What’s Wrong With the News

When something big happens, I seek out a few podcasts so I can step briefly into the cold water of national or global news to get an overview of things. This week, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I thought I’d be safe checking out the New York Times’ podcast, The Daily. I couldn’t get 5 minutes in before turning it off in disgust.

They began with a breathy, “this is just between you and me” tone where a reporter on the ground was detailing how she and colleagues were responding to the invasion, packing water bottles and supplies, moving to a secure area. Two images came to mind when I heard this presentation. One was The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 movie that ushered in a new age in the horror genre. It was a horror movie presented like an amateur, self-recorded documentary, and changed the way we thought about how fear could be cultivated and presented. The second thing that came to mind was the confessional closet of The Real World, where residents of MTV’s first reality tv show would share their private thoughts, in secret, away from other cast members.

Both of these shows were crafted for entertainment. One built and escalated fear, panic, and claustrophobia. Another was voyeuristic, building the sensation that you were special just for seeing what you were seeing: real life happening unscripted before your eyes, and a commentary on that real life where the players were speaking directly to you. You became an insider immediately in both techniques.

Journalism, before it morphed into the play-doh hair salon of entertainment and social media, was meant to inform without bias or judgment. It didn’t use fear, horror, or convincing the listener they’ve been initiated into an ingroup as bait to keep attention.

I don’t have anything against storytelling in real time, first-person accounts, and creating drama around events as a form of audio story sharing. But you don’t use these strategies to announce a war. You don’t draw people into the Real World confessional closet, you don’t hold the camera light under the chin for effect: “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The reason why people don’t trust media to report the news is not just because so much news has become politicized, monetized, and reduced to a messy grab of holding our attention, but because these scare tactics patronize us. They show us our attention is now a commodity that isn’t really valued. By using drama to sell a new story, rather than presenting facts in service to the news, the mass media outlets are telling us that they think we’re malleable, we can be bought and sold, and our mental and emotional health is expendable, and is secondary to them selling us a story.

A war started. It’s dramatic without the closet confessional. Announcing the news is a responsibility. Shining it up with shaky hand-helds to intentionally stimulate an emotional response is the realm of Hollywood or podcast series specifically devoted to first-hand accounts and opinions.

Hey, news outlets, stop scaring people on purpose. The actual news is scary enough. Do better.

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