All The News that Fits

Posted: 12/13/2009 in Media bias, Media Literacy, News, Television

When we watch the evening news, read a blog or newspaper, or listen to radio news, we voluntarily give the control of our senses over to the producer of what we’re reading or watching. In other words, we can learn only what he or she wants us to know. His or her ideals, values, priorities—yes, their world-life view dominates the story.

Why is this important?

Because the value system of the reporter or newscaster determines the slant—or bias—that a story will ultimately reflect. This process is especially dangerous when the slant masquerades behind the pretense of “news.”

For example, if a journalist personally agrees with the notion of global warming, he’ll be inclined to produce a “news” story which leads the viewer to share in that perspective.

There’s virtually no way to be neutral on such a hot topic, even for a journalist. Either you believe Al Gore’s theory of global warming is a scientific fraud, or you agree with him that cow flatulence is contributing to the thinning of the ozone layer and should be taxed.

Of course, if you believe farmers should be taxed for cow farts, then you better be willing to tax White Castle for their gas-producing burgers. If not discerning, it’s possible to start believing some pretty wild stuff.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Speaking of media bias, I’ll never forget the impression made by a visit to the newsroom of the ABC TV affiliate in Pittsburgh. I immediately noted a dry-erase board with two columns on it. The left side listed a number of “hot” local stories for the evening news: a convenience store murder, a bank robbery, a porn shop protest, a fire and so on.

In the right column corresponding with the stories were numbers, such as :21, :17, :35 and the like. Turning to the program director, I asked what the numbers signified. He informed me this was their Master Story Planner and the numbers represented the length of each story in seconds.

Hello? That means Joe Newscaster has typically between 17 and 30 seconds to communicate what happened, both sides of the story, any quotable sound bites, and an event summary (also known as the wrap-up). Further, the news director explained their “in-depth” story was typically anything longer than 30 seconds, but rarely more than 90.

My first lesson: due to short viewer attention spans the news is shallow and, as such, tends to rely upon the sensational.

Think about it. If you had to tell your spouse that you wrecked the car, how it happened, who was at fault, if there were injuries, and what it will cost to repair the damaged vehicle—could you do it in 19 seconds? With that kind of time pressure, I know I’d be forced to choose my words carefully. There’s simply no room for fluff.

After you reported the news to your spouse about the crackup, wouldn’t it be likely that he or she would have a few questions of his or her own? No matter how hard you may have worked to weigh your words carefully, 19 seconds is simply an inadequate amount of time to fully understand anything of substance.

Yet, isn’t that the way we receive the news every day?

We’re provided with a breaking story and, in most instances, the entire report is less than half a minute. So why do we keep tuning into such shallowness? On the surface, perhaps it’s because we feel “in touch” and somehow connected to the global community. We’re magically transported to the scene where it all happened, so we have a false feeling of “being there.”

But, between the hasty pace of news and our willingness to listen and not question what we’re hearing, it’s easy for journalists to place their own “spin” (bias) on a story. And that’s where we can run into trouble.

The next time you watch the evening news, count the seconds per story. Ask yourself whether both sides of the story were properly represented and who else they might have interviewed?

For me, I usually wonder why was that newsworthy?

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