As I previously blogged, the 2016 election really showed just how unreliable the media has become. Not only were they dead wrong in their predictions (that may be more of a polling problem), they demonstrated their own biases which undermined their claims to objectivity, and they showed that they completely failed to understand the mindset of voters by offering an interpretation of the results that was refuted by the exit polls.
But I’m going to argue that, at the end of the day, this may be more our fault than theirs. It’s complicated, so grab a coffee and get cozy because I’ve got a long train of thought on this one.
Why would a person become a journalist? They probably have a passion for current events. Perhaps they are driven by truth, and the disseminating of information. Knowledge is power, it is said, and they probably want to empower the masses. There could be any number of motivations, but we must not forget a significant motivating factor for not only journalists, but taxi drivers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, janitors, welders, accountants and absolutely everybody else who performs some service for, or sells some product to, another person.
They need to eat.
Many people love their jobs, but people cannot afford to do their jobs for free. We need a pay check so we can put a roof over our houses, and feed our families. Money isn’t evil, it’s the medium by which the essentials of life are made accessible.
Naturally, therefore, media sources need to make money so they can pay their staff. But the current state of the media is not exactly encouraging in this regard. Pew Research has an entire database of media statistics, and if you poke around in there they paint a picture that ranges from sobering to scary if you work for the media. According to some measures, media reach has remained largely stagnant in recent years. According to other measures it is in the decline. Even though the population continues to grow, and there is so much going on in the world, the media don’t appear to be growing with it.
So if you make your living in the media this should be alarming. After all, the means by which you feed your family is at risk. And it turns out at least some people in media are losing their jobs. In print news, for instance, the newsroom employment (scroll about half way down the page) is steadily declining. Other sources of media (e.g. local TV news, magazines, etc) may not be doing as poorly, but even their audience numbers are either stagnant or declining as well. In some circles the future looks grim, and in other circles the future merely looks eerily uncertain.
Faced with this range of uncertainty-to-grimness, what does any reasonable business look to do? They look to solidify and/or increase their revenue. Whatever their income numbers are right now, those numbers need to either increase, or at least remain steady.
Which raises a question; how do they generate more revenue? To answer that question we have to begin with the question of where does their existing revenue come from? It turns out that advertising is the primary source of revenue, to the tune of about 2/3 of all revenue. The evening news – or maybe that movie you finally got a chance to watch – is always interrupted by those annoying commercials precisely because those annoying commercials put food on the table for journalists and others in media.
Now imagine that you are in media, and you are facing the possibility of declining revenues. You realize that you have all these staff with families, and you would really like to avoid laying any of them off due to insufficient funds to pay them. You already have all of your advertising slots filled, so you cannot just insert even more advertising otherwise your nightly news will start to look like a glamour magazine that’s virtually all advertising with hardly any actual stories. And those are no longer than a few sentences, buried somewhere between eye shadow and perfume ads.
The simplest way to increase revenue with limited advertising space is to charge a higher rate for each advertising spot. If you currently charge $100 for 1 minute of advertising (yes, I am completely making these numbers up) then you need to now start charging $110 per minute.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the company that is buying the advertising. What’s the first and most obvious question you are going to ask? “Why would I pay more for that advertising?” The media outlet better have a good response, right? And the only reasonable response is, “because that advertising spot is now of higher value than it previously was.”
How could the media folks justify that an advertising spot has an increased value? Only if something about that advertising spot has changed for the better in a way that will benefit the company seeking to advertise there. The best way to increase the value is extremely straightforward, to increase the audience. If I used to pay $100 per minute to reach 1,000 people (can you tell I like round numbers?) then if I’m going to start paying $110 per minute my advertisement better reach 1,100 people.
So therein lies the biggest challenge for media; increase the audience.
That challenge is made all the greater by another competing factor; increased competition. There are now more media sources (including social media and bloggers) than their used to be, and because your average person has a limited amount of time on their hands they cannot access all of them. So the challenge becomes to not merely maintain an audience in a world packed with competing media sources, but to actually increase your audience. That’s no small challenge!
