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...]

The Illiterate 21st Century Consumer

Posted in Current Affairs, Financial Markets/Economics by Amit Paranjape on October 17, 2008

 

 

In the 20th century, illiteracy was something that was thought to be primarily confined to the developing world. Literacy was very simplistically defined as the ability to read and write. By this definition, nearly 100% of the developed world and an ever growing percentage of the developing world would be termed ‘literate’. In the developing world, it is often repeated over and over that one of the primary root causes of all the social, political and economic problems is lack of literacy. However, now that we are turning ‘literate’, are we really resolving these issues? I would like to argue that merely reading and writing doesn’t constitute true literacy. To be literate, one needs to really understand one’s world that we live in. Today, there are ever increasing tools of knowledge and information. Yet real knowledge is seen to be sorely lacking. This lack of basic knowledge about common things is what I would like to term as the ‘21st century global Illiteracy’. In this continuation in the series of articles on the US Financial Crisis, I explore this phenomenon.

 

 

Many of you must have seen the ‘Tonight Show with Jay Leno’. A popular segment in this well-known late night comedy talk show is ‘Jay Walking’. Here, Leno interviews regular folks who are walking by on the streets of Los Angeles. Questions are really basic like…”Who is the Vice President of the US”, or “What does ‘UN’ stand for?”, or “What is the currency of Europe?” It’s amazing the kind of answers you will hear! Many folks don’t have the faintest of clues about some extremely basic facts/questions about the world we live in.

 

This segment is really funny to watch and I really enjoy it. Now, I agree that this represents an exaggerated view of the knowledge of a ‘common man’ and I am sure a lot of editing goes into it to capture those ‘dumb’ moments. Often times though, this is not that far from the truth. It is a sad reflection of reality.

 

The modern 21st century consumer is living a dream life with all the benefits of developments in science & technology, social development, democratic governments and cultural freedom. The ongoing information technology revolution that started towards the end of the 20th century has placed any information, literally at their finger-tips. Still many are comfortably oblivious of their surroundings. This utter lack of knowledge of basic information, sciences, politics, history, economics and other disciplines is what I am terming as ‘21st century illiteracy’. No one is expecting the common man to be an expert, a PhD in any of these fields. All that is needed is some basic primary / middle school level grounding in these disciplines. Yet one rarely finds it today in many people.

 

A popular TV show that has run in different variants in many parts of the world, ‘Are you smarter than a 5th grader’ demonstrates this ignorance. Adults routinely stumble on basic primary school level questions. An interesting example that recently came to light in the US was that of the citizenship test on US history and government that is administered as part of the naturalization process for eligible foreign citizens. Apparently, nearly 70% of US adults ‘fail’ this test! Incidentally, when it comes to sports and entertainment, many of these same people excel at statistics and movie trivia.

 

Some would argue why this knowledge is even important. My response would be – Why was so much importance given to reading and writing in the 20th century? It was done so that we could understand the world around us and make informed and better decisions and choices. Are we really doing that?

 

Not just in the 20th century, but throughout the history of human civilization, mankind has progressed due to that constant desire to ask questions, and seek knowledge. “How can I master fire?”; “How can I manage cultivation?”; “What causes the planets and sun to appear to ‘move around’ the earth?”; “What causes diseases? How do we prevent them?” and on and on. Have we simply lost this desire today? Or has the current materialistic world completely taken our focus away? Or are we subscribing to these pronouncements ‘That is not my problem…Or as long as things are fine for me, why do I care!’

 

Unfortunately today, when it comes to financial markets and the global economy, things are not fine. And this is affecting each and every one of us – not just in the US, but in the entire world. How many people really understood the detailed mechanics of adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs)? How many really took time to analyze the potential risks of these instruments based on macro-economic factors? It is easy to now blame Allen Greenspan for keeping rates at historic lows and thereby contributing to very attractive rates on these ARMs at the beginning of this decade. But wasn’t the consumer simply making an assumption (if at all they understood some parts about the ARM…) that these good rates are going to stay on? Was it just wishful thinking? Yes, to some extent – most US consumers are optimistic in nature and prescribe to this ‘good times will continue’ philosophy. But being ignorant about the basics of economics was the primary culprit. There was also a ‘herd mentality’. Since ‘other people’ were taking these mortgages, why not me? How is this herd mentality different from that of illiterate village folks in a third world country?

 

Many people today invest directly or indirectly (through pension plans) in the financial markets. Yet many do not understand basics such as valuations, Price/Earnings, Dividends, etc. Even fewer understand bonds and treasuries. On a similar note, in a completely different knowledge discipline, how many patients really understand the most basic information about the prescription drugs that they are taking? If ‘Health’ and ‘Wealth’ are the most important things to most people, then this ignorance is appalling.

 

Lack of books and other reading material contributed to some illiteracy for deprived people in the 20th century. A bright student in a remote village would find it extremely hard to learn any advanced topics due to the lack of resources. However, today there are no excuses for the 21st century consumer.

 

Even 15 years back in the US, if you wanted to get some basic grounding on some discipline and learn something new, or brush up some old stuff, you probably had to take some time off and head to the local library. There you were mostly reliant on a good librarian to find the right books/journals for you. And then you had to navigate through the big reference books (often times, on library premises) to get to what you were looking for. Compare that with today’s world. How far have we come in such a short period? Almost all of that information is now available at a click of a mouse! And ‘search’ has become so easy! And yet this 21st century illiteracy continues to thrive.

 

I find it extremely hard to understand why the same people who spend hours online on social networking sites can’t find time to learn something new about economics. Or about basics in medical sciences. Ultimately, your financial health and physical health are amongst the most important things in the world we live in…Aren’t they? I think first we need to acknowledge this 21st century illiteracy phenomenon. Then, we need to understand it and start actively addressing it. A big change is needed, first and foremost in our attitudes towards knowledge. This change is one of the primary steps to create smart, intelligent consumers who truly understand the global world they live in, and make informed choices.

 [You might want to read these related posts; 'US Financial Crisis - Who Is To Be Blamed' and 'The Clueless Global Leadership' ]

 

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