Here’s a fact: if you get naked and run across the football field at an NFL game, you won’t get on television. The World Cup and most international soccer leagues have also instituted the same policy. If a streaker makes it onto the field, the television cameras cut away from the action and the commentators simply fill time and the action will continue once he or she is removed. The thinking is, if you remove the incentive of getting fame by being on television, streakers will stop disrupting games. The added disincentive for the NFL is that you are likely to get crushed by a 300 lb lineman who is not too happy you are on his field in the first place. Most network television news and cable television news programs (hereafter referred to as network news), on the other hand, have exactly the opposite incentives in place. The more horrific your crime, the more network news time you are guaranteed. And if you are really hungry for publicity, just send any type of video or added commentary on your crimes, and you can get media far beyond what you would ever imagine. This is clearly what is happening in the VA Tech gunman case. Has network news always been like this?
No, I would trace the beginning of the end to the rise of CNN in the 80s. I don’t blame CNN directly or Ted Turner, but the situation CNN’s launch created was that having a network dedicated to 24 hours of news meant that everyone had the challenge of finding that much more news to report. The idealistic justification for 24 hour news was that having more time would allow the network to report on the real stories that never get covered. To be sure, some of that took place. But what also happened is news became more of a competition as other outlets tried to compete, and that was the start of the model of news as entertainment. To stand out, news programs stopped reporting the most important stories and started reporting the most sensationalistic. The news became about murders, deaths, violent crimes, and what you don’t know about your toothpaste that could kill you.
The battle to maintain relevance and compete with each other has led to the sad state of network news today, and the reason why more and more people are giving up on it as a source of credible information. Ask any member of Generation X or Generation Y if they watch network news and you’ll understand how the death of this format is already here. The alternative is video produced by individuals (some journalists and some not) who are reporting live from the scene through outlets like Current.TV and other more direct sources. Even in the case of the VA Tech case, much of the early reporting was simply taken off of websites created by victims or rereported from media created by eyewitnesses. In some cases, media had to be warned that those images were not for exploitation. If you look at some of the recent commentary on blogs online, it’s clear that the choices made by large news outlets in terms of what to report and show has had a big effect on how the entire US is seeing news media today. This is not like 911, where social media was not near where it is today in terms of being a force of real life information, opinions and commentary. This is a sad, tragic story that much of media is exploiting and more than ever before, large groups of people are seeing and talking about this exploitation. One day, we might all look back on this story and realize that this was the moment when the old model of news media really died.