November 3, 2013

OH: Death of Journalism or General Decay in Humanity?

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Journalism is dying in our time. Small local newspapers have long been absorbed by media conglomerates and even newspapers of national significance like The Washington Post have succumbed to financial constraints. Weekly magazines have been reduced to monthly and quarterly magazines to cope with shrinking readership and circulation. In the case of the US News & World Report, the printed medium has been eliminated altogether, selectively publishing special issues such as “America’s Top Colleges.”

The quantitative decline in traditional news outlets is irrefutably driven by technological breakthroughs in communication devices. More people encounter news through the screens of their computers, phones and tablets compared to TVs and newspapers. The change in journalism, however, encompasses more than a medium shift; its qualitative identity is being redefined.

When the first 24-hour news channel CNN was introduced by Ted Turner, it revolutionized the media industry. Instead of awaiting next morning’s paper, Americans turned on their cable TVs and were informed of the latest story. Now, with the prevalence of internet and social media, getting news is even easier than turning on the TV. People simply stumble upon news through newsfeed and smartphone notifications.

While the ever-increasing speed in spreading of news is of great interest, qualitative changes in journalism has been overlooked. Unlike the paper form of journalism which was carefully crafted by masterful editors, identifying plausible cause, precise timeline and future implications of an event, current news sources broadcast events as they happen. Inadequate time allocated for proper analysis and investigation triggers frequent reporting flaws even at major networks.

When natural disasters and gun violence occur, TV stations suspend regularly scheduled programs and begin breaking news coverage in real time. Viewers are alarmed and immediately drawn to the TV screen despite irrelevance and the potentially minimal impacts of the event on their local community. After staring at the screen for a period of time, viewers begin to realize they haven’t gained any new information in the past hour other than a few seconds of low-quality cell phone camera footage.  My personal favorite is when TV stations call in “experts” who then make preliminary conjectures with insufficient information which rarely mount to any substance.

The premature reporting in breaking news can simply be annoying but the contents of the reporting may be a greater disappointment. I have lived in this country for a mere five years, but still to this date, I do not understand Americans’ fascination, or the American media’s obsession rather, with JFK (or the entire Kennedy lineage), Diana Frances or Amanda Knox. The events surrounding these individuals certainly have a degree of mystery and historical significance, but by no means provide any legitimate rationale for recirculating the same stories several times a year.

Frequent coverage of celebrities in major media outlets is another indicator of the dwindling journalism industry. Just like Fifty Shades of Grey, a mediocre erotica book, has invaded the general fiction category, celebrity gossip has infiltrated into general journalism. Celebrity gossip is a legitimate subject of interest which has traditionally been featured in tabloid magazines such as People and US Weekly. These days, however, I cannot distinguish major difference between the Huffington Post and Perez Hilton’s blog, other than the Huffington Post’s more refined web design and Perez Hilton’s more honest mission statement.

The individuals employed by the industry are only exasperating this trend. “Journalist” Barbara Walters has rebranded herself as a celebs’ BFF, and Katie Couric became a syndicated talk show host, perhaps an arena in which she should have begun her career. Journalists with formidable educational backgrounds aren’t fully utilizing their intellect either. Savannah Guthrie from The Today Show is employing her “3rd highest GPA at Georgetown Law” by picking new fashionable dresses for each show and George Stephanopoulos, a Rhodes scholar, has been blending perfectly into the tabloid tone of Good Morning America.

With paramount evidence of sinking journalism, we are quick to judge and condemn traditional media’s failure to maintain its integrity and quality. As we examine our own media diet, however, our own failure in accountability becomes apparent.

Journalism like any other industry is a profit-driven industry. Its content and delivery of information is catered to readers’ desires. We stopped reading lengthy, detailed analysis and clicked “Top 10 Reasons Why Government Shutdown Happened” instead. We wanted more visual illustration and less black and white words, and news websites now look like neon signs in Times Square with each story grabbing reader’s attention with flashy visuals and catchy titles. Journalism has slipped away because we as consumers allowed such diversion. If we really demand the return of pure, investigative journalism, we have to learn how to distinguish the truth from the fluff.