We hear a lot about the rise of “fake news,” and indeed, propaganda disguised as legitimate information is dangerous. However, I’m almost as troubled by “easy news.”
Easy news is the low-anging fruit growing in the journalism orchard, and I see a certain connection between it and many cheap and easy meals that go down so tastefully but aren’t at all nutritious. Even worse, such foods can actually harm us instead of promoting good health.
To be fair, it’s poor form to blame the proprietors who dutifully keep their customers satisfied by delivering precisely what they want. Fast food restaurants thrive by producing tasteful and inexpensive items even if sometimes those meals include excess sugar and fat. The “information diet” offered by so many news outlets these days is no different, and as long as customers keep getting what they order, we know where to assign guilt.
It was something with which I wrestled throughout my career as a newspaper editor and publisher at community newspapers like the Brownwood Bulletin. The advice given by a mentor early-on still rings in my mind: “Give the readers what they want to read, but also give them what they need to read.”
The problem, however, is that too often all the resources available to a small market’s news staff are expended handling the stories that must be covered in order to fulfill its mandate. News executives have to be intentional about what many describe as “enterprise” stories. Plenty of those topics are out there, but they can be most time-consuming to generate. It’s a tough balancing act.
Television news remains the primary provider of the American information buffet, yet even its producers face similar hurdles, though on a much larger scale. My focus here is not on the various cable television outlets that choose a particular bias to champion, and then hammer home one-sided commentary to the delight of partisans disinterested in opposing views. If that’s your entertainment, enjoy. Just don’t mistake it for news.
This dawned on me last Friday after I made it a priority to watch Katie Couric’s documentary on ABC about one of the many troubling issues in our society — sexual harassment in the workplace. It was excellent work for network television, I thought.
This week, I checked the ratings. Scheduled against Couric’s study of this disturbing subject was a feel-good show on CBS about Meghan Markle, Britain’s royal-highness-in-waiting. That program about the actress engaged to marry a prince drew more than twice as many viewers.
Then, I started paying attention to the number of stories on news broadcasts — both network and local market origination — that came from social media videos that “went viral.” Talk about low-hanging fruit.
Sure, they are interesting. Sure, they probably enhance ratings. Sure, viewers are going to say, “I saw that on Facebook last night.” Sure, it meets the definition of news by being out of the ordinary. But it’s also easy news to gather.
Above all, I pondered the gravitas of stories chosen to use. I’m beginning to wonder if the quality of the video of something, or the fact that video exists at all, is the first box checked when multimedia editors make decisions. A somewhat trivial report with dynamic video wins stronger play than a more meaningful story without one.
Consumers of news deserve better, but this is the news we have demonstrated we want.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.