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Americans Cared More About Baby Jessica Than About Chernobyl
September 4, 2007 8:40 PM   Subscribe

NewsFilterFilter: What Kind Of News Do People Really Want? A recent study by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press analyzes 165 separate surveys of Americans' news preferences (conducted over a period of 20 years). One of the findings would have been obvious to most Mefites: "Polarizing social issues involving family, sexuality, patriotism and God engender the highest levels of attention." Crime, health and politics have consistently received mid-level attention. Tabloid and entertainment news (Paris and Britney, this means you), science and technology, and "foreign" news? Meh, not so much.
posted by amyms (47 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
That's hot.
posted by Poolio at 8:46 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Want and need are two different things.

It's not that Americans care more about bullshit like Lindsay Lohan, so much as the media taps into that genetically innate, subconscious nugget in 90% of American brains that likes junk food, Dubya and Larry the Cable Guy.

People want sex, yet society invents taboos and rituals to keep sex under wraps. There aren't those same taboos and rituals with a free-market product like mass media, so they take advantage and make billions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:50 PM on September 4, 2007 [3 favorites]


OK, so here is exactly what I think is the problem when politics meets marketing. We end up with two milquetoast candidates who work well in focus groups, but don't inspire anyone in their blandness. There's no talk of issues, no debate, just a bunch of nonsensical crap regarding the other candidate. No wonder our elections end up 50 50. No one shows any desire to lead, and so the voters take a coin and flip it. It'd be nice to have a candidate with some balls to lead, but I think we're stuck with the weenies we elect for the duration. Sad, isn't it? The same thing can be seen with most movies and products. Go go least common denominator.
posted by Eekacat at 9:03 PM on September 4, 2007


damn, I was trying to find that Bill O'Riley lesbian gang epidemic video, but It seems to be hard to Google (at least it doesn't show up in the first few links) for. It really bridged all genera, from sexuality, to crime and health (an epidemic!) to tabloid entertainment.
posted by delmoi at 9:06 PM on September 4, 2007


"Polarizing social issues involving family, sexuality, patriotism and God engender the highest levels of attention."

Most Americans tend to confuse news with editorial opinion. When Fahrenheit 9/11 came out, I watched as right-wing talking points declared it to be non-balanced, over and over, sending the trance word out to their dupes and signaling their drones to get on the internet and assume that an editorial report assigning blame and responsibility was unfair old news and should be censored accordingly.
posted by Brian B. at 9:13 PM on September 4, 2007


Blazecock P said it better than I would of; there is a hell of a gap between want and need. Americans may want to know what people who believe in God think about teh geys, but what they need to know is what is going on with their children in Iraq.

That this isn't happening demonstrates a failure in the Fourth Estate.
posted by quin at 9:14 PM on September 4, 2007


would of have
posted by quin at 9:16 PM on September 4, 2007


Delmoi: here.

(Also, thanks for giving me a legitimate excuse for searching for lesbian gangs. I really appreciate it.)
posted by flatluigi at 9:16 PM on September 4, 2007


Surely the situation will improve once Rupert Murdoch takes over the reigns at the WSJ.
posted by Poolio at 9:28 PM on September 4, 2007


A failure of the Fourth Estate? Perhaps. But the media are composed of businesses, not charities. And they are increasingly parts of larger corporations that have little familiarity with, or sympathy for, such notions as public service and educating the body politic. And because the tawdriest material is what attracts readers and viewers, that's what the press feels compelled to put out there. I can tell you from firsthand experience that none of them are thrilled about it. Nobody I went to journalism school with wanted to spend their days chronicling La Lohan's latest DWI. But the press are essentially trapped in an arms race: they can't stop reporting on this crap because someone else will swoop in and fill the void. So they keep adding more fluff to their coverage in a race to the bottom, while the important things get left by the wayside. Factor in the overall trend of declining viewership/readership and the constant fear that the Internet will render them all irrelevant in the next six months, and you have a lot of dissatisfied journalists with little but contempt for their audience. Not a recipe for quality reporting.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:45 PM on September 4, 2007


But the media are composed of businesses, not charities. And they are increasingly parts of larger corporations that have little familiarity with, or sympathy for, such notions as public service and educating the body politic.

