Have you ever noticed that news networks have theme songs? Do you read the ticker-tape scroll bar or Twitter log at the bottom of the screen during broadcasts? Have you noticed the flashier intros, sharper graphics, faster transitions and more energetic guitar riffs in between stories of utter desolation in Afghanistan and celebrities gone wild? You are no longer watching news, you are watching entertainment.
24 hour news networks follow a very long and subtle trend in communication, dating back to the time of telegraph lines and Morse code. Mass communication attracted people with the thought of instantaneous, unlimited information. The possibilities were limitless; the man in London could now talk to the man in New York at a moment’s notice.
But what exactly do they need to convey to one another on a minute-to-minute basis?
A large information void that comes with mass communication ultimately leads to it being filled with fluff. Think about Twitter. What information from a tweet has ever changed your life, or even changed what you did that day? How many useful tweets are there compared to the number of useless ones? This is what Neil Potsman calls the “information to action ratio,” meaning what you see on television and read on the internet no longer directly relate to you in any way and you have no means to act upon the information you learn.
Now, news networks have 24 hours of content to fill, and more often than not they fill it with fluff. Celebrity scandals, human interest stories and far-off disasters occupy a majority of airtime, complete with commentary and analysis from “specialists.”
Except for the weather, the stories run on-air have no connection to you. Television, by nature, is a passive medium. There is no input necessary from the viewer for it to work. Unlike a book where words and arguments are permanent, on television a quote or image is a fleeting memory, present for only a moment.
In result, the news has become a source of passive entertainment. Networks spend far too much time on irrelevant, sensationalist events like murder trials and scandals. The information is meant mostly for entertainment at this point; only the most gruesome or surprising of stories make it to the headlines and, once there, remain there for weeks.
What needs to happen is a serious reevaluation of what our culture wants and where our technology is headed. The more “real-time” and “HD” broadcasts become, the more images we get of the outside of a courthouse, waiting for Casey Anthony to walk from the door to her car. Facebook and Twitter permit conversation with anyone else in the world, and yet we prefer to speak exclusively in 140 character comments and “Likes.”
Why? We are addicted to entertainment, and the smaller the bit of information, the quicker we absorb it and get a rush. However, information presented in such a format lacks substance. It is hollow. However, if news were portrayed in a completely serious medium (like CSPAN) then no one would want to watch it. In some ways there is a trade-off; people have to be willing to watch the news to figure out what is going on the world. The problem lies in the fact that network news has set the bar too low.
We have to find equilibrium and, at some point, be willing to put in the effort to understand the content presented so that it need not be cut down into pure entertainment. We have been a culture of convenience for so long, bent on making things better, faster, stronger and sooner. Now the issue is finding a purpose for all this new technology. Otherwise, it ends up just becoming another form of entertainment.
NASA got men to the moon with slide rules. We use smartphones to look up videos of cats. Somehow I do not think we are applying our electronics to their fullest extent.
News has the same problem, and unless we stop watching, it will continue in the wrong direction. There are plenty of online sources for updates on world events and politics. We have to make an effort to pursue alternatives until the television relies less on sensationalism and more on content to attract viewers. That requires more of a shift in culture than anything else, but I believe one day we will all be too frustrated with Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson coverage to continue watching.