Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Is TV News Making Us Dumb?

Posted in Current Affairs by Amit Paranjape on November 1, 2008

How is the modern TV news affecting the consumer today?

 

In my previous article on “The Illiterate 21st Century Consumer”, I have attributed some of the causes, to the role that media plays today. I thought of writing this article primarily targeted towards TV audiences in India. But as I started writing it, I realized that this is equally applicable to the US TV audiences as well. In fact, since US leads the world in media and entertainment, all the good and bad trends including the ones in Television News originate from here! Hence I modified my article a little so that it can address TV News audiences not only in India, but the US as well, and possibly many other countries.

 

 

“Breaking News”!!! Screams a TV channel. Worried, I try to focus my attention towards the TV, but somehow don’t comprehend what’s going on. I switch channels…but still the same. It takes me a few minutes to figure what’s going on. Apparently, a cat has fallen into a small ditch and is unable to get out…it is screaming loudly, and the vast armies of TV reporters with their uplink vans, with nothing better to cover in this otherwise mundane world, are zeroing in on the action! An anchor passionately discusses her love for cats, and how in such a great country of ours, we cannot get a cat out of her misery! Many bystanders have already dialed the emergency number…Soon the brave first responders show up on the screen and begin what apparently seems like a straight forward rescue; but what a channel dubs as ‘a grave and risky mission’. Success is achieved in a few minutes, and the apparently unperturbed feline creature is united with her overjoyed owner. The action over, the reporters fade away in search of their next big scoop. Some ‘analytical’ ones continue with the story and ask ‘tough’ questions – how the cat got there in the first place? Who is to be blamed?…and on and on.

 

Had enough of the story?! Me too! Unfortunately, this is not that far from reality! Moreover, this same story could have easily played out in the richest country in the world – USA, or the largest democracy in the world – India, or in many other countries.

 

All over the world, commercial media is out there to get into action for getting the viewers’ eyeballs. Ratings are everything. A new slogan of this brave new media world could go something like “Any news is good to cover, as long as it can grab your attention”. Forget things like veracity, priority, credibility, authenticity, journalistic standards, etc. Those are things of the past. When legendary newspapers have made the transition from being the most respected news sources for decades, to being the tabloids with the most circulations (readers in India will know which specific newspaper I am talking about), why should the TV channels fall behind? To their credit, they haven’t! They have caught up well in the past decade. Perfectly good (and thus boring) news channels have become the sensational sources of bits of ‘news’. And as if the news items themselves were not enough, they are using modern graphic technology to great effect – often rivaling MTV music videos. Dull and boring news anchors have given way to glamorous celebrities.

 

On a more serious note – I thought this was just one big sad joke until recently, when I realized the impact of all this. People (more appropriately, the ‘21st century illiterates’) were actually believing this stuff! An ever increasing number were living in this cocoon of the new ‘news world’.

 

A sad case happened recently where incessant breaking news coverage about some apparent ‘doomsday’ event worried a teenager so much, he actually attempted a suicide. It is one thing to feed junk news to the consumer; but now it has gotten to the point of feeding blatantly wrong pieces of information!

 

Unlike in the past when newspapers were the primary news source, today more people (especially in developing countries like India, where internet coverage is still limited) are relying on TV for their daily information feed. Unlike a newspaper, a TV news channel is unfortunately a ‘single threaded’ source (to use a technical analogy!). A newspaper can devote large real estate to the top news, and yet the user can skip it and go to the following pages/sections if he wishes. With the news channel, you are stuck with the ‘story of the day’ however irrelevant it might be. Having multiple channels doesn’t help, since all get caught in the same web.

The story of day or the breaking news might end up occupying the better part of the news hour on many days. As a result, the viewer doesn’t get exposure to any of the real news. Worse, disproportionate importance is given to something that is utterly irrelevant in many cases. In this current financial crisis, where principles of capitalism itself are being questioned, may be someone should extend those same questions to journalism. Why is it today, that ‘boring’ news services such as India’s government run ‘Doordarshan’, UK’s BBC or NPR in USA are more dependable than other networks that have much higher budgets and reach? What is common amongst all these three networks? But then, that could be a topic of a separate article.