No real argument from me, in fact, this is more or less exactly what I mean when I say they are failing us. The press has been a business since the very beginnings of the nation, and yet, in the past, they still managed to report important news objectively.

Hell, to hear my mother tell it, it was the press' coverage of Vietnam combined with her protests that ended that war. (I'm willing to concede that the press may have played a larger part than her.)

The mass consolidations of media in this country are hurting us more than we know.
posted by quin at 9:54 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Or more succinctly; historically, even if you take yellow journalism and muckraking into account, there was always an opposition view. Nowadays in order to get that, we need to go to satirical programming like The Daily Show.
posted by quin at 10:00 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


"It'd be nice to have a candidate with some balls to lead..."

So vote for ME. If elected POTUS I promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and THEN win the war by nuking the place; the withdrawing troops of course would have thoroughly looted everything that's still lootable (especially stuff Americans can see at the Smithsonian for free). As for Afghanistan, I'll just arrange to sell that to China, after we reduce all its light-eyed females to domestic servitude. On the homeland front, I'll require everybody to wear a uniform consisting of overalls, a big straw hat, and a humongous gold-plated chain like hangman's noose. And the National Anthem will be changed to God Bless America And Nobody Else.
posted by davy at 10:10 PM on September 4, 2007


"What Kind Of News Do People Really Want?"

We kan has MORAL PANIC now okay!
posted by davy at 10:11 PM on September 4, 2007


Well, the Internet has been either lionized as the medium that will revolutionize journalism or vilified as the medium that will destroy it. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. Clearly new media are going to change the way people receive the news. The problem is, the media corporations are still clinging to the old models while the audiences are rapidly abandoning them. We're in a weird transition period, and I honestly don't know what American journalism is going to look like in 10, 20 years. Ideally, someone will figure out a way to incorporate the independence and fearlessness of the best bloggers (and, I suppose, the Daily Show) with the institutional trust that the mainstream media used to possess (and are still trying to bank on).
posted by Rangeboy at 10:11 PM on September 4, 2007


It's almost like people don't actually want to take their (media) medicine.
posted by klangklangston at 11:07 PM on September 4, 2007


AmericaNewsNetwork: Jesus, Terrorism, Fags & Titties 24/7!

Your one stop shop for populist outrage & titillation!
posted by Avenger at 11:56 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


quin writes "Americans may want to know what people who believe in God think about teh geys, but what they need to know is what is going on with their children in Iraq. "

Hardly the media's fault. What are you going to do? Tie people to chairs and force them to watch your version of the news? Hire towne criers? Arrange for people to drive around broadcasting the message Blues Brother's style?
posted by Mitheral at 12:04 AM on September 5, 2007


Unnecessary force in the apprehension of the truth has been approved.
posted by trondant at 12:53 AM on September 5, 2007


Hardly the media's fault. What are you going to do?

Stop having the "success" of the media tied to the count of eyeballs they can sell to the advertiser? Some of the best programming in the world is created by those broadcasters not tied to selling advertising. The BBC was an example of this.
posted by DreamerFi at 1:13 AM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sorry but it is no longer "news" as we knew it, even 20 years ago. Amerikans want entertainment to fill their empty lives, and that's what's being served up. Conflict (as in the essential element of drama) is what you will see in story after story on so-called "news" programs. There must be a conflict, a side for mouth-breathers to take. In this way they can somehow glean some meaning from their pointless, empty lives by taking a side. This gives them a (false) feeling of participation that's easy for them and doesn't require much more than yelling at the talking head on the screen before they continue to surf to the next bizarre cable TV offering. Newspapers...they'll be gone soon as less and less people read- either because they are too lazy, or never quite learned all those big words.
posted by GreyFoxVT at 4:04 AM on September 5, 2007


The give you Rule Britannia, gassy bear, page three
Two weeks in España and Sunday striptease


