Social Media and the News

The media elites began to have company and competition with the advent of cable (and then satellite) television as a supplement to broadcast television and the development of the 24-hour news cycle with the creation of the Cable News Network (CNN) in 1980 by American media proprietor Ted Turner.

“The three main networks were there [in New York City]. They commanded an extraordinary plurality, majority of the audience at any time, sometimes 80 percent. You think back at the media landscape, major cities had three newspapers or more. It was a time when there were many outlets in print. There were fewer on the airwaves and they tried to do all of the news in about 22 minutes. This was a point at which Ted Turner, sort of a maverick, very willful, as commentator Daniel Schorr described, really saw an opportunity to say `There’s not serious in-depth news being done. Maybe this is my time.’ He certainly had the ability to put it together with his media empire.

 

“In the United States, early networks included CNN [based in Atlanta, GA] in 1980, Financial News Network (FNN) in 1981 and CNN2 (now HLN – Headline News Network) in 1982. CNBC was created in 1989, taking control of FNN (Financial News Network) in 1991. Through the 1990s and beyond, the cable news industry continued to grow, with the establishment of several other networks, including MSNBC [by NBC News], Fox News Channel(FNC), and specialty channels such as Bloomberg Television, Fox Business Network, and ESPN News. More recent additions to the cable news business are CBSN, Newsmax TV, The Blaze, Fusion, One America News Network, and—for a time— Al Jazeera America.”

The creation of Al Jazeera America was announced on January 2, 2013, along with the announcement that the network had purchased the user generated content channel turned progressive-oriented cable television channel Current TV, which was owned in part by former Clinton Vice-President Al Gore – who thereby permitted Radical Islamic propaganda content to be broadcast into America while there were U.S. troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan!

“As the highest rated and most widely available cable news channels, CNN, FNC, and MSNBC are sometimes referred to as the “big three” [cable stations]. While these [stations] are usually referred to as 24-hour news networks, reruns of news programs and analysis or opinion programming are played throughout the night, with the exception of breaking news. Fox News, however, in the last few years has been the most watched cable news channel with more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.

MSNBC, FOX News and the other 24-hour cable news stations now compete for viewers. But with these channels limited by the same world events over the same time period, how is a cable news station to elbow its way into the most households?

The answer, in part, is sensationalism. MSNBC, CNN and FOX News report the same news, but that doesn’t mean they report the same stories [or use the same perspective]. And while news is limited by the size of an event, a story is limited only by the size of cable news producers’ imaginations. If ever the axiom “Go big or go home” applies, it’s in the realm of cable news.

And so, in this 24-hour news cycle, overblown stories reign supreme [by some, read MSNBC, more than others]. The world of overblown news is a scary one, indeed. Every day the sky is falling, and then, miraculously, we wake up to find that it has not yet fallen – but that today will surely be the day! The Big 3 try to attract viewers by criticizing or lampooning their competitors – FNN more successfully than the other two. But what happens when even more competitors get involved? Read on to find out.

Along came the Internet. The same news junkies who used to turn to 24-hour cable news to get by-the-minute updates have now defected to the Internet for second-by-second news. You can get exactly the news you’re looking for faster online. So why watch cable news?

The answer is – opinion. You can get the “what” much faster online, but it’s trickier to get the “how” and the “why,” plus that fun commentary on what you should think and what you should do about it. So, 24-hour cable news necessarily started borrowing the tricks of 24-hour talk-radio [a much older medium]. It became not only sensationalized but also opinionated. Sensational opinions are polarizing.

Does cable news make you shout hallelujah or opposite, less church-worthy, exclamations? [That is their goal.] No longer is there much room in the middle. No matter your political affiliations, you’re sure to find an opinion you agree with and one that makes you cringe. Due in no small part to cable news, the distance between right and left in American culture has grown. And the factions [that Jefferson and Madison feared] are mad.

Interestingly, this culture of opinionated journalism that now provides the backbone of a cable news station’s ratings may also prove to be their downfall. Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” and was therefore the face of the news. But can any one of the many current cable anchors make the same claim to trustworthiness? [Perhaps one – Bill O’Reilly of FOX News, who tries very hard to give equal airtime to legitimate opposing views and has a virtual monopoly on viewers in his time slot.]

At the end of the Cold War, saturation coverage of events like Tiananmen Square, the first Gulf War, the real “Black Hawk Down” and the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed the power that mass media has to shape Washington’s policy agenda by promoting a [eyewitness] sense of history as it unfolds. Political scientists even called it “The CNN Effect.”

