Society’s favorite punching bag will only change if we do
By Adam Hocking
These days it is a common theme. A politician makes a public gaffe; blame the media for sensationalizing the story. A pro football coach produces a less-than-flattering sound bite; blame the media for “gotcha journalism.” If there is nothing but bad news on the front page, the refrain rings out, “Same old sleazy media.”
It is not wrong to be angry with the media for what it has become. It covers politics like a horse race at best and blood sport at worst. It treats tragedy like entertainment. However, the media cannot be anything but an extension of the people who consume it.
“Sex sells” and “If it bleeds, it leads” are common sayings in the media. Should the media hold itself to a higher standard? Yes. But does the media pick what it covers and how it does so out of thin air? Absolutely not. The media covers what the audience will consume.
According to the Nielsen ratings for the week of Feb. 29, two versions of “NCIS” (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) held the first and fourth spots, respectively, as the most watched shows in the country. “Criminal Minds” was eighth. A show called “Scorpion,” which “is a high-octane drama about eccentric genius Walter O’Brien and his team of brilliant misfits who comprise the last line of defense against complex, high-tech threats of the modern age,” ranked ninth.
Three of the shows have “criminal” in their titles, and the other entails America defending itself against “threats of the modern age.” There is nothing wrong with watching these shows, and I realize they are not news programs, but is it any wonder that the Sunday, March 13, “NBC Nightly News” broadcast led with the headlines “Trump Campaign in Chaos,” “States of Emergency,” and “Still in Danger?”
Violence, chaos, despair: these are themes that sell on American television and more broadly in American media.
We as an audience vote for the type of stories the media covers through the links we click on, the stories we watch on the evening news, and topics we argue over on social media. Media, like any business, is competitive and money-driven and has to deliver a product that consumers want. You may ask yourself why the media seems to revel in sensationalism and often fails to report “good news.” The natural answer is, of course, that people are drawn to the hyped up headlines and often pass over feel-good stories in favor of shocking news.
I tend to think the problem is more pronounced in the national media, but local media is not immune to this issue either. Crime stories are consistently Hub City Times’ most viewed posts. Articles about, for example, Marshfield’s budget planning process, which is vitally important to residents, are often ignored.
As a free paper, we can avoid some of the pull to produce “click bait,” but we still must provide content that people want to see.
I am not shaking the finger at any person or group because I am guilty of the same behavior pattern. Although I am often turned off by what the media does, I frequently find myself clicking on exactly the type of story I wish was not covered so much.
If we want to change the media, the stories it covers, and how it covers them, we need to vote with our eyeballs. Change the station, scroll past the link, and demand more than reality television from your news media. To change the media, we have to change ourselves.