One could also add the challenge of decreased attention spans, but I don’t have time to get into that because… well… I got distracted by shiny lights.
There is one sure-fire way to get more people to click on your links, visit your website, watch your channel or buy your newspaper…
Sensationalism is perhaps the easiest path to an increased audience. Just give the reader some kind of headline that is sensational and attention grabbing and they’ll enter into your media long enough for you to record them as an audience number (often with associated demographic information if you are engaging online) and you can put those numbers on paper, slap them in front of the company you need more revenue from, and justify that 10% increase in advertising rates.
How bad is this trend for sensationalism? I recall reading a headline once (and my apologies; this was so long ago that I didn’t keep the link) that said something to the effect of “aliens to arrive in 25 years.” Seriously? The aliens forwarded their travel itinerary to some journalist and he’s just passing it along? Give me a break.
Being a sucker, I couldn’t resist the urge; I clicked on the link. Once into the article the expanded headline read, “proof of aliens to arrive within 25 years.” Oh, proof of aliens; not the actual aliens. Ok, that makes marginally more sense. But still, how can we know that the proof will arrive within a certain timeframe? Even that’s a stretch.
So I read the actual article and it turns out that some professor somewhere gave a lecture in which he opined that, given the number of galaxies out there, and the rate at which our ability to probe those galaxies is increasing due to technological advances, he believed it was likely we would find some evidence that aliens were “out there” somewhere. He was confident, in fact, that it would be within his lifetime.
The real story was that some professor was making some predictions about the rate of advance of technology and what discoveries might come of that, but by the time it got to the news headline the story become, “the aliens are coming!”
That is sensationalism at its finest. Or worst, depending on how you look at it. But the kicker is that I fell for it. I clicked the link. I read the article. I became a number. A statistic. A justification to charge more money for advertising because, “hey, look at how many people visit our site each month…”
Sensationalism doesn’t always take such an obviously misleading form, but it exists everywhere. Even I feel the need to come up with some kind of “catchy” title for my blog articles, and to make sure the first paragraph or two are sufficiently enticing for people to keep reading. And I don’t make money from this.
So because journalists need to feed their families, and because of the changing face of information, there is an irresistible urge to find ways to make the door look just a little more enticing so that enough people step into the front entrance. The need for sensationalism drives not only how a story is presented, but what kind of stories are chosen in the first place. The Trump-KKK connection, though absolutely outlandish by any reasonable measure, was an audience generator. People would read that kind of stuff. Even if the majority of people saw through the ridiculousness of it all, they were almost certainly going to at least feel the temptation to read it; to click the link.
As I examined before, the rise of television in the popular consciousness has also been associated with the rise in charismatic personalities and also divisiveness. And there’s a reason for that; both of those generate audiences. People are naturally drawn to those with charisma, and people are naturally concerned about issues that divide us because divisive issues are likely to generate a whole lot of heat (and rarely a lot of light) and people “want to know.” Some would say they need to know.
In fact, here’s a little experiment for you. Below are two hypothetical article titles; ask yourself which one you would be more likely to click on?
- New highway interchange completed on time, within budget, and without any protests.
- Greenpeace, Aboriginals join forces to protest construction of new highway interchange; delaying construction and increasing cost.
I don’t know about you, but the first one just sounds boring. Why in the world would I click on that? Or how about these two?
- Americans Opposed to Animal Cruelty backs Trump
- KKK backs Trump
Again, the second story sounds juicier. There is no controversy with the first one, so it is unlikely to ever hit the news. As a Christian I’m always amazed by the news stories that come up about what “really happened” 2,000 years ago, so let’s imagine two more hypothetical headlines,
- Scholars of antiquity, from all theological backgrounds, virtually unanimously agree that Jesus existed and the New Testament is a highly reliable source of information about his life.