...and hell, that song is older than some of you posting here.
posted by pax digita at 4:33 AM on September 5, 2007


> Ideally, someone will figure out a way to incorporate the independence and fearlessness of the best bloggers

It isn't, to my mind, a good sign that bloggers increasingly expect to make money off their sites (and can seldom think of any other way to do so than sell adspace.) I imagine a world in which theCHEstore.com is actually owned by Che.
posted by jfuller at 4:57 AM on September 5, 2007


Wouldn't that be Zombie Che?
posted by chlorus at 5:44 AM on September 5, 2007


The American attitude towards news is:

I don't want to hear any more from Paris Hilton!
What do you have to say about that Paris Hilton?

Don't believe the polls. Americans will claim they don't want the slime, but Rupert Murdoch never lost money betting on the stupidity of his audience.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:58 AM on September 5, 2007


If people wanted objective (relatively) in-depth news and considered opinion, they'd watch PBS and probably read the economist. They don't, so this is what you get.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:58 AM on September 5, 2007


> The press has been a business since the very beginnings of the nation, and yet, in the past, they still managed to report important news objectively.

The press could get away with this because there was little competition in the market prior to widespread telecommunications. You had a local newspaper or two, a few local TV and radio stations, and once they had worked out a way to co-exist, things settled down. And in this climate, I think a lot of news sources got pretty out-of-touch, almost contemptuous of their readership. It's easy to be an intellectual douchebag, telling people what they "need to know" rather than what they want, when they didn't have a whole heap of alternatives. But when the alternatives such as national cable news appeared, people ditched traditional sources. (Or they finally got so fed up with them that they stopped reading news entirely and just went for 100% entertainment.)

I'm not normally in the habit of defending the American public's rabid anti-intellectualism, but you have to understand that it's holier-than-thou, we-know-better attitudes like this that create it. You may be completely right, but if you come across as "you're too stupid to choose your own news so I'm going to tell you what you need to know instead," people are going to switch you off. Welcome to both consumerism and democracy. (Or: that's not a bug, it's a feature.)

The solution -- which nobody likes, because it's really difficult, maybe impossible -- is convincing people who have a deeply ingrained suspicion of the 'Fourth Estate' why it's in their best interests to read a newspaper, rather than getting all their news from emails forwarded by their bridge club / drinking buddies / whatever. Because, if you can't convince people to watch your news of their own accord, regardless of how factually correct or morally well-meaning you may be, or how stupid they are, you don't have any basis to demand that they watch it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:31 AM on September 5, 2007


but if you come across as "you're too stupid to choose your own news so I'm going to tell you what you need to know instead," people are going to switch you off.

But it works so well for Fox News!

The solution -- which nobody likes, because it's really difficult, maybe impossible -- is convincing people who have a deeply ingrained suspicion of the 'Fourth Estate' why it's in their best interests to read a newspaper, rather than getting all their news from emails forwarded by their bridge club / drinking buddies / whatever.

Except at this point, it's not in their best interests anymore - the newspaper is about Paris Hilton and LOLcats too.

An analogy for clarification: imagine America's doctors are all controlled by healthcare companies A, B, and C. Company A decides it will now offer only and exclusively cosmetic surgeries, because those are the most popular and profitable. They start making lots of money, and company B follows suit, and eventually company C does too. Everybody dies prematurely because nobody's performing medically necessary procedures anymore.

Naturally this is an absurd scenario - ideally, consumers will be rational and switch to healthcare provider B or C, and provider A will go bankrupt. This is because the consumer is expected to understand that the purpose of healthcare is to keep them alive, and that choosing provider A has fatal consequences. But this is essentially what has occurred in the USA: people aren't watching the news for news, they're watching it for a 24/7 Entertainment Tonight channel. They fail to understand what is wrong with that decision. They want their newspaper to be a tabloid, they want their president to be a average Joe they can have a beer with, they want their foreign policy black and white.

Is this a critical failure of the education system? Other countries have tabloids, and they don't subsume all other news outlets until everything's indistinguishable. Media conglomeration accelerated the problem, certainly, but it's a feedback loop between a poorly-educated public and a profit-driven news network which has pushed it past the point of no return. There still exists real news options (internets, NPR, CBC, BBC, etc), they're simply ignored, and it's the public's fault.

