Friday, May 22, 2009

The Need to Know, and the Need to Feel

There's been a shift in the news media audience in the past 10 years or so. Yes, it's fragmented. Yes, it's shrunk. But interesting to me is how people seem to be shifting from a need to know to a need to feel.

News media serve a surveillance function for many people. Journalists feed the need to know, the need to keep up with what's happening, a sense of connectedness and knowledge that many people find vital, if not absolutely necessary, to get through their day either because of jobs or because they're news junkies.

But of late, with the growth of TV and radio talk shows but most especially thanks to cable TV news, there has been a replacing of the need to know with the need to feel.

Talkmeisters of all partisan stripes, from Lou Dobbs to Sean Hannity sell one thing today and it's not knowledge. It's anger and frustration and righteous indignation. Sure, they pepper their gabbing with bits of information, but even a fan has to acknowledge the info is skewed, that straw men are set up and knocked down. Hannity and Bill O'Reilly can't do a show without name calling, for example, and they often falsely or incompletely portray the other side. No wonder they hate the idea of a fairness doctrine (btw, so do I).

They want people to feel more than they want people to know.

If they wanted people to know they'd offer fairer portrayals of the other side. If they wanted people to know they'd cover topics other than those laced with partisan and ideological intrigue -- some of it nonexistent except in their own minds (saving Christmas? Jeez, ever walk into a real store?). If they wanted people to know they wouldn't openly mislead, which happens all the time on these programs (don't even get me started on how they screw up science to fit their partisan beliefs).

But people don't want to know so much as they want to know what to feel.

All news, especially cable TV news, continues to edge this way. The news audience as a whole has shrunk and as a result has become more partisan and ideological. The battle is on for this smaller yet passionate group and the results ain't pretty. CNN dodges left and right trying to find an audience. Fox News has been doing this bit for years, spending more time talking about the news than actually covering it. MSNBC is doing well with a small, loyal liberal audience. Foundering newspapers may be next to get on the bandwagon, but I don't know if it'll save 'em.

In some ways this is not so bad. I think we'll see the growth of advocacy journalism not unlike, in superficial ways at least, the old partisan press prior to the 1830s. This will free journalists and cause innumerable problems as well, but that's for another post. Indeed I've proposed an undergraduate class in advocacy journalism to explore what I think our new journalism will look like -- even offered to swap out a graduate class to teach it -- but I've heard nada from my boss. Ah well.

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