- New ancient “gospel” recently discovered that casts doubt on the existence of Jesus.
These stories usually run around Easter time (coincidence?) and people get sucked in because, once again, it’s sensational. The true story is far more boring and doesn’t generate an audience.
This problem is exacerbated all the more by social media where sensationalism finds its grandest expression, unrestrained by industry standards and the drive for the common good. Hence the fake news problem Facebook is being challenged on, though I doubt the issue is any less serious on other social media (it’s just easy to pick on Facebook, isn’t it?). When social media is generating fake, but extremely sensational, news, it gets a lot harder for mainstream media to compete by providing real news that is generally reality-based and not-so-sensational.
And don’t forget; real jobs for real people with real families are at stake! So if I’m a news editor and I have a choice between which of the two stories I should run, wouldn’t I naturally choose the juicy story? I need to pay my staff, so I need to generate revenue, so I need to increase (or at least hold on to) my audience, so I better give them some story they are going to look at. Boring is out. Truth becomes flexible.
It’s so easy to point the finger at the news media, isn’t it? They are constantly sensationalizing stories that aren’t necessarily sensational, and they seek out those stories with a sensational edge when there are so many other “boring” stories they could be covering that might actually serve the greater good to a larger degree. Why would they do that?
Frankly, because of you.
And because of me.
I clicked on the “alien” story, so I actively contributed to the news media drive for sensationalism. I so often skip over stories that look boring, but about which I probably ought to be informed. I, like most people, am naturally drawn to something exciting and disruptive because people are obsessed with change. And my act of giving in contributed to an overall analysis that reads, “sensational sells.”
Consider the transgender movement. How do you think that so infinitesimally small a population managed to get so much publicity? Precisely because that story would sell on both sides of the divide. Those who support the non-binary gender concept saw this as the leading edge of human rights. They want to keep an eye on the fight against the great injustice of our time so they read the news stories about them.
Those who affirm the sex binary nature of humanity become equally passionate about the subject because it demonstrates that society is pushing further and further away from reality into the domain of fantasy. And a society rooted in fantasy will not last in the real world; the risks are real. Hence they, too, click on the links.
But either way, the media wins! All they have to do is run any story about transgenders and the clicks come rushing in from people on both sides of the issue. And if they can present the story (especially the headline) from some kind of confrontational angle then even more clicks are likely to come their way.
I don’t blame the media; they’re just trying to feed their families. So are the companies that buy advertising from them. It’s not the best system, but in a world where sensationalism reigns it’s hard to see another path. And if you don’t like this, guess where change needs to happen? It needs to happen with you. It needs to happen with me. The irony is that our reading habits need to become more or less reversed from what they currently are.
If the headline is sensational, don’t click on it. Ignore it.
If the subject matter is important, but probably boring, click on it. Read it.
If the subject is controversial, don’t click on it. Choose to remain “out of the loop.”
If the subject is encouraging, and likely to foster a sense of unity across political, religious and ideological divides, click on it. Immerse yourself with the less-than-sensational.
Do you see where I’m going? It’s up to us. It comes down to individual clicks, made by individual people, on individual news stories. Imagine if a massive swath of the audience started ignoring stories of people being mad at each other, and started reading stories of people having civilized discussions. Imagine if people stopped watching presidential debates, and started watching carefully reasoned presentations on policy issues from both sides of every subject.
If we want the media to raise the bar, it begins with us. Stop reading about celebrities. Stop reading about protests. Stop reading about “human rights violations.” Stop reading any story with “KKK” in the title.
If you stop reading that stuff then media will see the decline in interest. Because they want to feed their families they will respond accordingly. They will adjust their business model. They will start covering those stories we are reading; stories with substance, about people with character, about matters of real concern (as opposed to, say, celebrity divorces and whatever issue is a “hate crime” this week). Advertisers will pay for those slots instead of the trash, and the divisive elements in society will be deflated.
I could get behind that; what about you?