Saturday, June 26, 2010

Headlines

Complaining about the media is nothing new--for decades we've heard that reporters or publications or the news media as a whole were biased in one direction or another, that they slanted information, withheld details that might have harmed the case they wanted to make and generally acted more as advocates than reporters.

Then, in the past 10 years or so, something even more sinister started to unfold. The news media gradually ceased to be "the news media" at all. Once a supported branch of a major news station, "news" was quietly folded in under the general income-generating umbrella of a television station or publication. While we might have argued for years that the media had an agenda, now it was clear--the mission of a news program was no longer to inform, but to earn its keep at the station. In days gone by, a news program might have earned its keep simply by lending credibility to the station, by providing a source of reliable information for viewers who might then stick around to watch the income-generating programming, but no more. Today, a news show has to pull its own advertising dollars.

That means, in short, that providing accurate, useful information is no longer the job. Getting people to turn on the news program, regardless of how misleading your headlines and teasers have to be to get them there, is job one.

Of course, people have a threshold for drama; after eagerly tuning in to see a story time after time and discovering that it wasn't as compelling as they'd been led to believe, the sense of urgency wears off. The same is true when the target audience is being asked to click through to a website rather than tune in to a news show. And so the media has to up the game. The result is teasers and headlines that have little relationship to the actual news being conveyed. And that's more than just dishonest: it's dangerous and destructive.

News producers know it can be dangerous and take steps to protect themselves from liability, but those steps don't reach so far as to actually protect those who happened to catch the headlines or teasers.

Recently, for instance, it was widely reported in network teasers that a "popular" blood pressure medication might cause cancer. The actual report referred to a narrow category of blood pressure medications, stated that the increase in rates of cancer as compared to the control group had been very small and no causal relationship had yet been identified, and emphasized that people shouldn't stop taking their medication.

Sometimes, the misipressions formed by those sound bites aren't actually dangerous, but simply inflammatory. This morning, for example, an MSN news station ran the headline "Mum aborts baby to end morning sickness". Naturally, the story was reposted in many forums (probably often by people who hadn't actually clicked through and read the story) and outrage abounded...but in fact the woman in question had aborted to put an end to Hyperemesis Gravidarum, a serious side effect suffered by some pregnant women which involves near-constant vomiting, extreme weight loss, strain on the heart and dangerous dehydration.

Of course, it's still open to debate whether or not abortion was the right answer, but that, at least, is the right question. The woman interviewed for the article appears to be telling her story because she was no offered counseling or other options for dealing with the condition and wants to help get the word out to others facing the same difficult situation. The content of the article itself makes that clear. But the overwhelming impact of her choosing to speak out is that her face is now associated in the minds of hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of people as the "mum" who killed her baby because she didn't like feeling queasy in the morning.

We complain that journalists "aren't doing their jobs", but in fact we simply misunderstand what a journalists job today looks like. The person who wrote this particular misleading headline created a page that's already drawn thousands of inbound links and been reposted in forums, across Facebook, Tweeted and otherwise disseminated to people who might otherwise not have visited that site. He or she has helped the station's search rankings and spiked traffic in a way that raises advertising revenues. That journalist, in short, has done a GREAT job of what he or she was hired to do. It just happens that "what he was hired to do" was not "report the news".

1 comment:

amz1129 said...

That is why it is soooo important for people to educate themselves and not fall for the tricks of news media. I see so many people buying into the advertisement schemes and misleading stories that are posted on the news and how damaging it can be. Especially when it comes to statistics in research... People tend to take the research for face value instead of looking into the statistical significance of the study. I really appreciate this post because all too often it seems that the news is rigged to tell people only part of the truth to get attention and ratings. It's time to dig deeper and find the real truth behind the news stories!

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