CNN was the only newsgroup reporting live on the ground when the United States attacked Iraq at the beginning of the Gulf War [in August 1990]. They were cooped up in a hotel reporting through a Four-Wire circuit while the anti-air weapons fired outside the window of their hotel room. It was one of the greatest moments in journalistic history. As stated in the film, Live From Baghdad, it was ‘the journalistic equivalent of landing on the Moon.’

It’s true that this was an amazing accomplishment. CNN reported war live as it happened and viewers clung to their televisions for every second. All CNN showed were videos from far away showing the anti-air tracers shooting in the air in night vision [with sounds of explosions], and a map showing three pictures of the reporter’s faces while they described what they saw.

CNN was no longer considered the experimental network; it became the basis for everything that followed. New 24-hour networks appeared on the scene and further saturated the market by hijacking CNN’s format.

Now, major networks are fighting over who is more non-biased than the others.

Each network tries to show how they report both sides equally, but it’s the worst kept secret ever. It’s not even a secret. It’s so easy to recognize when something is biased, unless they aim the content at your ideology. Confirmation bias blinds people to the bias because it supports their point of view. Hence, the content is correct to those supporting the bias aimed toward them.”

[Only FOX News attempts to mitigate bias, not always successfully but, their issue is with the moderators who, for the most part have a conservative bias. Unlike MSNBC and CNN, who are wall-to-wall progressive/liberal, FNN does use a “point-counterpoint” format in most segments with a moderator who is also a stand-alone commentator, who tries to keep order amongst the filibustering of the guests, usually one guest from each political viewpoint – liberal and conservative. On the other two cable news networks, it is the moderator who does the filibustering.]

“To explain it more clearly; pit two fans of a sports team against each other. One of the fans is pessimistic toward the Detroit Tigers, and the other is optimistic toward them. The pessimist thinks they’ll have a lackluster season, while the optimist will think they’ll have a great season. They will argue back and forth with their views until the optimist predicts they’ll win the World Series, and the pessimist thinks they’ll lose every game. The more they argue their points, the more extreme their point of view goes toward their bias.

This happens on 24-hour news all day. Both sides argue their views to the point that neither listens to the other side. They’ll sink into their beliefs even if there is no evidence supporting it. This tends to happen in most belief structures.

Serious stories and reporting has been purposefully desensitized to the average viewer. It’s why a massacre of thousands in Syria is a secondary story to the girl from Twilight cheating on the guy from Twilight. Serious journalism doesn’t get the viewers anymore. Loud music over a waving U.S. flag and flickering lights [or features about the trials, tribulations, outrageous conduct and ‘non-negotiable’ demands of street-protesters] bring in the audiences. Journalism is now clipped to a sentence [called ‘the crawl’] that scrolls at the bottom of the screen.

‘Cable news is a brutal war for rankings … The media is running wild with the [fill in the blank sensational] story, as you know, and there is a big reason why: money. The network news doesn’t want to cover important stories, like the IRS and Benghazi.’, says Bill O’Reilly.

Journalists used to strive to break a story first. With 24/7 news, television journalists still tried to get stories earlier than their competition, but there was a new kind of competition. Television journalists seemed to be in a race to see who could make the same news items more sensational and emotionally evocative [because cable news had broken the story hours earlier].

 Television journalism, especially on the 24/7 cable outlets, seemed to strive to present news stories so they appear to be news-like, but stories that were sensational or emotion-laden dominated screens. You’ve heard the shibboleths. “If it bleeds it leads” and “sex sells” became the functional mottos of television news.

 Politicians, eager to draw some blood from their political foes, focused as much on ways to demonize their political enemies as they did on presenting cogent arguments for their own position. [The ‘politics of personal destruction’, a tactic as old as Adams v. Jefferson, became the stock-in-trade for many, if not most, 24-hour news services.]

 As the nature of television news changed, so did the political parties. Polarization in the news hastened and heightened polarization between the political parties. Attack ads, news leaks [from the, too often fictitious, anonymous source] and provocative political proxies drove the news cycle with a steady stream of negative information about political foes. Campaign strategists carefully orchestrated when certain negative news should be played up to aid their candidates in the polls or campaigns.

