Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Who Decides What is News?

What you think of as news, isn't.

I have written before about the Nightly News and why it's not worth obsessing about the news.  And yet we all feel compelled to click on certain stories or watch the 24-hour news networks to keep up with the latest goings-on.  But who determines what is the latest going on and what is it?  It's a question most people don't bother to ask themselves.  They just presume the news is some sort of natural thing and that every network reports on the same stories based on the same standards.  This is not the case.

Throughout history and throughout the news process, certain groups and people have decided what is a new story and what isn't. And this these criteria have changed over time.

1.  The Wire Services.  Back in the 1970s my brother worked at a college radio station and I used to hang out there watching him work. He did the hourly newscast, and it was interesting to see how he put them together. They had an old teletype machine which received one of the wire services - API, UPN, Reuters, or the like. This machine would punch out pre-written news stories every few minutes, updating people on the latest goings-on.

My brother would tear these stories off in strips and paste them together on a piece of paper and decide in what order to report the stories, and which stories would be reported.  He would then mark-up the pre-written text or write his own text based on the wire service news report. At the top of the hour, he would deliver his 5 minute newscast summarizing what he felt were really important news events of the hour.

As you can see, there number of filtering elements here, the most important being what the wire service determines is important as news. If the wire services don't say something is news, then it isn't - or at least it wasn't back in those days. Next, the actual reporter or the news team or whatever would then decide which stories were important and what order to present them and how much emphasis to place on each story. So there's a secondary filter in effect here, where the newscasters or newsroom staff determines what is news and what isn't.

2. Reporting.  Reporting has really fallen from  favor in recent years, as it is very expensive to hire and pay reporters on the longshot premise that they may come up with a worthwhile story. But back in the day, major newspapers had armies of reporters who fanned out across the city and the nation and the world to uncover news stories, write them up, and report them back to their papers. Many famous writers made a living operating foreign bureaus and reporting on foreign news for American papers. For example Ernest Hemingway, among others, reported the European news for American newspapers.

As you can imagine, as newspaper readership declined and costs increased, the number of reporters and "foreign bureaus" a paper could afford to keep on the payroll started to shrink. Some freelance reporters would go out and find stories they felt they could sell to the papers, but those were a very small number of people. And moreover, papers didn't want to pay much for the stories. Plus, it was not a very cost-effective proposition for a freelance reporter to try to find a worthwhile story that someone would pay money for.  And it goes without saying that a story needs to be juicy or made juicy for a paper to pay for it.

3. Press Release News.  I wrote about this before, how organizations will put out press releases which newspapers and television outlets will seize upon and reproduce word-for-word. If you have catchy animated graphics, so much the better. So, for example, if you have a catchy animated graphic illustrating a rotating skyscraper or air-powered car that you've come up with in your imagination but have never really made a working model of, the news media will report this as the "Next Big Thing!" to tantalize viewers.

With the cutbacks in reporting, press release news has really taken over. The danger of press release news is it allows people who are not part of the news organizations to decide what is and isn't news. And what gets chosen is news is what is basically eye-candy. News outlets love press release news because it's inexpensive - in fact, it's free. You just have to pay for a little rework in post-production and you've got yourself a news story for a nearly next-to-nothing in cost.

4. Clickbait News.  Following closely on the heels of press release news is clickbait news. In recent times, clickbait news has taken over. Rather than determining what is newsworthy and what isn't - or at least what the editorial board feels is newsworthy, the news outlets try to figure out what people want to see and then report that instead. This is arguably the most dangerous form of news reporting possible.

In recent times, it is all about Trump, which is why the news outlets love him.  It doesn't matter if you hate Trump or love Trump, you'll click on an article about his latest outrages either way.   This isn't news, per se, it is the medium that Howard Stern pioneered.   People listen to him for an hour because they love him.  People who hate him listen for two hours.   The bottom line is engagement - getting people to click on articles and to be outraged and upset.   You make more money this way, as advertisers pay more for sites that engage readers.

There is a fine line, of course.   Some Fox News stars have seen their ad revenue plummet as they cross the line from edgy to unspeakable.  In a way, it is like comedians - being funny means pushing the envelope, but it is a tricky deal.  You push too far, and you are seen as racist or sexist or just ugly and not funny.

5. Twitter.  The latest and worse form of news reporting - perhaps even worse than clickbait news - is Twitter-based news.   Few people actually are on Twitter - I'm not, and you probably shouldn't be either.   But because the people employed in the media are all on Twitter, they view what happens on Twitter as "news".    You and I have read thousands of tweets over the years, not because we are on Twitter (we aren't - right?) but because so many news stories these days are based on tweets and include tweets in the body of the story (often annoyingly once as text, and again as an image, and again as text, in case we missed it the first time).

Like with press-release news, Twitter-based news is often based on what other people want reported as news.  President Trump is genius at this (evil genius, but genius nevertheless) often changing the subject of the national debate by simply dropping a Twitter-bomb on the American public, or at least the American media.   By doing so, he changes the subject and often "buries" a real story.  So instead of talking about the migration crises, or the impending debt ceiling cap (and the problems with the national debt), the media, the public, and the Democratic party are all upset about tweets.   Mission Accomplished.

6.  Rumors and Fake News Sites:   Trump has used the term "Fake News" to describe the mainstream media.  But prior to that, a host of sites have popped up (and pooped out) that print "news" articles that are little more than parodies or made-up rumors.  Inforwars is the best example of this, and its host has admitted that his abrasive "persona" and the stories he tells on the air are just an act, not real news.  Or at least that was the pitch he made in divorce court while trying to get custody of his children.

These sort of internet rumors and conspiracy theories have thrived because of the demise of real news.  When all you read on a "mainstream" site or show is press releases, barf-ups of Tweets, wire service reports, and click-bait nonsense, people become starved for real news.  They want to know what is really going on, but those sorts of stories get buried in a flurry of what the President Tweeted yesterday or what some company said in a press release, or what some Pol said in a carefully scripted "press conference" - the latter of which is barfed-up obediently by the mainstream press (and we criticize other countries for their "State Media"!).

Unfortunately, fake news is filling this news vacuum.   And it isn't so much a vacuum as the sugar-coated click-bait and other nonsense drowns out the real stories, which don't get clicked on, watched, or read - but instead pushed to page six.  Watergate today, would be relegated to the back pages of the Washington Post as some sort of bumbled burglary.   No one would put such a boring story on the front page anymore - no one could follow it!

* * * 

This sounds pretty bleak - is there hope for "the News" anytime soon?   Well, the good news (if you'll pardon the pun) is that this whole thing isn't driven from the top-down but from the bottom-up.   We get click-bait stories because we click on them.  And yes, it is tempting to click on the latest "Did you hear what Donald Trump Tweeted last night?" stories - but every time you do, the company that printed that story makes a penny and some computer somewhere logs your click and an algorithm determines that that is the sort of dreck you like to read and watch.   So you get more of it - we all get more of it.   But in today's internet-enabled news, you in particular, get more of it, as they can tailor your "feed" based on what you already looked at.

But ultimately, the problem isn't the news - it is us, for consuming the dreck they call news today.