|Not long ago most American
homes received at least one daily newspaper. Just idly turning the pages to find
the sports section or comics, readers couldn’t
help but glance at the news headlines, and bits of information tended to rub
Television, before cable and satellite, was arranged so that most entertainment
stopped at the dinner hour and again before bedtime for general-interest news
broadcasts. Just turning the dial, or waiting for the weather forecast, viewers
couldn’t help but sample a bit of hard news.
And think how radio used to be. The government basically required stations
to run news or “public service” programming—so whether you
were listening to rock, country or classical, every hour programs paused for
a few minutes of news. The news was hard to avoid, and some of it rubbed off.
By contrast, today’s boutique media allow many people to skip news altogether.
You can set your Internet home page so that it serves up only what you’re
interested in. You can watch video via Hulu or YouTube and never encounter a
smidgen of news. You can listen 24/7 to satellite radio or other digital music
services and not be bothered by reportage from the outside world.
Even consumers who answer surveys by stating that they get “news” online
or by watching cable channels often are referring to something that isn’t
really news at all. Some cable “news” channels devote virtually all
of prime time to nonstop campaigns for liberal and conservative agendas, making
little or no effort to summarize the major news of the day.
Many television producers and an increasing number of newspaper editors mistakenly
believe that since the day’s hard news is readily available, around-the-clock,
from so many sources, it’s no longer in their commercial interest, or the
public interest, to serve it up themselves.
When I asked a college media class of 40 students recently if they read a
daily newspaper, two hands went up. When I clarified that online newspaper sites
qualified, three more hands were raised. Yet everyone in the class claimed to
be at least generally aware of the news. I was told that “important stuff” gets
relayed by text, tweet or other social media.
While that’s often true, it contributes to the total inversion of the
traditional process by which news is disseminated. Anyone who has ever worked
in a newsroom is familiar with the most basic debate among journalists: Should
we give the public what it wants to know, or what it ought to know? The best
prescription has always been a combination of both.
However, the line that separates those considerations is moving—both
because journalists are succumbing to competitive pressure, and because consumers
are taking it upon themselves to alter the equation. Thanks to modern media and
devices, they have the tools with which to change it.
The standard pushback is that there’s more information out there than
ever before, and that interested consumers want to sort through it to find the
news. Again: Want? Or, ought?
The sad truth is that while some of us are naturally curious about what we
don’t know, an increasing number of readers and viewers want only reinforcement
of what they already know. While it’s not the job of media to force-feed
news to an uninterested audience, the system worked better when some news and
information just happened to rub off.
Personally, I’ve always relied upon great editors and great broadcasters
to tell me what they think is important each day. I’m determined to form
my own opinions, but I’m not so audacious as to think I know what’s
important without professional help.
One of my favorite news slogans is one used for decades by the Scripps newspaper
chain: “Give light and the people will find their own way.” Yet in
modern communications we seem to give off more heat than light, leaving too many
information-loaded consumers stumbling around in the dark.
(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.