Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Improving the News Part 1

Previously this blog hypothesized that one of the principle elements required for the survival of newspapers was to initiate a form of ‘smart’ revolution. Unfortunately the success of such a strategy is not only contingent on the actions of the newspaper industry, but also that of the cable news industry. If the cable news industry does not embark on its own ‘smart’ revolution, its ubiquitous nature and continuing influence on the increasing lack of general knowledge possessed by the average U.S. citizen regarding domestic and international issues will certainly reduce the probability of success for any ‘smart’ revolution and further contribute to the continuing deterioration of U.S. authority on the world stage.

The rise of cable news created a significant advantage over the classic nightly national news provided by the big three national networks, time. Typically barring special events, the national news was allotted only a half-hour to cover all of the relevant news of the day, thus a majority of that news, especially on the international stage not directly related to the United States, was left on the cutting room floor and even the news that aired lacked a level of depth due to the allotted time constraints.

Cable news networks are not burdened by this critical handicap, they have 24 hours of programming devoted to the news. Unfortunately where it would have been anticipated that without a time burden these networks would endeavor to dig much deeper into a myriad of topics both covered and not covered by the network news, such a mindset did not emerge. Instead cable news networks elected to copy the general format of the national news (perhaps because it was viewed as successful) and simply repeat the formula every half-hour. Even so-called specialty shows follow such a formula although they dress it up a bit with snazzy bells and whistles.

One potential reason for utilizing such an inferior methodology is that the cable news genre requires people watching solely for the news, thus a loop strategy increases the probability that at any given moment an individual that tunes into the particular channel will continue watching because the bulk of the news is either on or will be in the very near future. The problem is that this loop strategy creates an environment of water-downed sound bites that have little meaning and seem to be more successful at spreading panic and anger through incomplete and/or misinformation than spreading calm and understanding through logic and rationality.

The recent coverage of the so-called ‘balloon’ boy is a perfect representation of this model. [Note that even the title of balloon boy is a misnomer because the boy was never in the balloon and for all intensive purposes probably did not even release the balloon.] All of the major cable news networks latched on to the ‘drama’ of the story when it first hit the wire. However, the coverage quickly became stale and meaningless after spending the first 90 seconds summarizing the story.

This lack of developing details forced entry into what can only be viewed as a contorted version of the movie ‘Speed’. A repetitive loop of the same coverage that was viewed just 90-120 seconds ago with the station manager mumbling to him/herself ‘If our station doesn’t continue to cover this story despite the sheer lack of new developments we will certainly go out of business.’ At least that must have been the mindset otherwise there is no logical reason to have continuous real-time coverage of a story where the only real event of note that could have occurred would be the descent of the craft.

This attitude seems derived from the inability to properly address the mindset of the news consumer. Only irrational consumers select a news network because that particular network beat the other stations to the punch by some arbitrary short period of time like 5 seconds. It is difficult to conceptualize an individual furiously changing channels back and forth between different news networks in an effort to determine which station was covering a given story with the greatest amount of turnover. For example if CNN loses more than 0.001% of its audience because MSNBC achieves a 10% faster update turnover, then society has a much bigger problem over where the populous chooses to gets its news.

News networks need to explore being much more thorough in reporting various topics. CNN seems in prime position to execute such a strategy because of the existence of Headline News. Originally Headline News was the standard repetitive news channel with 30 minutes identical cycles over a given time period.

However, due to competition brought on by MSNBC and Fox, Headline News changed format to include more talking heads. Instead of maintaining this change, CNN should return Headline News to its original format, where viewers can drop in to look for quick updates on the generic news of the day. Then CNN would no longer feel obligated to cover those popular sound bite stories and instead focus on going deeper on given issues. Recall that the best way to beat competition is to give the consumer something beneficial they cannot get with other products of the same ilk.

For example CNN could select three issues and devote three hours of expert qualitative and quantitative analysis on the various elements that make up those issues. Then CNN could select a fourth issue that may not be in the news, but members of CNN’s news staff believe is a lingering problem and propose various solutions to that problem. For the most part news organizations should think Masters or Doctorial thesis over 5-minute oral report for a class of fifth graders. For those that say such a format is not what the public wants, how could anyone know because all news organizations ever seem to offer is sound bite, sound bite, talking head, sound bite. It is difficult to rationalize that an individual likes or dislikes food x if food x is never offered.

