If it wasn’t Walter Cronkite, it was David Brinkley: for a couple of decades, Americans tended to share news sources. The mainstream media, derided today as “MSM” by both left and right, included national news magazines and major newspapers as well as commercial broadcast networks.
True, there just weren’t many media outlets available in those days before cable TV and the Internet, so it was an enforced sharing, up to a point. But the result of us watching, reading, and listening to the same news reports was that the general public got a generally consistent set of facts, and interpretations of those facts.
Now that limited field and consistent worldview is gone, replaced by a vast array of media outlets that see the world differently, and report on it differently. Which raises questions for all of us who consume news: what do we expect from journalism? My hypothesis is that the availability of “flavored” news leads us to seek out media outlets that either make us happy… or make us feel like we have a good reason to be unhappy.
If that is the case, some of us have lost sight of why we pay attention to news media in the first place: to stay up with what is happening in the world, regardless of how the information makes us feel. Some of it may not provoke any particular emotional reaction, but it’s still information that is useful to us, like that the city council decided to raise water rates, or that the state legislature decided to change the number of license plates and how long they are valid.
Not a lot of “meh” news gets conveyed by the most successful outlets. Tufts University professors Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey M. Berry coined the term “The Outrage Industry” for the title of their 2014 book. It pointed out how people flock to opinion-based media to have their viewpoints confirmed, and to get good and worked up about the people who do not share them. So of course the topics covered are the kind that show the brave efforts of the home team, and the dastardly deeds of the visitors.
That may be the extreme. But consider the choices we make even within media outlets we trust, especially online. When the boxes to click offer a choice between the latest sobering news from Syria, or a story about a dog rescued from a frozen lake, which one will you choose? And will the choice be different based on the time of day and what’s going on in your life? Quite possibly.
After 40 years in this business, I’ve heard many people complain that journalists only cover “bad news;” things that go wrong; people who get hurt. Guilty as charged. The flip side of that is that we humans expect things to go well and smoothly, that’s why reporting focuses on the mistakes and missteps, the accidents and crises. In part, it’s so we can correct what went wrong.
Simply put, we don’t turn the news on to make us happy. We turn it on to learn, to be better prepared for what the world sends our way, whether it’s a decision by Congress or a light afternoon rain shower.
We play it fairly straight in public radio, attempting to put out news the way it was done in the time of Cronkite and Brinkley: the plain facts, voices from both sides, and some analysis. Sure, the choices of discretionary stories on NPR and JPR will differ from those of ABC or Fox; you’re more likely to hear of the death of a jazz musician on public radio than on commercial TV news. But the overall intention is to put the news in your hands, your ears, your brain; you get to decide what to do with it.
I’ve examined my own news consumption patterns, and sometimes stop myself from skipping the story about sewer assessments or from clicking on the water-skiing squirrel feature.
I go to other happy places, like watching videos of passenger trains, or just look at pictures of the wonderful train station in Wemyss Bay, Scotland (check it out). We’re not supposed to get happy from news. As some smart person once said, “the truth will make you free. But first it will make you miserable.”
Geoffrey Riley began practicing journalism in the State of Jefferson nearly three decades ago, as a reporter and anchor for a Medford TV station. It was about the same time that he began listening to Jefferson Public Radio, and thought he might one day work there. He was right.