News That Sells

I found the following remarks in an article about how we should take reports about the latest polling results with a grain of salt. I have always done so, but it was most interesting to read what the writer said about news reporting generally:

Our research suggests yet another reason not to overreact to news stories about the newest poll: Media outlets tend to cover the surveys with the most “newsworthy” results, which can distort the picture of where the race stands.

Why? Consider the incentives of the news business. News outlets cover polls because they fit the very definition of newsworthiness. They’re new, timely, often generate conflict and allow political reporters to appear objective by simply telling readers and viewers what the public thinks. Horse-race stories are also popular.

Given that readers are drawn to drama and uncertainty, polls that offer intrigue or new developments — such as a close race or signs that one candidate is surging — are more likely to be deemed newsworthy. In particular, polls with unusual results may be more likely to make the news.

Note, please, the “incentives” of the news business. To begin with, news is regarded as a business, not a public service. This is, of corse, true. The hooker is that as a business news sources must worry about who pays the piper. That is to say, news reporting should be about what we need to know to be an informed citizenry; rather, it’s about what sells newspapers or air time. “Newsworthiness” is nothing more or less than what sells.

But I was struck by the notion that reporters should “appear to be objective,” as though objectivity should not be their highest goal. Clearly, it is impossible to be completely objective — how could one be objective about a person such as Donald Trump, for example? One either hates or (apparently) loves the man. But the idea that a reporter, like an historian, should be objective should be the first order of business. I recall a friend once saying that he wished someone would write an objective history of the Civil War — from the Southern point of view! As I say, it can’t be done. None the less, it should always be the goal of any historian or reporter. But this writer says it is enough to “appear” to be objective. The polls do this by giving us numbers. But the selection of those polls can be very subjective and it appears as though that choice is based on what strikes the reporter as sensational (“drama and uncertainty”).

It’s a good idea to take what we hear and read with a grain of salt generally. It pays to be suspicious and question all sources of information. We cannot always do this, but it, too, is a goal we should all seek to achieve. This is the point of thinking critically — not to reject, but to accept on reasonable grounds, which requires that we have a good idea off what constitute reasonable grounds. This is especially difficult in an age like ours in which the reports we read and see on television are selected for all the wrong reasons.

I have noted in past blogs that reporting has become an arm of the entertainment industry. But it is interesting to have reinforcement of that idea by someone who seems to accept as a given the fact that reporting is all about getting through to an audience rather than about telling the world what is going on and letting the world decide what they want to read, see, or hear. Apparently TV is the worst culprit in this decline of reporting as news provider and this is because TV is a cut-throat business and as we all know business is what our world is all about these days: it’s all about the bottom line.


7 thoughts on “News That Sells

  1. Hugh, the key take away is taking every thing with a grain of salt. The source of the news matters. Mainstream news can be shallow and conflicted with commercial buyers or investors in their parent company. Others are so biased, they at best are spin doctored and at worst disinformation. And, many are just plain sloppy or entertainment driven. One of the biggest issues facing our country is the debt and deficit and it gets little coverage at all. Good post, Keith

  2. Unfortunately, it’s almost always been a “news that sells” market, in print and broadcast. There was a golden era from the early 1960s into the early 1980s where some young reporters took on both government and advertising powers to do determined, public-interest reporting on a national scale: truth-telling from Vietnam, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and a few more public-affairs/public-service investigations into polluters, government corruption, etc. There were also a few independent journalists like I.F. Stone and the fearless Hunter S. Thompson. At some local and regional papers, there has been an occasional foray into truth-telling investigative reporting and commentary, but seldom sustained.

    Before the 1960s, most media sidestepped initial digging and original reporting and even submitted to government censorship during World War II. In the 19th century and early 20th, newspapers were almost all owned by or driven by political parties or special interests (labor unions, ethnic readers, etc.) or by the sheer profiteering of Hearst and Pulitzer. There were, again, a few exceptions such as Jacob Riis and Edward R. Murrow. But Murrow was driven out of TV by advertisers. The altruistic, public-service ideal has usually been only that — an ideal. Seldom achieved.

    It’s not OK to pick and choose what’s news, and most print media certainly has always tried to steer a responsible course between truthful reporting and surviving economically. But TV news seldom has — for years network news divisions were under the entertainment programming supervisors. And, for both, these days, with the rise of the Internet and decline of family or privately owned newspapers, it’s nearly impossible. Most newspapers (weeklies and dailies) are now owned by corporate chains, most of them publicly traded — thus owned by stock holders so far removed from the actual product that they don’t care what’s printed as long as it is profitable. And to make it more profitable, they don’t care how many staffers or other resources are cut. Quality is very much sacrificed to the bottom line.

      • You’re welcome, Hugh! And a little more on the picking and choosing of news… For a long time, it was also often a practical matter. Newspapers and magazines had a finite amount of news hole each issue, and broadcasters had a finite amount of air time: only so much could fit. So you picked what you thought was important, but also what was of the widest interest. So a Twin Cities television station will devote most of its sports news to the Vikings or Timberwolves, not a junior-high team from the suburbs. Small-town dailies, for that matter, have faced that same set of decisions: they will choose to cover the undefeated high school boys basketball team and not the undefeated fifth-grade basketball team, even though fifth-grade parents might yell angrily that their little kids aren’t in the paper. The problem is, they are the only ones who care about their fifth-grade team; a newspaper, strapped for resources or news space, isn’t going to cover them.

        The same has long held true of hard news stories, investigative pieces, etc.

        Now, of course, is an era of great irony: in theory, the limitless space of the Internet should let news media report on everything, endlessly. But media has even fewer resources, fewer people to do it. A friend of mine at a mid-sized daily paper in a town of about 150,000 quit that paper a year ago, after often finding himself the only one working in the whole newsroom at night — news and sports. He’d been there 31 years, was a dedicated journalist and it tore him up to see his paper become just a shell of what it had been. And, worst, while the print version of the paper still generated something like 77 percent of the revenue, he was being asked to put almost all of his time into the online version of the paper. Just tissue-thin rewrites of news releases and box scores because he had no time to do any substantial work. Then, what was leftover or could be reformatted was thrown into the print paper.

        Fortunately, the Internet has opened the door for more independent journalists who — because they aren’t as beholden to advertising or community or national politics — are doing more investigative news and running a wider range of stories. Some do it as non-profit foundations, relying upon donor money. One of those is far from a traditional news organization but has done work akin to the Pentagon Papers — WikiLeaks. But others are much less known and thus harder to find, so, even they are doing important journalism, its impact often is minimal.

        Sad days of my industry.

      • Great context for a depressing topic. John Oliver did an excellent piece on the decline of news about ten days ago on his “Last Week Tonight.” It confirms much of what is said above. A sad tale is Sheldon Edelson owns the Las Vegas paper and news that impact or interest him goes through his people who edit it.

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