 When the internet joined the mayhem, sensational and partisan stories became available on-demand, often provided by writers with limited training in journalism [if any at all].  As with cable news, the proliferation of partisan news outlets created even greater competition for consumers’ attention. News is replicated endlessly by “journalists” who never leave their home, never interview a source, and who probably write a good many of their stories while sitting in a robe at their home desk. They google their topic and pirate the news of other news sources. They put their spin on it using stronger language and cherry picking facts to fit into a more inflammatory, less objective and more speculative presentation of news stories.”

 Their influence is possible only because of the nature of the news cycle and the staggering amount of information available at any one time from a seemingly infinite number of sources. A 24-hour cycle is not enough time to a trained journalist to fact-check or apply context to their story. The Internet cycle can be only minutes long depending upon what is “trending” [and, by design, there is nothing offered in the public education universe to prepare new voters for this misinformation onslaught, which has changed the political landscape forever.]

 “Negative campaigning is no longer an adjunct to political campaign strategies. It is in many cases the centerpiece. And this is because negativity [and its twin – hostility] gets air time and draws eyes to the internet, radio programs and television outlets that produce it.  Negativity and polarization is now a central component for most every successful campaign.  Political consultants push candidates to put as much effort into negatively defining opponents as they do into providing persuasive, positive position statements of their own. This race to the bottom is significantly encouraged by the news outlets who give far more attention to sensationalistic critiques than to substantive policy statements.”

 But, why do audiences accept this treatment? Because the overwhelming percentage of citizens – products of America’s public school system – have never received any educational opportunities to learn about and practice critical thinking or to gain an appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge – which takes some effort – and I don’t mean pop cultural knowledge but knowledge important to a citizens’ responsibility to cast an informed ballot.

 “With more news outlets competing for viewers, it has become easier to seduce reviewers with stories about how the sky is falling than it is to present cogent summaries and analysis of candidates’ policy positions [to an audience with an attention span between 8 seconds and 4 minutes, 52 seconds per current research]. As a consequence, enmity between the political parties has never been greater, and cooperation has never been more scarce. A 60-second sound bite with nearly anybody saying something negative about a politician, whether it is true or not, is now more newsworthy than actual news.

 The net effect of 24/7 journalism on politics can be seen in many of the changes we’ve seen in politics since the proliferation of 24/7 news. News is more partisan and sensational, and likewise politics is more polarized and partisan. It seems that few consumers want to spend a great deal of time watching a calm, moderate person explicate wonky policies. Viewers are drawn to those politicians and broadcasters who warn us of impending disasters, real or contrived. Innuendo and opinion now are presented as if they are facts.  A politician can get his or her sound bite to trend by saying something provocative and divisive. So, in politics, as in news, sensationalism trumps facticity and aplomb. Political leaders are rewarded more by the media for scaring voters than for informing them.”

 “Infomania refers to the obsessive compulsion to accumulate information, especially news, via cell phone or computer — a kind of Digital-Age hoarding disorder. (The term was coined in 1982 by Elizabeth Ferrarini, whose Confessions of an Infomaniac sounds like a Cosmo article ahead of its time.)

 The pathology of infomania is one of debilitating distraction; the infomaniac obsessively interrupts her experience of the unmediated “real world” with the virtual reality of news and social media. It’s not merely an addiction to technology. It’s an impulse to subordinate the material to the immaterial; in the original sense of the word, the infomaniac blots out things that matter with things that don’t.

Familiar enough, but what does it look like when the media itself comes down with a case of infomania?

Of course, 24-hour news networks have long understood how to make any news look and sound “breaking” (hire anchors to blare factoids to taste; solicit live comment from specialists, rabble-rousers, the good-looking, etc.; call it analysis; boil it down to sensational captions; scroll a never-ending ticker across the bottom for garnish), but a vanished Boeing 777 is less Wolf Blitzer than it is Alfred Hitchcock, and the lesson that mystery teaches journalism is that suspense (built up by the sort of rhetorical misdirection demonstrated here) beats resolution — forget the facts; missing information is more compelling.

In her book The Interplay of Influence: News, Advertising, Politics, and the Mass Media, Kathleen Hall Jamieson notes that most news stories are framed in one of five modes: (1) Appearance v. reality; (2) Little guys v. big guys; (3) Good v. evil; (4) Efficient v. the inefficient; or (5) Unique or bizarre events v. the routine.

With the 24/7 news cycle, we can now get news whenever we want it. The thing is, much of what we get isn’t news so much as propaganda using the checklist above.”