The failure of the media is a symptom of something greater, and much much worse.
posted by mek at 9:11 AM on September 5, 2007


"No real argument from me, in fact, this is more or less exactly what I mean when I say they are failing us. The press has been a business since the very beginnings of the nation, and yet, in the past, they still managed to report important news objectively."

Actually, that's dead wrong and something that I really don't like about the liberal jeremiad against "The Media."

Speaking on American journalism, the "objective" model came from Ochs running the New York Times in the early 1900s and deciding that he could sell more papers to the upwardly mobile if he adopted a stance of establishment "objectivism."

Prior to that, for the first couple hundred years of American journalism, and even somewhat past Ochs, we had the party press model, where every viewpoint was represented by some crank with a broadsheet. That's where we got Jefferson's vicious attacks on the press (and vice versa) and where John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson had their mudslinging battle royale, with allegations of fillandering and bastard sons. Jackson blamed Quincy's press allies for the death of his wife, so scandalous were the rumors they printed.

If we look to England, we can see that some of the edges have been ground off of party presses, but the Independent, the Granuaid, the Daily Mail, and especially the Sun all have their obvious affiliations.

What Fox News is doing is returning to an earlier model, and instead of realizing that a) it's effective, and b) working to counter it, liberals sit around bemoaning the loss of their "objective" press.
posted by klangklangston at 10:21 AM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


klangklangston -- well, from my point of view, i think the narrative goes more like this: media has historically been really biased and controlled by the wealthy and that sucked all around. gradually, the American public came to realize there needed to be fairness and accuracy standards because of blatant media abuses. so over a couple of decades, through painstaking legislative processes, new laws were enacted in furtherance of the relatively new but popular ideals of fairness and accuracy in the media and truth in advertising. then in the 80's, reagan eliminated all these rules, and fox sprung up shortly thereafter, a pugnacious throwback to a less civil time when robber barons owned the major media outlets and used them as propaganda outlets. now after all those years of working to forge and advance these ideals, "liberals" are reluctant to abandon them wholesale just because some self-anointed conservatives apparently don't subscribe to those ideals and never did.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:10 AM on September 5, 2007


That's a nice story, saul, but has nothing to do with the actual history of journalism in America. Fer instance, the Fairness Doctrine, while somewhat helpful, was easily arguable as an abrogation of the right to free speech. But what had more of an influence was the media ownership rules, and deregulation of markets. And the rise of the "objective" standard was definitely a commercial choice by Ochs. The public had very little to do with fairness per se, as the legislation was pushed as part of a broad anti-communist attack on what was seen as a "liberal" media. It really wasn't a "painstaking process" over a couple of decades, and only the most useful portion of the doctrine was upheld by the Supreme Court—that folks who were attacked personally were able to respond (upheld in '69, abandoned in 2000).

But, again, instead of realizing that "balance" means giving equal time to creationists in any story about evolution (or geology, even), you're decrying the loss of something that never existed and failing to move forward.
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 AM on September 5, 2007


well, klang, i guess i'm telling you that regardless of the history of the ideals, or the original motivations for their advancement, i for one (and i'm far from alone in this position) personally hold fairness and accuracy in the media (and for that matter, truth in advertising) up as important ideals. so your arguing that i should be persuaded to abandon these ideals in light of their tangled historical roots doesn't really take me anywhere i want to go.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:14 PM on September 5, 2007


Then you should enjoy Fox News, it being both fair and balanced.
posted by klangklangston at 12:20 PM on September 5, 2007


I stand corrected on the origins of objectivism. Thanks, klang.

Though I still support my other point that the consolidation of media corporations is not helping us at all.

More and more outlets are being controlled by fewer and fewer people, and if they decide that they don't want to run the story, it gets buried. I don't want to belabor the point, but how often do we see footage from Iraq on the nightly news?

Conversely, if they want us to follow a 'story' all they have to do is put it in constant rotation for a couple of hours and it becomes news. (By way of example, see anything involving Paris Hilton.)

This really bothers me.
posted by quin at 12:25 PM on September 5, 2007


That last comment is mostly rhetorical, I'm not lashing out at you klang, I'm just irritated today.
posted by quin at 12:27 PM on September 5, 2007


ha! fair and balanced.

i don't want balanced. hell, i don't even care so much about fairness. i just want accuracy. no opinions dressed up as news. just simple facts. names of people, counts of things. metrics only. of course, editorial discretion in terms of story selection would still be a problem, and the news would be dull as all hell, but that, to me, is how it should be. lots of facts. little else.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:31 PM on September 5, 2007


"Though I still support my other point that the consolidation of media corporations is not helping us at all."

Oh, I agree with that. No question. And were I running the world, we'd have a such a vibrant PBS and NPR that there'd never be a fund drive again.

As for saul— what you want has never been and will never be. The closest you'll get is reading the stock ticker. Everything else is made by humans for humans.
posted by klangklangston at 12:42 PM on September 5, 2007


Oh, and as an aside to quin:

"I don't want to belabor the point, but how often do we see footage from Iraq on the nightly news?"

I have no idea. I haven't watched the nightly news since I stopped getting sent to my grandparents' house for summers. I read newspapers (and magazines and the internet) for my news, and occassionally catch a Daily Show. But nightly news? Hell, man, it's up against Simpsons reruns here, and there are still plenty of those that I've never seen.
posted by klangklangston at 12:45 PM on September 5, 2007


A wise move, the local nightly news is a poison to the soul, and every time I'm forced to endure it, I seriously contemplate harming people.

Something in your home is going to kill you and your family! News at 11.

Aargh!

posted by quin at 1:11 PM on September 5, 2007


Choices in news consumption depend on personal perspective. You are less interested when you don't understand how events pertain to you and yours. Maybe this reflects the psychological structure of the post-industrial world. Here, one need not think about how one's bread came to be baked, or where one's plastic sushi containers go once they're "gone." Most of us believe in this magic (and not just the hoi polloi).

Through the miracle of modern technology, we have specialized, compartmentalized, packaged, and managed to snugly package the packages. This is natural for humans; we build boxes for protection. We keep the predators at bay, we keep the food safe, we keep the tinder dry. We are very good at working together to build boxes, and some serve us well. The problem is that a number of unintentional boxes stand between us and our neighbors. Boxes made of Dukes of Hazard, anti-wrinkle cream, and high density polyethylene; boxes full of things made in ways we're afraid to learn about, in places we're sure we'd rather not visit. We're surrounded by magic boxes of addictively mind-numbing distraction.

When nothing is connected, you can't have the perspective needed to weigh the importance of issues. Bias matters far less than awareness that bias is present and inevitable. We could stand to wake up a bit.
posted by zennie at 1:29 PM on September 5, 2007


As for saul— what you want has never been and will never be. The closest you'll get is reading the stock ticker. Everything else is made by humans for humans.

I know it's never been and never will be. That's what makes it an ideal. An ideal is something you strive for--an imaginary limit you try to approach as nearly as possible, that serves as an organizing principle. Just because an ideal's not attainable in reality doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing.

News for humans is fine. News consciously intended to mislead or persuade humans to adopt particular positions or viewpoints which may or may not be in their best interests is not fine, in my book, as a matter of principle.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2007


Saul— Except that even "objective" news carries with it an implicit plea to accept positions and viewpoints, leaving only the endless argument about interest. It's fine to have ideals, but it's the same problem that Rawlsian "rational" democracy runs up against—there's no way to avoid tautology and circular reasoning, there's no extra-systemic judge or authority, and it's even more contentious in a pluralistic society.