 

I have come to conclusion that TV News are actually making the viewers dumb. Not that this is any great finding! I am sure that some of you, who still have their ‘information sanity’ with them after facing the barrage of the current stuff, would have come to the same conclusion. But how do we get this message out? Clearly, the media won’t showcase the reality…it goes against their business interests. I guess someone should create a sensational news item around this…may be a very intelligent man (say a PhD in Quantum Physics!) who was forced to watch the modern TV news by his family, wakes up one day, and has great difficulty with 1st grade mathematics! How did this happen?? Surely, this will be one exciting ‘Breaking News’ all over the TV channels!

 

[To Be Continued…]

7 Responses

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  1. Rajib Roy said, on November 3, 2008 at 5:41 am

    Sometime back, I had read a book, which made an eloquent case that watching TV actually reduces our knowledge. If I can remember the name of the book, I will send it your way…

    Rajb

  2. narayan said, on November 4, 2008 at 10:28 am

    the answer to your tirade is buried in two words you use: “commercial tv”. the job of commercial tv is to hold you in front of the tv long enough that you watch the commercials. why else do you think it is free even though it is not publicly funded? as they say, follow the money …

  3. Sam said, on November 5, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    And we are witnessing it here in India very much now. With all hindi newschannels trying to create story when there is none.

  4. Edward McGuire said, on November 7, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    You ask what is common to government run news services that makes them more dependable, even with a smaller budget.

    Narayan is on the right track. It is very important to know, when you are looking at media, that in most cases you are not the customer. The advertiser is the customer. The network is the supplier, and you are the PRODUCT.

    By contrast, in the case of government run news services, you are the customer and the government is your buyer. Even though your buyer is partially corrupt, it still serves your interest better than the advertiser.

    Rajib: The studies show that it really depends upon what you watch. It is possible to be dumbed down by TV but it really is your own choice. Stay away from FOX NEWS.

  5. narayan said, on November 8, 2008 at 10:55 am

    i suspect there is another somewhat more subtle effect at work, something that i think is more obvious to people who grew up in india. i remember a time when there was no tv when i was growing up. and when we finally got tv, we had exactly one channel and that was run by the government. we had no commercials but the programming was mostly dull as ditchwater. news was restricted to three half-hour slots and that too because they had to have 30 mins each in marathi, hindi, and english. (interestingly, these were also local, national, and international … but that’s a tangent i will save for a different day). back then, we were discriminating consumers of news. we knew that each medium came with its own bias, so we sampled the wares of multiple news providers and created our own version of events based on a process of triangulation that depended on high widely we read and what biases we brought to the interpretation of the news from each source. given the proliferation of 24-hour news channels, each with its own steady bias, we now gravitate to the one source that appeals more immediately to our uninformed view of how things are, rarely if ever stopping to see what the other channels are saying about the reality that exists independent of our unwillingness to deal with. with highly fragmented media, one can easily find the one source that dependably feeds one’s biases. which is why fox news watchers truly believe that the election of barack obama is a sign that the end is nigh. and which is why fans of keith olbermann are sure that dick cheney is the son of satan (if not satan himself). this is also the reason why news is becoming indistinguishable from editorial content, propaganda, and entertainment.

    apparently this polarization of views is not new. i’m reminded of “Pauline Kael, who is reported to have said, on the 1972 electoral victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern, “How can that be? No one I know voted for Nixon!”” (from http://begonias.typepad.com/srubio/2004/11/no_one_i_know_r.html)

    btw, ed, i disagree: i love fox news. even though they don’t necessarily mean to be — or don’t they? — they are a dependable source of entertainment.

  6. Amit Paranjape said, on November 9, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Narayan, Ed, Thanks for your comments.

    Fundamentally, is journalism (TV News, News-Papers, Other Media) something that can never truely work accurately in a ‘for-profit’ model? Is it something as sacred as ‘Government’ or the ‘Federal Reserve’?

    Amit

  7. […] Posted in Current Affairs by Amit Paranjape on December 26th, 2008 I have written earlier about Television News in general and my strong belief, how they are driving the common man ‘dumb&#82… by feeding exaggerated, hyped, often erroneous and sensationalism filled news to the consuming […]


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