The other day I was watching the news with my mother and she pointed out that all of the commercials on the cable news channels were for the AARP and for drugs. “Don’t young people watch the news?”
Indeed, I believe that they don’t. Young people are more apt to get their news from the internet and from social media feeds.
I should mention, by the way, that this doesn’t mean– as one friend of mine lamented– that young people only read about Justin Bieber. (Who I am reliably informed is avoiding Charlie Sheen.)
This observation got me to thinking about how the medium affects the type of news that gets broadcast and received.
Television news has a finite number of broadcast hours and it can only point its camera in one direction as a time. So viewers are at the mercy of news producers to determine what is newsworthy. On the internet, people can choose for themselves what stories to follow and they can, therefore, find out about everything that is happening in the world. (And yet generally they don’t.)
In both environments certain types of stories get attention. The television news channels have a bias. It is not a right or left bias, as people on either side of the political divide sometimes claim. It is an entertainment bias. (I hate it when Fox News pundits complain about the “mainstream media” when they are the most watched TV network in America. Isn’t that the standard definition of “mainstream?”)
As an advertiser supported medium, news channels owe their existence to capturing an audience that could be watching Kardashians and keeping their attention. That means that the stories that lead have an element of drama. You are not likely to hear “Our lead story tonight, an analysis of the proposed budget.” (Snooze) The news will lead with a bang– literally, or a courtroom drama, or a downed airliner, a celebrity scandal or the disappearance of a woman who looks like a model and the networks will do their best to figure out what interests and entertains us and deliver it. Television news is the perfect environment to foster a reality television star’s presidential campaign.
The types of stories that trend on social media are slightly different. People post links to stories on their Facebook feeds and on Twitter as a means of self-expression. Each story shared is in some way a reflection of the person who posted. The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…” A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.
The red Starbucks coffee cups are a social media driven story. There is almost no content to the story at all. It is just a vehicle for people to showcase their opinions and their sense of humor. “I am offended by secularization” or “I believe in diversity” or “People are so superficial, and I am deep enough that I can point it out.”
So what are the ramifications of news as self-building? It must surely be a factor in the increasing political polarization we see and the rise of the “no compromise” style of governing. But there must be other, less obvious, consequences of how we spread the news.