March 13, 2008

Broadcast News is Unreal

This longish piece at skeptic.com suggests that broadcast journalism is flawed to an extent that makes it fairly worthless as a tool to inform us, or to accurately reflect our world. Here's a sample of "Journalist-Bites-Reality!"

We think we know Big Journalism’s faults by its much ballyhooed lapses — its scandals, gaffes, and breakdowns — as well as by a recent spate of insider tell-alls. When Dan Rather goes public with a sensational expose based on bogus documents; when the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrongly labels Richard Jewell the Olympic Park bomber; when Dateline resorts to rigging explosive charges to the gas tanks of “unsafe” trucks that, in Dateline’s prior tests, stubbornly refused to explode on their own; when the New York Times’ Jayson Blair scoops other reporters working the same story by quoting sources who don’t exist … We see these incidents as atypical, the exceptions that prove the rule.

Sadly, we’re mistaken. To argue that a decided sloppiness has crept into journalism or that the media have been “hijacked by [insert least favorite political agenda]” badly misses the real point; it suggests that all we need to do to fix things is filter out the gratuitous political spin or rig the ship to run a bit tighter. In truth, today’s system of news delivery is an enterprise whose procedures, protocols, and underlying assumptions all but guarantee that it cannot succeed at its self described mission. Broadcast journalism in particular is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for illuminating life, let alone interpreting it, is almost nil.

We watch the news to “see what’s going on in the world.” But there’s a hitch right off the bat. In its classic conception, newsworthiness is built on a foundation of anomaly: man-bites-dog, to use the hackneyed j school example. The significance of this cannot be overstated. It means that, by definition, journalism in its most basic form deals with what life is not.

Posted by dan at March 13, 2008 10:07 PM