All The News That Fits?

by Charles Miller on March 7, 2004

Found on Erik's link blog, CNBC and MSNBC both incorrectly reported Stewart verdict.

The culmination of a trial for a woman who built her homemaking empire in large part on television drew intense interest from TV networks. ABC, CBS and NBC broke into regular programming to report the verdicts.

With cameras not allowed in the courtroom, networks had to devise intricate plans to get the news out — involving scarves, placards, cell phones and quick feet.

Let's be realistic for a moment. What is the difference in elapsed time between:

  1. A reporter holding up a placard with the bare minimum summary of the verdict on it, and
  2. The reporter making notes about the verdict, carrying it to where the broadcast is happening, teaming with the producer to write up a clear summary and having the talking-head read it on air.

The latter holds the advantage in every single area but one: it is more informative, more accurate... and takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes longer.

The former isn't journalism, it's newstainment.

By any objective measure, the Martha Stewart verdict shouldn't have been something the world needed immediate, within-the-minute notification of. Stewart was a public figure found guilty of giving false evidence. Most of the interest in the case came from the contrast between the conviction and her clean homemaker image. What difference would fifteen minutes make to a public interested in finding her fate after a protracted trial? What difference would waiting for the evening bulletin make?

None, whatsoever. But you can make it matter to people if you feed the drama the right way. You can convince people that this is something that should matter to them, that they should be on the edge of their seats, demanding to know the outcome as soon as the judge hands down the verdict. If not sooner.

One of the best ways to entertain is to manufacture excitement, and one of the best ways to manufacture excitement is to manufacture a sense of urgency, whether there is one or not. Stress how we're waiting for the verdict. Create an artificial deadline. Create an atmosphere where you are rushing to bring the news as quickly as possible, and that urgency will be infectious for the audience.

Hey, the same tricks work on 24, and we know that none of the people in the show really exist. That guy isn't really the president, nobody's really trying to kill him, and Keifer Sutherland's not really saving the world. If we can get hooked by fiction, the same tricks can get us hooked on semi-fact.

And by making us excited and getting us hooked, eyeballs are delivered to advertisers. Newstainment.

It was the same thing during the most recent Iraq war. We were told over and over how important it was that we were getting constant, 24-hour news coverage. How important it was that we were getting information from people on the ground within seconds of it happening. How lucky we were that reporters were embedded with army units so we could have these first-hand accounts.

Journalism suffered, of course. The news we got was almost universally poorly fact-checked, poorly analysed and in the case of the embedded journalists, completely sacrificing any last vestiges of journalistic impartiality. But journalism isn't important any more. It's no longer good enough to live from the profits that good reporting can bring in: you have to maximise shareholder value.

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