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The Disturbing Truth About TV News in America

Football season is starting again and this year NBC has the rights to broadcast a portion of the NFL games and along with their coverage unfortunately comes Bob Costas – one of a handful of standard wax-like figureheads of American sports broadcasting for the past several decades.  Perhaps a textbook definition of what Scott Adams would certainly call a weasel, Bob Costas has covered just about every sport across his career and most recently has led NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.  The problem with Costas is that he represents the unhappy mixture of sports journalism with the sensationalist journalism that has come to represent American network news.  This is signified by four core disturbing trends that Costas exudes in his coverage, but that extend far beyond just him:

  1. Delighting in lawsuits – Hearing Costas cover the case against Michael Vick, a Quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons caught in a controversy over gambling and dog fighting, it was clear to see he could barely contain his excitement.  Remembering his Olympic coverage, it was this disconcerting pleasure in the misfortune of others that stood out in his coverage throughout the Athens games in 2004 as well.  I wasn’t the only one to notice either.
  2. Covering stories rather than significance – Though not specifically on Costas, one of the most disturbing examples of this recently was many news outlets covering the earthquake in Peru only sparingly because most of their coverage focused on two miners buried and a rescue effort in progress.  Hundreds dying is surely more significant than two individuals in danger, however rescuing miners and tales of heroism is certainly a better story.
  3. Sensationalizing tragedies – Replete with custom graphics and around the clock coverage, tragedies sometimes seem to be the one thing that television news programs get most excited about … because they offer fodder for continual coverage to fill what has become a 24 hour news cycle. 
  4. Using fear as a motivator – This is the most common and recognizable tactic for news broadcasts with little of substance to report … the frivolous stories of what you don’t know about your windowpanes that could kill you.  True or not, there are few homeowners that would not bite at watching a story like this. 

The counter argument, of course, is that news is just giving people what they want to watch.  I am sure the metrics behind viewership support this argument.  If that is true, the power to force a change lies with each of us.  Just stop watching.

3 thoughts on “The Disturbing Truth About TV News in America”

  1. I think the inherent problem with television news also lies in the visual-based medium. At some point, you have to draw a line. For instance: dead bodies. Covering a story about hundreds killed is going to involve lots of dead bodies lying around. Trapped miners allows longer coverage because news programs offer the promise of something tragic, without having to worry about showing it.

    I know that is just one example. And I largely agree with you about fear as a tactic. Just trying to further develop a great topic here.

  2. A big problem I see with the media is what is referred to as “The Drive-By Media”. a term borrowed from “Drive-by Shooting”. In this adapted context, the media is obsessed with getting the big scoop, not just reporting the news. They will throw accusations, insults and generalizations at a person or situation until something sticks.

  3. In all honesty, News has mostly become noise.

    No trending, no analysis, no context. You could get a continual RSS feeds on new events relating to Russian foreign policy or the War in Iraq, but have little real information of value.

    For example, does increase casualties in Iraq mean that the US is losing, or that we’re engaging the enemy more aggressive? Higher casualties is the information, but what’s the context?

    D-Day’s Battle of Normandy resulted in 40k Allied KIAs and ~20-23k Axis KIAs, but it was obviously a turning point against the Germans. If you were just sitting at home catching a glance at news reports on body counts, you’d think the Allied Forces were losing.

    Or how about China’s activities in Africa? You hear about China’s involvement in Sudan, but what does it mean for the rest of the African countries and how does it relate vis-a-vis the other powers: US, EU, India, Japan etc.

    A scrolling news sticker or just list facts, but not real “intelligence” to use Foreign Policy parlance. That’s why I recommend people read TheAtlantic, Economist or other such publications than rely on the BBC or FoxNews.



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