of the public’s desire for “relevant” news and the fact that people like to feel that they are witnessing history, even when they aren’t. Sports media are guilty of this as well. Rather than looking at an unpalatable slate of football games and admitting that a particular Saturday is rather ordinary, ESPN will always pick a “game of the week” to promote and over-hype. One blogger mockingly calls these games, “the game of the century of the week.”

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with this style of “infotainment,” provided that it is kept in context. The problem arises when people take this it as a hard truth. Unfortunately, these sensationalists are very good at saying things that will incite a response in viewers, and will intentionally play on their emotions. And that is even before we consider the fact that a certain percentage of the population is simply not well-informed.

So, as a rational consumer, how does one wade through the sea of hyperbole and combat sensationalism? The best way, in my opinion, is to look in the mirror and stop taking ourselves so seriously, and the leaders of this movement are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Better than anyone, these two, while clearly incorporating elements of infotainment into their shows, do it in such a satirical manner that the viewer comes to realize just how outlandish some of today’s “news programming” actually is. Often, Stewart will simply show a clip of a cable news broadcast and not comment on it at all, because the content of the clip is so ridiculous that the joke will write itself.

Taking it one step further this fall Stewart and Colbert organized and co-hosted the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which was reported as a spoof of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally, though Stewart claims that it was not. The day featured musical guests and comedy sketches, but maybe the most important part was Stewart’s sincere speech at the end, which criticized the alarmist and hyperbolic ways of politicians and, more importantly, the media that cover them. He remarked, “The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit perpetual panic ‘conflictinator’ did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the ‘dangerous, unexpected flaming-ants epidemic!’ If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Stewart’s message should not fall on deaf ears. Indeed, today’s news media has the power to do great good in our world, shedding light on issues that need to be addressed, and giving necessary information to the general public. But it is the abuse of that power, in the name of attracting viewers and higher ratings, that can cause problems. Media today can definitely provide useful news, but we must be careful to differentiate news from entertainment, because often one is disguised as the other.

Andy Ziccarelli is a senior majoring in civil engineering. He can be reached at aziccare@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.