Though I am the opposite of a news junkie (it takes me 4 minutes to read the daily paper – and I don’t know the difference between MSNBC and CNN), almost everyone I know is a news junkie. I try to stay up to date with the general happenings in the country and world, but that’s about it. I don’t understand what draws people to news tidbits, from a 15 second clip about a bus turning over in India to a 45 second flash about Alec Baldwin’s frustration with his daughter. For the life of me, I can’t understand why people religiously tune in to the news, the weather, the ticker-tape. So I read Neil Postman and Steve Powers’ excellent book, How to Watch TV News (rev. ed. 2008).
I’d highly recommend it, since all of us know (or are!) news junkies. The major premise of this book is this: “The whole point of television in America is to get you to watch so that programmers, performers, and others can rake in the money,” and news shows are no different (p. 3). The book doesn’t say “Stop watching news,” it simply says, “Watch it with much discernment and realize that it is largely entertainment aimed at revenue.”
Another thing to note is that “news” has a subjective definition. “An event becomes news. And it becomes news because it is selected for notice out of the buzzing, booming confusion around us…in fact, the news is more often made than gathered” (p. 13). News is ‘chosen’ based on the market-value – what will get the most viewers which in turn will attract the income the TV networks receive from commercials. ‘We report, you decide’ is as laughable as ‘Fair and Balanced.’
“Certain producers have learned that by pandering to the audience, by eschewing solid news and replacing it with leering sensationalism, they can essentially present a ‘television commercial show’ interrupted by so-called news” (p. 26).
News shows are the cash cows for the networks, since they cost much less to produce than other types of shows. Where Postman and Powers talk about this is amazing: everything in the news show is structured around commercials and cash. In other words, most news shows are entertainment like CSI (or whatever show) only in the form of a different genre. Both have violence, carnage, sex, drama, and comedy wrapped in different packaging.
I’ll end with a few more quotes (from pages 148-9, 151):
“As our news media, especially television, fill our days with information from everywhere, about everything, we have increasingly difficulty in deciding what any of it means. We do not have time to reflect on any piece of news, and we are rarely helped, least of all by television itself, to know what weight or value to assign to any of it. We become information junkies, addicted to news, demanding (even requiring) more and more of it, but without any notion of what to do with it. …For us, information is a commodity. It is bought and sold. Most of it has little to do with our lives. And most of the time, we don’t know what to do with it.” “Americans are no longer clear about what news is worth remembering or how any of it is connected to anything else…we know of many things (everything is revealed), but about very little (nothing is known).”
I ponder these things from a pastor/teacher’s point of view – as it has to do with the “news of Christ (gospel)” related to the “news of the world.” The former is news with inherent meaning, with a text that explains it. The latter is not that at all. The former is saving news, the latter is not. The list goes on – happy thinking! (Mike Horton talks about some of this in The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World).
Also, one more avenue worth studying is reading the above book with Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon.