Selling Fear and Amusement: News as Entertainment
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by David Altheide
The news media have contributed to our deteriorating—but entertaining—political situation. Mr. Trump is President partly because he is entertaining. My research on TV news shows that the promotion of the politics of fear is a byproduct of entertaining and sensationalized reports to build audience ratings. Contemporary news practices have increasingly been wedded to new information technologies that provide visuals and images, particularly portable cameras and smart phones. The entertainment format of much of U.S. TV news promotes the use of video or other visuals that are dramatic, conflictual, and emotional. Screen images dominate broadcast news as well social media. Investigations of news coverage of numerous local, national, and international news reports reveal how our current “news code” operates. Basically, TV tells time with visuals. Although the intent may be to use visuals to tell a story about something, the logic in use amounts to telling a story about the visual at hand. Events that are more likely to satisfy these format criteria are more likely to be broadcast.
Our work over the last 4 decades also demonstrates that politicians and others who provide visual events and dramatic performances are more likely to receive news coverage. We have documented the profound effects this format-driven media coverage has had on social institutions ranging from sports, news, politics, education, and religion.
Contemporary news practices continue this trend. Indeed, even the prestigious evening network newscasts have adopted this approach, especially as social media have provided seemingly ubiquitous videos of a wide array of events, many of which are posted on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. As newscasts seek higher ratings, it should not be surprising that they have adjusted their selection of news items to include visually interesting bits that have already been viewed—or gone viral—on the internet and social media.
This has important consequences for the allocation of precious news time that influences what audiences learn is significant in domestic and international affairs. For example, on December 11, 2018, ratings leader NBC Nightly News—now in its 46th year of broadcasting—chose to allocate more than 40% (8+ minutes) of its news ‘hole’ of 21 minutes to items that were largely driven by available video. Six of the fifteen news items received coverage because of visual material. I briefly summarize these:
"Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime" - Aristotle "The more I see of the moneyed peoples, the more I understand the guillotine" - George Bernard Shaw "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable" - JFK #SurviveAndRevolt
December 27, 2018 at 1:29 PM #5503sonofspy777Participant
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Cable news is COMPLICIT in the process of it’s own destruction.
THAT’S A GOOD THING!
“Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”
December 27, 2018 at 2:28 PM #5519Average GazooParticipant
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The idea that TV exists “to inform the public” is fantasy. And studies show that the audience does not generally expect much in the way of truth and information.
Altheide seems to believe that TV news should be allocating screen time based on the newsworthiness of the days events rather than on whether or not there are sensationalistic visuals to accompany the story. This willfully ignores the nature of television. The dynamic he wants is better suited to newspapers or even radio.
The look and feel of American television is driven by the advertising that interrupts the programming. There are pairings of looks within the fairly narrow range of looks and tones that TV ads have:
NFL games pair with ads for large American-made trucks, or ads for military careers
Oprah pairs with Target stores and Dove skin care
Judge Judy pairs with local lawyers
TV news pairs with DTC pharma ads, aspirin/antacid/sleep aid/ED/hair loss ads, insurance ads, and if its cable or Sunday morning network: brand ads for Raytheon and Exxon Mobile
TV news now includes many stories that already broke on viral media. They resisted doing this for a while but have now accepted their 2nd place position in the news chain. Trump’s use of Twitter plays on this same new media dynamic.
Be the Change
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