A great deal of sensationalism, but little real understanding
Steven Livingston 21 July 2008

This is the text of the speech held by the author at the Doha International Conference, organised in Qatar by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations on February 26th 2008.

Commercial news media are in crisis. Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate tycoon and new owner of the Los Angles Times and Chicago Tribune, recently offered this stark assessment: “The news business is something worse then horrible. If that’s the future, we don’t have much of a future.” The bleak financial news about the news business stems largely from declining revenues in the face of stiff competition from a vast and ever-growing array of Internet portals and web sites. As a 2005 report by the Carnegie Corporation noted, “Through Internet portal sites, handheld devices, blogs and instant messaging, we are accessing and processing information in ways that challenge the historic function of the news business and raise fundamental questions about the future of the news field.” New technology is clearly eating into the revenue stream and threatening the very existence of traditional media.

Meanwhile, the commercial media aren’t helping the situation with their overarching emphasis on profit at all costs. A 2004 poll of professional journalists conducted by the Pew Research Center found that roughly half of journalists at national US media outlets, and about as many from local media, believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction. Professional journalists now believe that increased bottom line pressure is "seriously hurting" the quality of news coverage. The focus on profit leads to pandering and a dramatic dive to the most banal content. As a result, readers too often know too much about Jessica Simpson’s personal life or Britney Spear’s mental state, and not enough about Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and other pressing hotspots around the world. In a recent survey, only 28% of Americans could correctly identify the number of US war fatalities (4,000 as of March 2008). The same survey found that war coverage in the US media has declined sharply in 2008, falling from an average of 15% of news output last August to just 3% in February this year.

On television, the 24-hour cable news channels (Fox and MSNBC), web sites and news portals offer endless streams of “expert” rants and pontificating — but little in the way of serious newsgathering. CNN’s almost three-dozen bureaus around the world are the exception. Regarding news portals on the Internet, putting aside Kevin Sites stint as a roving war correspondent for Yahoo, little serious reporting takes place outside the shrinking confines of traditional news organizations. All of these points are familiar to even the most casual observer of the contemporary news media environment.

But technological effects on news are more complicated than these oft-cited points. To get a more complete picture of the contemporary news business we need to dig deeper into the political effects of technology. When we do we find an accentuation of dramatic but disconnected events from around the world reported in a way that leaves viewers – much of this is a television phenomenon – left frightened, confused, and ready to strike back at the “evil-doers.” Rather than informed, viewers are frightened and confused. What is going on here?

The Carnegie Corporation report mentioned a moment ago focused on technology’s effects on news consumption habits. News consumers are leaving newspapers aside and getting their news online, either on computers or from handheld instruments. Although this is an important point, what is missing from this analysis is a consideration of the ways technology effects the collection of a particular sort of news. The amazing proliferation of small, multifunctional handheld devices with various capabilities to gather images has transformed the very definition of journalism. There has been a gradual shift in news away from a focus on government statements and agendas to the dramatic visual that captures an immediate unfolding reality from somewhere in the world.

For most of the past fifty years, news in the west has centered on offering descriptions of official actions and words. No doubt this is still largely true. In closed media systems, state controlled media and censorship ensure this to be the case. In more democratic systems, deference given to official authority encourages, though not assures, official dominance. Most news most of the time reflects official preferences in topic and tone. But emerging evidence suggests something new is afoot. Taking a moment to think back on several recent events begins to make the point.

When looking back on stored mental images of the London subway bombing of July 7, 2005 one is likely to call to mind grainy images of frightened commuters. Those pictures were taken not by professional photojournalists but by subway passengers caught up in the events. Other examples can be called to mind.
Whatever dignity there was to be found in the hasty hanging of Saddam Hussein, it was stripped away by the mobile phone images taken by his guards and executioners and posted on interminable websites around the world. Their taunting of Saddam and his surprisingly dignified bearing was captured on mobile telephones and posted on the Internet for the world to see.

On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake occurred under the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Indonesia. The 9.0 magnitude quake created tsunamis that wrought havoc and loss of life throughout the Indian Ocean basin. Soon, media around the world carried scores of dramatic images taken by tourists, a few of whom recorded the approaching waves that would take their lives in moments. Earlier in the war in Iraq, the Bush administration was given an uncomfortable lesson in the power of amateur photography when soldiers took pictures of abused Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. More than ever, news has become a parade of events caught on camera. What is behind this trend and what does it mean for democratic governance?

“Soft news”, information that excites but does not explain

At the local level in the United States and in some European countries, if it bleeds it leads has been the mantra of television since at least the 1980s. Harvard University media scholar Thomas Patterson refers to this as “soft news.” What is soft news? Hard news, by way of contrast, involves information about “top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life.” Hard news helps citizens understand the world around them; it contextualizes events by placing them in a narrative about economics, history, and culture. It provides history, analysis, context, and a grounding in processes as well as events. Hard news addresses the brain and not emotions, or at least not emotion alone. News not characterized by these features is by definition soft news. It is news that highlights incidents and developments that have little to do with public affairs and that are “selected for their capacity to shock or entertain,” says Patterson. Soft news “can distort people’s perception of reality.” At the local level, soft news is coverage of another random murder, an automobile accident that, by coincidence, happens to take place just before or during a primetime newscast, or any sort of vividly dramatic but insignificant event.