Another trend that has emerged recently is the incorporation of instant response technologies in an effort to get viewers more involved, which is understandable from a ratings standpoint, but the methodology behind the participation serves little purpose. For example CNN encourages viewers to make comments on stories using Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and through I-reporting; however, these comments typically do not have significant purpose acting like a voice in a crowd just randomly shouting something for the sole purpose of shouting something in some diluted attempt to matter. Instead of simply reading the comments with no feedback, commentators should pre-select random comments to reply to on-air.

For example before reviewing any comments the commentator will elect to supply feedback to comments number 3, 5, 8, 11 and 14 out of 20 comments read. Remember these comments are not pre-screened, thus commentary cannot be determined prior to their on-air reading and cannot be cherry-picked so that only a certain type of comment is read. An interesting aspect of this procedure is that if the comment consists of no real substance, the commentator should be free to ridicule the comment. Note such an opinion needs to be carefully monitored because at no time should a comment that disagrees with the personal viewpoint of the commentator be ridiculed solely because of that disagreement.

For example if the topic is abortion and the commentator is one that favors restrictions on abortion a comment of ‘abortion stupid’ would be ripe for ridicule because it offers no substance, no rationality to why the individual that provided the comment believes abortion to be stupid. One means of ridicule would be to comment that the individual in question should be forced to repeat 1st grade English to acquire the requisite knowledge about proper sentence structure.

However, a comment of ‘individuals that wish to place restrictions on abortions do so under strict religious pretense which flies in the face of the First Amendment and should not be tolerated.’ should not be ridiculed, but instead the commentator should attempt to explain, if possible, how religious views are not the sole factor in creating legislation to oppose abortion. That way the commentator’s response could be used as a jumping off point to continue the debate with regards to the validity of the response.

Another means of improving the interaction between network and viewer is encourage viewers to ask questions regarding certain more complicated issues, like health care, climate change or energy generation, etc. During various points in the day the question that has been asked the most in some form or another and has yet to be addressed will be directly addressed and answered in an analytical, logical and objective fashion. At the end of the day (10:00 pm/11:00 pm) an hour-long recap can be aired regarding the questions that were addressed and answered during the viewing day. Such a recap can easily replace one of the thirteen different in name, yet remarkably the same in content, talking head shows that cable news networks run in a given day.

Initially it appears that diversification of the guest pool for headliner shows (shows that have a single individual as the moderator who typically has his/her name in the show title) would also improve the discourse and quality of the show. For if one is truly serious, how devoid of substance must the conversations be between the moderator and the guest if that same guest is on the show two/three times a week? However, there is the underlying concern that it stands to reason that diversification of the guest pool would be in name only not ideology.

If host A invites guest B instead of guest A, but both guest A and B have similar viewpoints on the issue at hand, inviting guest B over guest A serves little purpose. Of course inviting a guest with a viewpoint that differs from that of the host would spark debate; however, the fine art of debate has fallen so far into the dregs of modern society that it is unclear that any substance will be gleamed from these conversations as there is the likelihood that the conversation would simply boil down into one individual shouting down the other individual.

News organizations also need to stop behaving illogically by giving equal weight or time to issues that are not equal. An excellent example is the question of the role of humans in accelerated climate change. Giving equal credence to both sides of this issue (humans are responsible vs. humans are not responsible) is akin to giving equal credence to the statements ‘2 + 2 = 4’ vs. ‘2 + 2 = 5,679’. Clearly one answer is right and one answer is wrong (humans are the principle driver of global warming and climate change), thus debating the topic is fruitless and can only do harm. These types of issues are not questions of which is better dogs or cats, a question which has almost no empirical standing, but a question of issues where some answers/conclusions are clearly wrong based on the given boundary conditions that apply to their very nature.

Overall there are a number of positive steps that cable news networks can take to foster a more intelligent and meaningful society. However, these steps will require hard work in their application and diligence to ensure that proper coverage and objectivity are given to stories that deserve it. Although cliché it is appropriate to state that cable news networks as well as newspapers can either be part of the solution or part of the problem.

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