Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Junk food News & the Network Spectacle: On A Healthful News Diet

In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, media ecologist Neil Postman discusses how the American obsession with entertainment has impacted how the news is presented, and what we consider news to be. Thirty years after its first publication, the book remains a relevant critique of how the television medium shapes the message. In the post-television age, one wonders what Postman would think about how the Internet has shaped the content of the news, as well as the deep impact of Clinton-era deregulation that many argue to be the impetus for the debased state of serious television journalism.

Postman's commentary discusses how the nature of commercial, network television affects how the news is presented and what constitutes news. Postman points out that the format of network television has a negative impact on the journalistic integrity of what news is, and how it is presented. For example, commercial breaks force interruptions of conversations which restrict the amount of time, and thus the depth, in which any issue can be explored. This means that most news stories receive less than one minute of coverage before shifting to another issue. In addition to the time restraints brought about by commercial "breaks" (one wonders if the news is the break from the real content; commercials) the format has adapted to compete with holding the attention of the viewer who can easily turn the channel to a more interesting program.

In addition to Postman's criticisms of format is the issue of the spectacle. The "if it bleeds, it leads" attitude cultivates a skewed view of the world, as does the visual spectacle of hosts who are three-parts model/actor/entertainers and one part journalist. Typographic news, that is the news we read, lends itself to thoughtful, unbroken, and in-depth analysis of an issue that is rare on network television.

So where does one turn for less entertainment driven news source, one that is, as Postman described it, more typographic in nature? Here is the news diet that I stick to, the one I have found to be most useful in the age of the spectacle.

I take the media diet approach to news. This means that I make a conscious effort to balance my news intake in a way that does not favor any one format. I approach the news as I would approach a meal. For breakfast I start with NPR's Hourly Newscast. This takes about five minutes and gives me a broad overview of what is going on in the world. When something catches my attention, I will take a look online at various newspapers, mostly guided by where the news story is taking place. I find it useful to explore news issues through NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, and major newspapers, depending on where a particular news story is taking place. The New York Times, Washington Post, Le Soir, and Le Monde are frequent text favorites that I turn to. I am not a "fan" of any one news agency. I listen, read, and watch critically.

Having listened to the NPR headlines I tune-in to the BBC's Outside Source. This is a unique approach by the BBC World Service in which journalists are interviewed as they are working on developing stories. The program not only covers breaking news, but gives one a behind-the-scenes peek at how the journalists are researching the story. Finally, I end my breakfast with C-Span's Washington Journal. I like to hear the conversation between callers and journalists, and find the pace to be one that allows for meaningful discourse on topics.

I skip lunch. Having had a big breakfast, I now go about my day's work, building my appetite for dinner. In the evenings I usually listen to or watch the BBC World Service as well as the PBS Newshour. The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour was a pioneering attempt to bring typographic depth to televisual news. The format is like that of a newspaper: Major headlines, a number of semi-depth coverage, and a few, in-depth investigations. On Fridays there is debate between conservative and liberal journalists.

I spend about three hours of my day with the news. I carefully choose what I consume and where I look and listen. I do not read or listen to 24/7 network, news feeds (like CNN), finding it to be highly repetitive and shallow. If you have not tried news sources from outside the major networks, give this diet a try for a week. You might find that much of the Hollywood-style, network news is what Postman described as junk food programming.

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