Why 21st century media trends are largely necessary

This post is written in response to selected readings I did for a class from W. Lance Bennett’s book News: The Politics of Illusion.

“The news trends are toward replacing coverage of government and civic affairs with sex, personality, lifestyle, entertainment, sports, weather, and mayhem.”

The above quote sums up W. Lance Bennett’s criticism of a changing news media that deviates from “hard news” matters of political importance in favor of entertainment and dramatized scandal, because the latter subjects tend to generate more public interest and increase viewership and readership.

In a utopian world, I would love to deny that journalism is a market-driven business. I would love to pretend that my writing is purely a balanced expose of issues that people in a democracy must know and understand to be informed citizens. I would love to scoff at the number of online page views and “retweets” of my articles and say they don’t matter, as long as I have hammered out a context-filled, policy-heavy, hard news story.

But the media are catering to a 21st-century audience. We might have a so-called “free press” in the U.S., but journalists cannot be fully independent of the general population if they want their news outlets to be sustainable and financially sound. With the changing realm of news — what people care about and how they access it — many of journalism’s recent adjustments to serve consumer interests have been warranted and necessary.

Certain political stories need to be written because they are important, relevant, and impactful. Other stories focused more on the entertainment side of the spectrum need to be written because they sell the paper.

Mr. Bennett focuses on the same arguments criticizing the modern-day news media throughout several of the chapters — for one, he decries standardized reporting formulas and calls them “virtually devoid of substance.”

I vividly remember hating the “five-paragraph essay” formula into which I was forced to write during middle school. I would attempt to stretch my creative boundaries and do the unthinkable — place a paragraph’s topic sentence third or fourth instead of at the beginning, or (gasp) split one sub-topic of the essay into two paragraphs — and I would have points taken away.

When studying and analyzing English literature at higher levels, such notions of standardization are rarely rewarded — but once you have some mileage in academic writing, formulas are largely unnecessary. You usually have the benefits of several drafts to muse over, a few days to think and revise.

My life as a journalist is a different ballgame. Without some degree of formula and structure in your mind, meeting deadlines after covering a late-night event or announcement would be impossible. Deadlines are not only important for daily print papers; people in the digital age want their breaking news fast. Furthermore, they want it concisely written. Eliminate the context and the fluff, get to the point. Let me be clear: I cut far more out of my news stories than I’d prefer, and I would love to pretend that the average reader has an unlimited attention span. But I know most people aren’t reading the news to become absorbed into a written piece of novel-like length.

Mr. Bennett also seems to have a problem with human-interest angles on many stories about political issues. The emphasis on the people and the “personalized treatments” of events heighten the drama of a situation and often “(make) it hard to draw the line between journalists as reporters of fact and as creators of fiction.”

As a reporter who often writes about politics, I can safely say that I rejoice when I can find an anecdotal human-interest angle to drive the opening lines of my story. My Daily Tar Heel article featuring a debate in the North Carolina state legislature over whether to fund the N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship or grant more money to Teach for America would have been far less enticing without my interview with a Teaching Fellow who said he couldn’t have attended college without the scholarship money.

Journalists should be wary of dramatizing a situation unnecessarily — using people to create conflict that isn’t really there. Some stories involving national political figures do focus too much on the drama and controversy behind the person and not enough on their actual policies and potential impacts. I know memories of Bill Clinton’s presidency often center on media coverage of his extramarital affair and near impeachment and focus less on policy successes he had.

But any coverage of politics needs to take people into account. Few are going to read about the “large-scale social, political or economic implications” of something (as Mr. Bennett puts it) without smaller-scale, human examples within the story to hook the reader. Numbers, years of studies, and quotes outlining community impact don’t mean a lot without a human example to bring the point close to home.

Finally, Mr. Bennett’s arguments blame the media for their difficulty in retaining overall quality amid years of budget cuts and staff reductions. I agree, cuts certainly aren’t helping the media. It’s not exactly music to my ears when I will likely be looking for a job in the field in the near future.

Mr. Bennett writes extensively on the problems surrounding “the trend of turning news into a consumer-driven commodity.” Do I think it’s a good thing that people, especially in the younger generation, have less desire to read lengthy political analyses and exposes? Not entirely. But if news outlets want to rise out of financial turmoil and build sound business models, some involvement with corporate interests and some emphasis on filling market niches are inevitable tactics.

A stir pulsed through the media world when Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post earlier this summer. Mr. Bennett would probably have decried the purchase as another corporate takeover that would further harm the media’s value and independence.

But I saw Mr. Bezos’ move as an opportunity, one that could financially stabilize a newspaper that has had difficulty profiting for years and promote future growth. That growth could eventually give the paper the means of increasing staff, improving and intensifying reporting, and achieving the flexibility (and space) to put more emphasis on hard news. I hope Mr. Bezos’ reign at the head of the Post lives up to my cautiously optimistic expectations.

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