Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 24 Hour News Fallacy

Once upon a time TV actually went off the air at night. I'm barely old enough to remember the nightly playing of the National Anthem and the pattern  and annoying buzz that would follow and remain the only thing on TV until the next day's broadcasts began at some early hour the next morning.

TV news used to be something that happened a few times a day, with much of America getting their news right before dinner or perhaps right before bed. I can recall there being the 6 O'clock News and the 11 O'clock news, and that was just about it.

And then, on June 1st 1980, a guy named Ted Turner launched something he call the Cable News Network . . .CNN . . .and changed the news forever. Not, I would argue, for the better.

It sounds like a great idea, right? Why not have entire TV and radio networks devoted to round-the-clock news coverage? That's a holy cow, can't-miss concept, right?

I'm sure it seemed so at the beginning, but now we're more than three decades into the era of 24-hour news channels and it's harder than ever to actually find any news amongst the infotainment that now passes for an information exchange.

Essentially, there is probably about an hour's worth of news that even the most broadminded person would find interesting on a given day. So what do the networks do for the other 23 hours? Some of that is taken up with repetition, of course, but repetition alone does not a viable network make.

During a political season . . .and all seasons seem like political seasons now . . .these news shows spend a lot of time parsing words. It must be a real nightmare to be a political figure, as every time you speak you know there are teams of news analysts looking for some little thing to pull out of whatever you said and make a story out of it. Get one nuance of an issue wrong or misspeak in the slightest and you're the laughing stock of the country. It's even easier when we see candidates like the ones being fielded by the Republican party for the 2012 presidential campaign. A duller bunch of candidates have rarely been assembled as often as these drones, and the news cycle is just waiting for the latest round of stupidity and buffoonery to flow.

Another popular method of making a 5-minute news day last hours is by having viewers "Tweet" their comments about a particular story and then showing those "Tweets" on the air. This is a new pet peeve of mine. I don't turn on the news to find out what some country bumpkin in Montana thinks about a key issue. If I want to know what a non-journalist thinks about an issue I'll log in to Facebook. If I'm going to watch news, can I please see highly-trained journalists uncover facts about whatever story they're telling?

Oh . . .wait . . .we don't seem to have highly-trained journalists any more. What we have (especially on FIXed News is pseudo-celebrities, chosen for their looks and their willingness to tote the party line.

Whatever happened to the follow-up question? You know, Michele Bachmann turns away the results of thousands of cases to tell her viewing audience that "some lady" approached her after a rally and told her that the HPV vaccine gave her kid mental retardation. The reporter never asked the obvious follow-up question: "Are you prepared to take the word of some random person who approached you after a rally (and then could never be found) over the word of scientists, doctors, and patients who have successfully used the vaccine to no ill effect?"

Of course not. There was no follow-up question because it was more fun for the 24-hour news shows to spend the next few news cycles making fun of Bachmann for being an idiot . . .or in the case of FOX, spreading false information about a vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer.

Bachmann was called out eventually, once her statement had run its course and there was another news cycle to fill. Asked why she would say something so obviously not true, Bachmann stated:

"I have no idea. I am not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a physician. All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me at the debate."

Yeah, and a student once told me an alien beamed his homework up to a spaceship. I didn't call CNN and report that aliens were taking over public schools . . .I dismissed the comment as nonsense.

Welcome to the world of 24 hours news channels. Nothing is too stupid to become a story, and no source is too accessible to actually be utilized in an attempt to fact-check a crazy story before running with it. Besides, why fact-check a story immediately when you can run the inaccurate story today and then run the correction after that cycle has runs its course?

Journalistic integrity has long since been sacrificed at the altar of the 24-hour news cycle.

What's the solution?

I think many of you have probably already chosen the method I prefer, which is simply turning those 24-hour channels off. I don't watch CNN, I certainly don't watch FAUX news (which misleads very intentionally) and I watch only one show on MSNBC - Rachel Maddow. I tend to look to NPR and the BBC for actual news . . .the kind that doesn't come so laced with opinion that it's hard to even find the nugget of a story that was there to begin with.

Ultimately, though, if we want the channels that use the word "news" in their names to actually report something close to factual news, we have to get their attention and demand a higher standard.

Perhaps a massive Twitter campaign would work, since they seem to love those Twitter feeds.

Then again, turning them off works pretty well, too.


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