Distractions, distractions

In one of my early journalism classes at Washington & Lee, I learned about the obligations news media have to the public in the U.S. Among these was the obligation to maintain financial health and independence, such that the media remain free from the influences of people, groups or governments that would seek to effect editorial change with money. What effect does media fragmentation have on this critical obligation of the press? Could it be one of the reasons why distractions like Boobgate, the Martha Stewart trial, the Lacie Peterson case and the like have been out of control lately?

While our political system needs a free and responsible press to operate at its best, I wouldn't be so naive as to believe that our economic system shouldn't also play a significant role. The founding fathers realized that the invisible hand of capitalism would lead the press toward a balance of what the public needs to hear (public affairs) vs. what they want to hear (human interest). But could the founding fathers have envisioned the proliferation of media and a huge increase in the number of media options open to the average citizen?

Sustaining a television network was easy when there were only three of them. Now that there are more media channels than ever before, the networks have seen their audiences defect to cable, the Internet and other channels. In order to preserve the current model, individual media outlets have to either cut costs significantly or do what they can to stave off declining viewership. If you are, say, CBS, you'll probably opt to emphasize the latter, as would most broadcasters. This means more distractions - the types of things people want to see - as opposed to the "boring" stuff that people need to see.

American Journalism Review editor Jill Rosen wrote an article about the balance of hard news and celebrity worship recently. The article presented a balanced view of opinions on the subject, but it failed to deal effectively with the media theory behind the whole concept, IMHO. Broadcast outlets have only a limited amount of bandwidth. That is, in a typical news broadcast, the news team has only a half hour to devote to the most important stories of the day. If you happen to be a citizen who has time for only one news broadcast that day, your perceptions of the national agenda might be distorted if that news broadcast opts to run with the Michael Jackson case as a lead story instead of news about Iraq.

This effect is exacerbated when broadcasters are under ratings pressure. The invisible hand of our economic system moves broadcasters with decreased audience share toward doing whatever it takes to increase ratings. That means more shots of Janet's boob, more celebrity weddings and divorces, and more crap that no one needs to know. While we have more news outlets open to us, the natural diversity of opinion that would result from fragmentation is stifled because the viewing public is more apt to tune in to the celebrity junk and less so to sit through public affairs reporting they might think is boring. In short, there's more places for alternative points of view to come across, but increased pressure for each of them to appeal to the mainstream due to economic pressures.

What can be done about this? Part of me thinks that interactive channels can help. What if, instead of clinging to the broadcast model, American chose their news themselves? What if they used tools like advanced web browsers, e-mail, RSS feed aggregators and others to pull together the news that most interests them? We could experience a renaissance of the marketplace of ideas.

However, it's not as simple as that. Interactivity is required - not just between news channel and consumer, but inter-consumer as well. If I, as a news consumer, miss something important, I need the input of my friends and fellow cyber-citizens. If citizens can become aggregators and disseminators of news, we might be in good shape. Dissemination can happen through e-mail (e.g. - "Your friend James sent you this article you might be interested in...[link]"

We can see this principle in action already. Audiences have flocked from TV to the Internet, with a desire to self-select interesting content and avoid the mainstream at the core of this movement. Blogs and other tools that allow for easy aggregation of news are helping to increase diversity of opinion and agenda, while simultaneously making it easier to find news.

We can only hope that the system is self-correcting. If the broadcast model continues its dominance, I fear that we'll be prompted to think we have more choice when the exact opposite is true.