“The landscape of the ‘24-hour News Cycle’ changed forever when social media came to be. Traditional news reporting outlets are quickly losing ground to the convenience and immediacy of social media in our always-connected world.”

“Thanks to the Internet and the rapid growth of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, etc. … the news cycle has become a 24-7 obsession for many publications as they struggle to keep up in a digital world.

World news – whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, can be disseminated in a matter of minutes with the aid of social media. In most cases, Twitter is the propagation method of choice since it is simple, quick, and available (nearly) worldwide. More often than not, news broken on Twitter will spread rapidly and often source news to major TV news outlets, sometimes with little regard for accuracy.

Social media has nearly unlimited reach. [As of the end of 2016, there were an estimated 320] million monthly active users on Twitter, tallying nearly 600 million Tweets per day. Add the fact that 78% of Twitter users are using the service on a mobile device and it equals one huge ‘self-service’ news-reporting agency. Twitter has revolutionized global news delivery and consumption, often times breaking stories before the mainstream media can. Twitter opens up communication and reporting streams to areas that might be too dangerous or simply inaccessible by traditional means, i.e. a field reporter and camera crew. Twitter is also available in 35+ languages, making it a truly global service.

 The beauty of this social network lies in its simplicity. Billed as a ‘micro blogging’ service when it was introduced back in 2007, Twitter has not strayed much in terms of ease of use and basic functionality. Even in countries that have banned the network, users are still able to gain access by sending out tweets via text message. At the core of Twitter’s simplicity is the consistent user experience over the years. Twitter has not changed much in terms of overall design and functionality, which has largely eliminated the possibility of users ditching the service due to unwarranted and unwanted design changes (see Facebook).

 

As mentioned previously, 78% of Twitter users use the service from a mobile device, which means that news and events can be inconspicuously reported without the need for a cumbersome news crew or even a computer. The most incredible example of Twitter breaking world news in a remote area with limited access to traditional media was the 2011 raid that took down Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. A citizen who lived near Bin Laden compound in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan inadvertently live-Tweeted the raid by Seal Team Six that took down one of the most notorious figures [in history]. This was a landmark moment for Twitter. The world was receiving by-the-minute updates on a top-secret mission to capture the man who was the most wanted man in the world for over 10 years.

 One of the main criticisms of Twitter in terms of news delivery is the lack of editorial control and accuracy. When a user who is on the scene of a crisis or event is firing away Tweets to the world, there’s nothing in place to ensure the information is accurate. There are no fact-checkers [although where there are fact-checkers, no one is checking them – which is another problem altogether] making sure that the news being reported is indeed accurate or appropriate, such as the community set-up that is used for fact checking for Wikipedia. This problem gets compounded when traditional news outlets rely on Twitter to report news.

 When the Boston Marathon was attacked with [pressure-cooker] bombs in April of 2013, news spread fast and alleged suspects were being named in the early hours following the event. Twitter was a catalyst (along with Reddit) of false information. Traditional news media outlets are constantly competing with each other to be the first to break a story or divulge new information, often times with little regard for the facts – now they must compete with the rest of humankind – an impossible task.

 Along with misrepresenting facts, Twitter also helped spread false stories and conspiracy theories regarding the bombing, suspects, and victims. One year after the attack,  Boston.com outlined all that Twitter got wrong during the event, and provided some perspective to how far off the rails Twitter can take us during a crisis event.

The bottom line is this, Twitter has completely changed how we consume news. Twitter has turned anyone with a phone and an account into a field journalist. The burden of responsible reporting [should] fall into the hands of the news-reporting agencies that receive information from Twitter and work to confirm these reports. [The problem is, the news agencies themselves have played fast and loose with the truth since the dawn of the digital reporting age and now have less credibility than politicians.]

Such is the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news — anything that will impress Google algorithmsand draw readers their way.

Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding — or shaming — writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms. The Christian Science Monitornow sends a daily e-mail message to its staff that lists the number of page views for each article on the paper’s Web site that day. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all display a “most viewed” list on their home pages. Some media outlets, including Bloomberg News and Gawker Media, now pay writers based in part on how many readers click on their articles.

Once only wire-service journalists had their output measured this way. And in a media environment crowded with virtual content farms where no detail is too small to report as long as it was reported there first, Politico stands out for its frenetic pace or, in the euphemism preferred by its editors, “high metabolism.”

