In our fast-paced culture, 24-hour news channels are giving us too much of the wrong stories. In order to be truly informed, we need to give reporters a chance to truly do their jobs.
When did television sets become standard everywhere you go? They are in restaurants, doctors’ offices, airports, automotive shops, and practically anyplace you have to sit for a while. The implications are clear: instead of using that downtime to read, think or (gasp!) connect with another person, we’re now invited (expected?) to be satisfied with watching constant imagery. No wonder so many of us suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder!
Now, I definitely am not anti-television. I once won a writing contest in high school with an essay about the benefits of TV and, as my long-time readers know, I do a lot of psychological analysis of television shows. I enjoy TV a great deal, but lately it seems like we’ve crossed some kind of line. With its ubiquitous presence in public places, television seems to have gone from entertainment to annoyance. And some of the worst offenders are the 24-hour news channels.
When Ted Turner first founded the Cable News Network (CNN) in 1980, it was hailed as a great innovation, and other channels soon followed. What could be better than the ability to get news immediately? Think of how informed we all would be! And for a while, the instant access was great, but now that we are over 30 years past its creation, I think it’s doing more harm than good.
News is only helpful if it is accurate, informative and thoughtful, yet these days, I don’t think we can say that is the case. Instead of thorough and relevant coverage on important news events, we often receive the boring and thoughtless immediacy of on-the-ground reporting. Who can forget the scintillating insight of CNN reporters wondering about the relevancy of dogs barking, when police were hunting the alleged Boston bombers? And instead of seeing reporting on smaller news stories that could make a positive difference, or at least make a human connection — like reporting on the effect standardized testing has on students and teachers, or stories about the different ways environmental groups are trying to save the earth, or a piece on what impact the accumulation of changes in mental health treatment this year will have on patients and practitioners alike — we are treated to endless coverage of incidents that should merit little more than a mention, if that. Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony trials, anyone?
What is going on? How did we get from something that should have enhanced our lives, to something that is detracting from it? There is a variety of factors at work here, and one of the biggest is the lack of time. This is ironic when you consider that the 24-hour news cycle added a lot of time but, in reality, the more hours there are to fill, the less time you get to fill them. Thus, reporters must feel like they are always working on an immediate deadline and that there isn’t a way to properly develop a story; there isn’t the luxury of allowing it to marinate. You no longer can afford the time it takes to interview people from all sides of the story, check facts, and follow leads. (If you want to see what such a process really looks like, watch All the President’s Men, an excellent depiction of how the Watergate story was reported.) Instead, you must throw together something so that your news agency looks like it’s on top of a story, and then move on to the next event. Awesome. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor are great news stories.
Another factor is money. It used to be that the news division was a sacred public trust, something television executives offered because it was ‘good for the republic.’ News divisions weren’t money makers, but they were necessary because an informed citizenry would make good decisions on leadership, public policy and future endeavors. Back then, it didn’t matter if we saw the news that we wanted; we got the news that we needed. Yet, somewhere along the way, some genius determined that there was money to be made from the news, and the public trust was broken. Now, things that are necessary for good reporting, yet cost a lot of money — things like investigative reporters, foreign reporters and reporters living abroad who can provide necessary context — have been replaced with gadgetry and on-air ‘talent’ who talk about news events without a lot of reliance on things like facts. Trust is earned, and right now, I trust traditional news sources about as much as I would a cheating partner.
What this all boils down to is a choice about how we want to live. These days, our lifestyles are so fast-paced that we’ve become mired in the superficial, rather than swimming in the deep. If it’s easy and quick, then we don’t care how much it is hurting us. Just look at fast food, internet dating, online education, Walmart, many public policy decisions, healthcare, and of course, the news. I don’t know how much longer we can sustain this lifestyle. I realize that people often don’t know what to do about such an overwhelming problem, but this one could be an easy fix. We can call, write or text news stations and let them know the kind of reporting and stories we want to see. We can turn off the television when they’re showing something ridiculous, like a trial or thoughtless reporting of a larger event. And we can ask that television in public places be turned off, especially if they’re showing the news. Then maybe we can actually discuss the news, and elevate the level of public discourse. Hey, that might actually be newsworthy!
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