A few months after my husband and I started dating, we met friends for dinner (remember, this was the Before Times when humans could gather freely indoors.) One friend introduced us to a man who also happened to be at the same restaurant and he joined our table. He stifled a laugh when I was introduced as a television news reporter, but I brushed it off quickly. Then, emboldened by a glass of wine, he chose that moment to unleash every criticism of the media that had ever crossed his mind. “Why are you guys so biased?” and “Oh, I was watching the other day and there was a coyote on the loose in someone’s neighborhood, like why is that news?” He claimed he preferred only the facts.
Usually I do my best to handle these kinds of conversations with grace. This time, as Mr. Self-Satisfied cozied up further to our table and continued his needling questions, I decided to take his bait.
I glanced at my husband, who would later tell me he was bracing himself in that moment for what he knew — even then — would come next. As I spoke, I felt my larynx rise in the back of my throat and my windpipe tighten, just enough to send a signal to my furiously-firing brain, “Hey, keep it cool. Wait, why are you so upset?”
As I mounted defense after defense of “the media,” my go-to arguments — “we do report the facts,” and “we want to cover real stories, too, but the business model is broken,” — didn’t land. So I tried another argument and another and each one, while perhaps sounding logical to the casual listener, still felt different to me. They sounded like excuses rather than a solid defense.
I don’t remember in detail how the conversation ended. I think the man finally said, “Huh, ok, cool.”
This smug guy probably went about his life spewing unwanted advice and uninformed opinions, but he was not wrong in his perception of the media. While he harbored some significant misunderstandings, his voice elicited my own growing dissatisfaction with my industry; two sides of myself had been battling internally for years, with one side justifying keeping my job and the other asking persistently, “What if there’s a better way?”
He was right that the coyote on the loose or a bear climbing a tree (that actually happened — I anchored live television coverage for 43 minutes as environmental police tried to shoot the bear with darts — ) is not “news.” It’s entertainment. The simple reason content like that airs on television stations across the country — people will watch it.
I explained to the man that people say they want the facts only without the flash but their actions don’t support it. TV stations pay companies to conduct market research that tracks what kinds of content people watch and what causes them to turn off the TV or change the channel. Television ratings are measured four times per year during “sweeps” periods. News outlets also meticulously track website engagement, and news managers use that data to inform their coverage. If you ever wondered what causes the surge in stories about high-end escorts and butt injections gone wrong and rape kits that need to be tested all in a random few weeks in February — this is why. Sex sells. Entertainment sells. Emotion sells.
For a news business model that depends on people watching through the commercials, the temptation to stray from journalism to entertainment is too great. In the ’80s, news stations started leaning this way to chase profits. These days, they’re simply trying to stay afloat in a media universe that seems limitless. Television stations are increasingly embracing stories that entertain rather than inform, whether that includes live video of a bear climbing a tree or details on a gruesome triple homicide story. I once worked with an executive producer who called what we put on television “Infotainment.”
Infotainment on the national television stage takes a different form: Opinions. Talking heads going back and forth ad infinitum leaves less room for straight, factual reporting with context but it certainly keeps people watching their screens. Why? Because it provokes an emotional response from viewers, like outrage or sadness or frustration. And when poorly labeled opinion content takes up the majority of airtime, people start thinking all of the content on news stations is biased. (Side note: it would help if political pundits would begin their shows by saying, “Hi, I’m ___ and the following is my opinion. This is an opinion show. For the simple facts, visit ___.”
The history of including opinionated content in newspapers goes back for decades, but what was once clearly labeled and understood has devolved into mass confusion on television and on the internet. According to a recent study from The American Press Institute, half of the U.S. public is unfamiliar with the term “op-ed.” Merriam Webster defines “op-ed” as an essay in a newspaper or magazine that gives the opinion of the writer and that is written by someone who is not employed by the newspaper or magazine. In print newspapers, the op-ed appears “opposite” the editorial page, which states the position of a publication’s editorial board, usually consisting of top editors and opinion writers. So in addition to the fact that the line between facts and opinions is blurry in the digital age, half of America would still be confused as to what the difference is even if the line were clearly drawn.
To Mr. Self-Satisfied, I insisted that factual reporting is the goal of most journalists on the ground, doing their best while battling dwindling resources, long hours and poor work conditions (think: working out of a beat-up SUV in the dark, far away from home while eating gas station dinners.) Of course, as in any profession, there are those who are lazy and lack integrity, who damage the reputation of the industry as a whole. Some of the criticism is well-deserved.
I justified the sensational, emotion-driven content to our dinner guest as annoyingly necessary to pay stations’ bills and provide reporters with a platform to do good journalism at least some of the time. That was what I told myself for years. But it was in these few moments, staring at this man, that I realized I was tired of living by this reasoning and spending so much of my time as a reporter chasing content I really didn’t believe in.
The television news business model is stuck in a decade that has long passed. Back in the “Cronkite era” — another reference people love to bring up in conversation — the TV business model allowed for more informative and authoritative content because frankly, people didn’t have that many choices in what to watch or read. They were forced to eat their vegetables.
I don’t think people are necessarily lying when they say they want just the facts and no entertainment. But when presented with the choice between a juicy cheeseburger and a cup of raw kale, of course they’re going to choose the cheeseburger. That’s an impossible choice to expect people to make consistently. They’re going to watch the tranquilized bear falling from a tree.
The guy at the dinner table may tell himself he likes raw kale, but he definitely eats a lot of cheeseburgers. And I don’t blame him.
Journalists can do better. I believe solutions begin with honest conversations. Let’s talk.