The top editors, who rise as early as 4:30 a.m., expect such volume and speed from their reporters because they believe Politico’s very existence depends, in large part, on how quickly it can tell readers something, anything they did not know.

‘At a paper, your only real stress point is in the evening when you’re actually sitting there on deadline, trying to file,’ said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, in an interview from the publication’s offices just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington. ‘Now at any point in the day starting at 5 in the morning, there can be that same level of intensity and pressure to get something out.’ (Not all reporters are expected to be on their game by dawn, Mr. VandeHei added, noting that many work a traditional 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. newspaper day.)

At Gawker Media’s offices in Manhattan, a flat-screen television mounted on the wall displays the 10 most-viewed articles across all Gawker’s Web sites. The author’s last name, along with the number of page views that hour and over all are prominently shown in real time on the screen, which Gawker has named the “big board.”

 

“Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith,” said Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder. Mr. Denton said not all writers have warmed to the concept. “But the best exclusives do get rewarded,” he added, noting that bonuses for writers are calculated in part based on page views.

Physically exhausting assembly-line jobs these are not. But the workloads for many young journalists are heavy enough that signs of strain are evident.” Their focus on quantity, rather than quality, leads where it always does – to failure. If quantity was the magic pill, every community would have a Walmart.

Of course, the problem here is that these services are valuing what people are choosing to read, i.e., what they want to read, rather than valuing getting to their readers information that citizens need. Their statistics reflect what readers find entertaining, not what may be informative.” [Hence the term – “infotainment”.]

“The fact that political campaigns use social media to try and influence public opinion isn’t new: the “spin cycle” is no longer something that involves private calls to a few grizzled newspaper columnists or TV commentators — instead, there are teams of social-networking staffers working the spin on every conceivable platform. But we rarely get a glimpse inside these “war rooms” until long after the campaign is over.

In a recent research paper, journalism professor Daniel Kreiss got a look at some of the social machinery (PDF link) behind the 2012 campaigns of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, based on interviews with senior staffers and insiders of both.

One thing that dramatically changed from the previous presidential election in 2008, Kreiss notes, was the influence of Twitter — which existed in 2008, but wasn’t really thought of as being an important tool for shaping public opinion. The Obama campaign’s digital director, Teddy Goff, said it was an afterthought at best:

One of the conclusions of the paper is that Twitter in particular has turned what used to be a 24-hour news cycle — in which political operatives would try to spin the perception of news events for the next day’s newspaper or TV broadcast — into a two-hour news cycle that continually resets during a campaign, based on what the trending topics are on Twitter or what content is being shared on Facebook [sort of like putting the cart before the donkey or “leading from behind” – I wondered where the Obama administration got that idea].

From a political and journalistic standpoint, one of the interesting conclusions that Kreiss comes to is that both campaigns took advantage of the fact that some journalists looked to Twitter as a sign of what average citizens were thinking about the election or the presidential debates, but in many ways what they found was the same thing that used to exist with traditional media: namely, a consensus formed in part by smart political spin, amplified by other journalists using the social platform.

As Derek Willis of the NYT’s Upshot pointed out in a post on the Kreiss research, clever tweets and pleas for support may momentarily influence actual voters to donate or take some other kind of action, but “the main audience for campaigns on Twitter is the people who write, talk and tweet about the campaigns for a living.” In other words, political reporters and their marketing counterparts within the campaigns themselves — the very definition of an echo chamber.

So, despite the focus on new technologies, whether social or mobile, the political and media landscape we have now isn’t really that different from the old days of newspaper editorials and columnists dictating the requirements of the news cycle — it’s just a lot faster than it used to be, [a lot more saturated with unvetted information] and a lot more distributed. The only upside is that now we have thousands of potential outlets to choose from instead of just a few. [The downside is, obviously, the truth of the matter. Who do you trust? Who has credibility? It is a dilemma that the main-stream media has created for itself and apparently has no idea how to solve.]

 It appears to me that more has changed than just a shortening of the news cycle, greater news distribution, and a greater number of news outlets to choose from. This assumes the general public will equally (equal to the former newspaper distribution) access all those outlets to form an opinion. Tweets and blogs are followed by certain demographics of people, not all of the voting public. This is a “tower of babel” which contributes more confusion than was previously provided by paper news. Good luck to the political analysts in figuring out what happened after the fact!

Next time: Social media’s influence on the news – continued.

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