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Blaming the media is blaming the Constitution. But this is nothing new. After all, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in the 1790s — the ink on the Constitution was barely dry.
For those of us born before the 1980s, we need to come to terms with something: there is no mainstream media anymore. The falling costs of audio-visual hardware and high-speed internet have made 21st century media a free-for-all. Let the buyer beware.
Sure, there is legacy media, what we used to call the Big 3 Network newscasts. And of course, there is cable news, which has largely devolved into opinion and personality driven programming.
And there are the local outlets. I have personally worked with people I would trust my life with at some of these local shops, and with good reason. By and large, local media are trusted far more than national media. These are people who live and raise families in the communities that they serve. They work very hard to get the best information they can to you. But you need to know something.
They are under tremendous pressure. Especially now. But they were under pressure long before this.
The most comical thing I repeatedly read is that the people in the media are telling you what they want you to believe. More ludicrous is the idea that one outlet, or another, is telling you the real story, while everyone else is lying.
The goal of television news is to get you to watch. Period.
The means to that end may differ among outlets, depending on what demographic they are trying to attract, but it is the same goal.
It is why managers and ownership groups spend ungodly sums of money researching what kind of stories viewers want to see.
Station owners – corporations, if you will — are sinking tremendous resources into figuring out what types of stories you want to watch. Viewers have more choices now than in the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s. Far more. Eyeballs are going elsewhere.
What types of stories are these? Ones that get you emotionally involved so that you continue to watch. Facts are boring. Emotions? Well, that hooks you. That pulls you in.
Does the story piss you off? Does it make you feel good?
Does it expose the powerful abusing the weak? Or perhaps the weak getting revenge?
Does it make you feel nostalgic? Does it make you feel good about being an American?
Or does it push the most primal button of all?
Fear of things, ideas, or people you don’t understand. A threat to your job and livelihood, a threat to your health or the health of your family, or even a threat to your life.
A threat to long held, yet potentially incorrect ideas that you have otherwise grown quite comfortable with. Ideas that you’ve based your entire identity upon, which may not actually be true.
Look, I’m not a fan of this model. I shake my head when I see large text across the bottom of a screen that reads, MILLIONS UNDER TORNADO THREAT or TERRORISM ALERT DESK.
This emotional aspect is especially true of cable news programming. Bring on commentators that are going to stroke your ego and tell you what you want to hear. After all, it’s cheaper that way. Pay a talking head to get people riled up so they keep coming back to watch. It’s easy. You don’t have put any resources — time or money — into gathering information or vetting its credibility. And if you’re not reporting on facts, the threat of legal action against you is minimal. You find just enough of an audience to get emotionally involved and develop a small but loyal following for a program.
You show advertisers that your program has a loyal following, and just like that, you turn a profit.
I have not watched much television media during this pandemic. And I feel like I owe my friends working in local broadcast media an apology, but there are certain facts that I am in search of that take too long to find while wading through the ocean of information that is television media. I am fortunate — I know people who work in science and science journalism who know how to make complex science topics more understandable.
The current pandemic does not scare me, but it does give me pause. I’ve spent my career in science and science communication, and this does come with some basic scientific training and the desire to put emotions aside and view the information through a scientific lens:
- Understanding probabilities and risk
- Knowing the difference between linear and exponential growth
- Learning that plain old bar soap breaks down the outer walls of a virus, collapsing it and rendering it harmless
- Understanding the strengths and limitations of mathematical models
But recognizing when you are out of your league is just as important. I’m not a doctor or a virologist. So, I make it a point to find a few of them and listen carefully to what they say or share on social media.
Maybe you will too.
In this crisis, the people doing the groundwork in the media — the producers, the editors, the reporters — are doing their best to inform under a bizarre set of conditions. I’m not certain the media evolution of the last 20 years has them prepared. But I know they are working hard and doing everything they can.
If you think the media can go to hell, then you can go with them. Don’t blame the media. Blame yourself.
The media are a reflection on you… and on all of us.