Because it's a modernist ideal, the analogy to another driving force of modernism is apt: the veneration of technological solutions to all problems itself leads to distortions and negative consequences, especially when legislation gets involve.d
posted by klangklangston at 2:21 PM on September 5, 2007


there's no way to avoid tautology and circular reasoning, there's no extra-systemic judge or authority, and it's even more contentious in a pluralistic society

these same arguments could just as well be applied to the body of information that makes up contemporary scientific understanding, and yet, science actually works, delivering tangible results, because the members of the scientific community (well most of them, anyway) share a common set of ideals, valuing a high degree of accuracy and rigor in their information gathering and sharing processes.

and in both cases, there actually is an outside authority: empirical reality. experimental results. stuff that can be measured. the more news stories are grounded in concrete realities--places, numbers, names, and other verifiable facts, the better.

i appreciate your criticisms though, and they are fair. i'm just not hearing any meaningful suggestions for an alternative organizing principle for creating and presenting news stories. if the rule is just, report what sells in whatever way sells, then hell, there might as well not be a category of goods and services we call "news." in that case, we should just drop the pretense. call it all entertainment, because there's no longer anything left, from a purely definitional standpoint, to distinguish what we call news from creative non-fiction, other than the misleading label "news," which creates certain implicit expectations of accuracy and objectivity, rightly or wrongly, in the minds of most consumers.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:49 PM on September 5, 2007


"these same arguments could just as well be applied to the body of information that makes up contemporary scientific understanding, and yet, science actually works, delivering tangible results, because the members of the scientific community (well most of them, anyway) share a common set of ideals, valuing a high degree of accuracy and rigor in their information gathering and sharing processes."

Well, no, they really couldn't, at least to most hard science. And that's primarily due to the dictum of repeatability in experimentation— if it only happens once, and you can't recreate it, you can't prove it. Further, science actually starts with as few assumptions as possible, under the general principle that everything is unknown save what can be demostrated. When they come across a fundamental ontological question, they set it aside. While insisting on "facts" and "truth" in reporting is similar, it isn't congruent, as the "facts" available to the media are socially constructed, rather than based on repeatable research.

Which brings us to "empirical reality." The difference between science and reportage is that when science discovers a "truth," that truth is eternal and immutable. Everything else is theory. With journalism, you're dealing with accounts of things that have already happened, and will never happen the same way again, and is always filtered through a biased source. Even verifiable facts aren't always there, and relying on only reporting them would leave you without the why and the how, and often the who and the what and the where.

News is "entertainment" as much as any ostensibly non-fiction work is. I read essays and reports, hell, even papers and textbooks, because on some level there's a voluntary choice. And everything I read, I have to evaluate against a matrix of my assumptions of the author's biases, be they left or right or institutional or radical. Even scientific papers have these, though they try to be up-front with them— this study has these selection biases, this study attempted to control for these compounding factors.

That's the alternate suggestion— for Fox to come out and say "We're the Republican faction news network." For the New York Times to admit that they've served the interests of New York elites for a hundred years, which they often tacitly admit. To not encourage the strained contortions of "objectivity" when it requires "balancing" through false equivalency.
posted by klangklangston at 3:10 PM on September 5, 2007


While insisting on "facts" and "truth" in reporting is similar, it isn't congruent, as the "facts" available to the media are socially constructed, rather than based on repeatable research.

we're talking at cross-purposes, i think. i'm sketching out my view of how reporting should aspire to work. the kinds of facts the media reports aren't all socially constructed, although i'll concede, their selection is socially informed.

for example, mr. x won the pullitzer prize. there's one example of good reporting, although its newsworthiness is debatable. a dead body was found in hyde park today. there's another.

the demarcation between relatively stable, reproducible statements of fact like this and the softer kinds of journalism and political/current events analysis is pretty clean. my preference would be for more of the former, less of the latter, and never a deliberate blending of the two.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:35 PM on September 5, 2007


I kind of wish I could just copy and paste transcripts of Howard Beale rants into the thread.

But that wouldn't be terribly helpful, now would it.
posted by sparkletone at 1:22 PM on September 8, 2007


Now we know why the fight against global warming is such an uphill battle! It's not sexy, it's tough, it involves science and technology. It's going to be a tough sell. Oh! boy . . .
posted by lamarguerite at 9:44 AM on October 1, 2007


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