Saturday, May 15, 2004

The consumer is the problem

Lorne Colmar writes in with a provocative angle:
[The Manifesto] succinctly summarised many of my own feelings regarding the decline in journalistic and editorial standards across the media over the last decade or so. The increasing emphasis placed upon trivia, banality and superficiality substantially contributed to my decision to curtail my journalism career here in the UK several years ago. Though effectively an outsider since then, I have nevertheless continued to note the progressive decline in quality and relevance of both print and broadcast reportage.

As indicated, as a UK resident I am not exposed to the full range of US media so am perhaps not best placed to make authoritative observations on the specific issues you raised. Such impressions as have been gained about the dire straits of contemporary American journalism have come through the likes of the Web and satellite television broadcasting of US news output. In spite of this somewhat arbitrary exposure though, I have discerned considerable similarities between the news environments of the US and UK. Principal amongst these is the discernable shift away from delivering hard news and analysis in favour of the bastard concept "infotainment".

So it was with considerable sympathy that I read your call-to-arms. And yet, for all I may endorse both the sentiment and proposals, I can't but help feel they are doomed to failure. This is not to say one should never try -- quite the contrary. But the pessimism is born of what is to my mind *the* major obstacle in the way of improving the quality of news delivery. It also happens to be an issue that was not touched upon in your piece. It is one that I feel is so important that I felt the need to draw attention to it.

This problem? This blight? This mighty obstacle? This barrier to a Brave New World of journalism?

The Consumer.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt in the US (and to a lesser -- though still noticeable -- extent in the UK) news is a commercial product. It is just another commodity in the product range of media companies. Media companies of any size, shape or form ranging from the News International behemoth right down to the most modest local community newspaper. In order to continue in operation, they must deliver a product that a sufficient number of consumers are willing to pay for.

And that's the crux. It strikes me that the news agendas and policies drive the quality, accuracy and innate newsworthiness of reportage. These agendas and policies are, in turn, driven by the perception of public demand -- encapsulated in that unforgiving beast of the ratings figures. Of course, there's nothing new in ratings or circulation wars -- they were as evident back in the days of Hearst and Rothermere as they are today. The difference now though is that the battlefield has become so much more fragmented. There is now such a plethora of news outlets that the consumer is overwhelmed by choice. In order to attract attention and, consequently, ratings the presentation of news has inevitably strayed into the realm of entertainment rather than analysis. All an effort to differentiate one outlet from another. To my mind, there is no other reason to explain why, for instance, we've witnessed the dramatic rise to prominence of the abjectly terrible Fox "News".

Further to that, the ever-increasing influence of broadcast news as an opinion-former and the commensurate decline in that of the print media does not augur well for the future. At the pinnacle lie the 24-hour news channels. In order to survive commercially, they must deliver a product that is continually attractive to their consumers. They all aspire to be modern-day Nathan Bedford Forrests by being "fastest with the mostest". But therein lies an endemic weakness that will inevitably erode any desire to deliver a quality news product. Since news doesn't arrive on the scene per a predictable timetable, the need to fill broadcast time gives two options -- repeat what you have already shown (something you can only do for so long before viewers get bored and change the channel) or fill the vacuum with op-ed pieces, pundit commentaries or, more often than not, outright speculation. Driven by the ratings, the 24-hour news channels have discerned an appetite amongst viewers for this kind of insubstantial fluff masquerading as pertinent commentary. Conflict makes news, so the philosophy is that it's better to have a raging argument rather than a calmer, reasoned discussion. So the downward spiral starts. To sate the thirst for such vicarious "entertainment", the protagonists become ever more outrageous, the "facts" used ever more questionable and so forth. We have returned to the sphere of entertainment yet again.

But it works. It is commercially successful. And the blame can be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of the consumer. This is not to exonerate the purveyors of sloppy or partisan reporting of their transgressions against the main principles of traditional journalism. But it remains the case that they, their sub-editors, editors and producers are all only part-players in the greater drama. So while all of us frustrated and disappointed with the current dire state of journalism may bemoan that fact, I remain convinced that the finger of blame must be pointed where it deserves to be. Rather than advocating a new manifesto to govern the practise of objective journalism I really do think the first step has to be at grass roots. For without a sea change in the apathetic, naive, ignorant, isolationist and trivia-obsessed attitudes of Joe Public the environment will remain too poisonous to allow a reformed journalism to blossom and flourish.

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