In a detailed analysis of local US news Patterson found that soft news grew as competitive pressures among news organizations grew. This was particularly true following the advent of 24-hour cable news outlets such as CNN. The all-news-all-the-time format demands content, but not just any sort of content. News by appointment – the regularly scheduled nightly news programs that defined a generation of television news broadcasting — are not as dependent on drama as a draw for viewers as are the cable outlets. Cable news channels experience distinct spikes in viewers during special events, such as presidential debates, or during crises and dramatic events. The only exception to this is found in a handful of fixed schedule programs on cable in the United States, such as “Larry King Live” on CNN or “Hannity and Colmes” on Fox. For the most part, “good news” for cable television is somebody else’s disaster.

Meanwhile, as the demand for dramatic events to draw viewers increased, so, too, did the technological capacity to deliver them. This was first seen at the local level in the 1980s. Each American city has two or three, sometimes more, local television news broadcast outlet, usually an affiliate of one of the national news networks. According to Patterson, local news stories without a developed connection to policy issues increased from less than 35% of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50% by 2000. Crime news doubled in this time. At the same time, hard news declined to a corresponding degree.

An understanding of news as breaking dramatic events was possible only after the adoption of remote microwave transmission vehicles (characterized by a small van with a long extension arm sticking straight above with a small parabolic dish at the end) and other technologies as core elements of newsgathering. Technology took news out of studios and into the field where events happen. In the process, the very definition of news shifted. Historically, news consisted of a review of official statements and actions. This of course had its drawbacks. An over reliance on officials leaves news organizations vulnerable to government manipulation. But when done well, news so defined was tied to policy and, at least sometimes, to an open debate about policy and politics. Event-driven and dramatic “soft news” is about the event itself, and at its worst moments disconnected from any larger narrative about the larger world. It is what American media scholar W. Lance Bennett calls fragmented news. Fragmented news lacks the connective tissue necessary to convey meaning beyond the simple point that in the world bad things happen unexpectedly.

Since the mid-1990s advances in technology have taken what was a local phenomenon and globalized it. Satellite newsgathering, the term sometimes applied by news professional to the use of satellites to deliver news live from remote or distant locations, have been revolutionized by the switch to digital technologies. Perhaps the best illustration of my point is to consider the space and cost of a home audio system in the 1990s in comparison to the size and capacity of many popular audio devices today. What once filled one end of a room now fits in a pocket. Similarly, the equipment needed in the pre-digital age to transmit television live from a non-studio location once filled nearly two-dozen shipping cases and costs tens-of-thousands of dollars to ship to remote locations from storage facilities in London, Rome, New York or Atlanta. It also required a large crew of technicians to assemble and operate the equipment. Flash forward to 2001 when it made its first appearance and one begins to see what is today a commonplace feature of remote newsgathering kit: the videophone. Videophones are a marriage of teleconferencing software, INMARSAT communication satellites, and small digital video cameras.

Fragmented information leads to increased violence

The somewhat grainy but live images one sees in reports from distant locations covering battles, earthquakes and other such calamities offer examples of videophones in use. The important point here is that the entire assembly of equipment needed to transmit dramatic live pictures from breaking events around the world has shrunk from tons shipped in cargo holds to something the size of a laptop computer stored as overhead luggage. Furthermore, the cost of the equipment itself, and its use, is only a fraction of the costs associated with required equipment two decade ago. This trend pushes news into the field and toward a new definition that tends to emphasize the immediate event, one after the other in an endless stream of crisis.

But the technologies used by news organizations constitute only a small portion of the larger array of devices feeding the news stream of events. If professional journalists are not present to capture an event, someone with a camera, cellular telephone, or digital camera will be. Devices of one sort or another create an environment rich in what we might call sensors. Between 2005 and projections for 2010, mobile telephone sales in Africa are expected to increase by 29.6%, with sales of 45,061.2 (per thousand units) in 2010. Latin America is expected to see a 36.6% growth in mobile telephone sales during the same time period. Overall, in 2009 global annual sales of multifunction mobile telephones is expected to exceed 1 billion units. Industry analysts estimate that 2.6 billion mobile telephones, almost all of which have the capacity to record events with cameras of various sorts, will be in use worldwide by the end of the year. If an event happens somewhere in the world, chances are someone will be there to record it and post images to any number of websites or regional news organizations.

What are the political effects of this steady diet of mayhem? Stanford University media scholar Shanto Iyengar has studies the effects of what he calls episodic news. Episodic news has the same features of what Patterson calls soft news and what Bennett calls fragmented news: dramatic, disconnected events that stream across television screens with little or no context or deeper meaning and explanation. Through a series of carefully constructed laboratory experiments, he found that persons exposed to such news showed a greater inclination to support simple and simple-minded responses to events. In foreign policy, those exposed to episodic news tended to support bellicose responses to distant events. Killing “evil-doers” becomes a favored solution for people lacking a grasp of history and context, those things that event-driven, episodic, fragmented or soft news lacks. A tendency to support violent policy responses may be a consequence of news understood as the latest breaking event.

Of course it goes without saying – but should be said anyway – that this is only a part of the story. Few outside the Bush administration would have not wanted the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib taken. Likewise, it was only because of the pictures taken by passengers on the subway trains in London on that July morning in 2005 that the outside world had insight into their horror. In their best moments, pictures taken by the now billions of devices spread around the world create a new level of transparency in world affairs. Human rights abuses are revealed, the agony of war captured and the drama of coups, earthquakes and other crises captured. At the same time, we should not loose sight of the deterioration of public discourse about modern politics. A stream of disconnected events is not news; it is noise.

Steven Livingston is Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs at The George Washington University.