Today, many sources are available for us to be informed of the news: newspapers, radio, the Internet, and television.
The majority of U.S. adults receive news on presidential candidates from local TV broadcasts, and television is the main source of international news for people between 18 and 29 years old. With the massive reliance on TV to obtain news, it is essential that the information presented is fair and provides good coverage of the issues facing the world. However, the content that is covered in news programs is becoming increasingly controlled by news stations’ desire for maximum profit, and less with the desire to provide the most unbiased, factual information.
From Information to Entertainment
In the 1950s, three television networks existed: NBC, CBS, and ABC. News programs were typically broadcast for only fifteen minutes each evening and were very informative. However, when all three networks broadcast the 1960 presidential debates and garnered massive audiences, television executives realized that they had the potential to make large profits. This marked the beginning of a period of expansion of news programing and competition among television networks to produce the most watched and highest rated broadcasts.
Today, the priority of news programs is entertainment rather than information. Some television programs combine news and entertainment to produce what is known as ‘infotainment.’ While the information covered in these programs is accurate, it does not always cover the most important issues. Instead, evening news broadcasts emphasize celebrities, lifestyle issues, and stories that will ultimately interest their viewers. The reduced importance on quality information is causing a reduction in the number of people who are actually interested in the news and an increase in those just looking to be entertained.
National news programming is now taking a back seat to local news programs. Local broadcasts feature stories that are very appealing to the average American: they contain crime stories that capture their audience’s attention, detailed weather reports, sports analyses, and stories concerning celebrities.
News anchors are viewed as celebrities themselves instead of mere reporters of information. Anchors are often chosen that are attractive, well groomed, and in many cases, young. The anchors also engage in light conversations with each other that keep the mood carefree. The positive portrayal of the newscasters allows viewers to relax and be entertained by the news stories, rather than being informed about global issues.
Bias as a Vehicle for Viewership
With increasing polarization among Americans in terms of political views, many news networks adopt a strong political stance in order to appeal to a specific group of people, and ultimately boost their views. The emergence of news stations that have an obvious conservative or liberal tilt, such as FOX News and MSNBC, have created an unhealthy tradition of only providing one viewpoint on an issue while disregarding other viewpoints. Talk shows featuring iconic hosts and politically charged conversations have emerged to appeal even more to specific audiences.
Political campaigns offer news programs many new opportunities to engage in bias and spike their viewer counts. Media coverage of candidates focuses on unflattering pieces of background information that could potentially skew voters’ opinions, since coverage of negative characteristics attracts many more viewers than coverage of a candidate’s positive characteristics. These factors create an atmosphere of negative attention toward politics.
An overall negative and critical tone also helps news networks boost their numbers. Audiences are vastly more entertained by adversarial journalism than analytical journalism. The growth of adversarial journalism spiked after the Watergate scandal of Nixon’s presidency; coverage of the scandal and subsequent trials drew in huge numbers of viewers. Following this event, reporters began to take on a new role as critics of American cultures and practices, especially concerning the government.
While negative news interests us and may encourage more people to tune into the news, it has a number of drawbacks. There is some evidence to support that negative news may have an adverse impact on the behavior of viewers, and too much negative news may cause citizens to adopt a sense of hopelessness about the government and American society, believing them to be broken beyond repair.
A Steady Balance
While there is little doubt that the proliferation of overly entertaining, biased, and negative news is problematic, it does offer benefits. News programs before the 1970s, while very informative and relatively unbiased, were considered terribly boring and sometimes difficult to understand. Modifying the news programs to better suit the needs and wants of viewers ultimately draws more viewers in and encourages them to stay informed about local issues.
However, the focus on certain kinds of news concerning celebrities, lifestyles, crime, and politics takes attention away from issues that are more worthy of time on the television. Global issues are vastly underrepresented in the news, leaving many Americans ignorant about what is happening around the world. More importance is placed on overly dramatic events that can easily be blown out of proportion.
A healthy balance between informative news and entertaining news is essential. However, privately owned news programs have little incentive to start airing more informative news stories, as their profits are largely based on the amount of viewers they attract. The only way to encourage news stations to provide informative news stories would be widespread demand by the public. It is up to us to decide whether we are willing to cut down on stories covering our favorite celebrities in favor of becoming more informed about global events.
Losco J, Baker R. 2015. Tuning in or Tuning Out. In: Am Gov. New York: McGraw-Hill Education. p. 229–236
Hallin D. Whatever Happened to the News? Center for Media Literacy [Internet]. [Cited 2015 Nov 11]. Available from: http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/whatever-happened-news