Thursday, January 20, 2011

Popular News

You can feel the change of seasons in the air. Awards season is upon us. It’s when our attention turns to fashion, celebrity and statuettes. Sure, we Angelinos may not have more conventional weather-based seasons, but this is the time of the year that the world watches Hollywood.

Awards season is big news and big money. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake with viewers opting to see one movie over another based on the pile of awards that are given. In a Company Town like Los Angeles it is appropriate to cover the events as many people’s lives and livelihoods are impacted by the awards.

In other areas of the country, though, the awards and related coverage is pure entertainment. It’s a chance to peer into the world of celebrity where the industry pats itself on the back. It’s all glamour and glitz. There’s nothing wrong with it and it’s a nearly billion dollar a year industry. Coverage of the industry has gone mainstream where the weekly box office grosses are newsworthy stories.

Determining what is newsworthy falls to a select group of people. “If it bleeds it leads” is a well known barometer for what is likely to lead the broadcast, carry the top-fold, be the top story. Just a few years ago you could go to any of the three major cable websites (,, and the lead stories would largely be the same with a slightly different take on them. Today there are usually three different stories leading the sites.

The traditional definition of news: Information about current/recent events that mean something to people that is distributed via newspaper, broadcast, internet or the media. Each distribution outlet – be it the New York Times, TMZ or BBC – makes its own determination about whether an event or issue applies to its audience. This distinction – targeting events and issues towards an established audience – is a tweak to the journalism standard I was taught at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications a generation (or two) ago.

Wikipedia celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. Wikipedia is the online Free Encyclopedia that is supported by grants and donations (not advertising dollars). Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles and there is a structure in place for researchers and scholars to edit any posting.

The model of community contributed content has manifested itself from Wikipedia to more traditional news outlets. Most major news gathering and distribution outlets have opportunities for the reader to comment or contribute content further diluting what is considered newsworthy versus what is popular.

Americans have more access than ever to news and events that happen world-wide yet it seems that our focus is ever more narrow and focused. With a more limited exposure to events we run the risk of ignorance.

Ignorance is the result of lack of knowledge. A lack of knowledge results in news organizations choosing to provide coverage of stories or issues that it knows its audience is predisposed to like or be comfortable with. Concurrently we are also now seeing public figures who choose which journalists or news outlets are worthy to communicate with. This evolution permits people to only hear from people they agree with, see events framed in ways that they are comfortable with and experience world events through a prism that is singular in focus.


Context seems to be missing. Sarah Palin is a former Governor of Alaska who was the Vice Presidential nominee for a losing Presidential ticket who didn’t complete her term of office in order to give paid speeches, write books and host a reality show about her life. She has a legitimate following and her views are newsworthy. 0.008% of Americans (2.5 million out of 300 million) watched her on Fox News this week…the highest rated showing she’s had in some months.

35 million watched President Obama give his address last week. 48 to 50 million will watch the President this upcoming Tuesday when he gives the State of the Union address.

The coverage of Mrs. Palin should not equal the coverage of Mr. Obama. It’s not that I like one’s policies over the other – I don’t. NOBODY should be censored. It is appropriate that the coverage be proportionate to influence and impact.

One of the largest and most consistent complaints that my fellow Libertarians have is how little news coverage the Party receives. It is the third largest political party in the U.S.. The party runs a full slate of candidates at every election. There is news coverage and it seems to be rather consistent to the 1% of the vote that the Party generally gets nationally.

Would I like to see more coverage? Of course! The more people hear and learn about the Party, it’s principals of liberty, freedom and economic justice for all then the more people will vote and the party grows, etc. That’s not how it works. It seems unreasonable to expect that the media would give 10% or 20% of its coverage to a party that gets 1% of the vote.

It would be fair and balanced to see proportionate coverage actually applied to the news – but that goes against the targeted audience focus that the news has evolved to and what most viewers are comfortable with. Popularity trumps context and impact. To make a difference, shift the focus and get public support smaller voices must become louder and more explosive to garner attention. To that end: Ahem. [Clear throat.] “My fellow Americans: I’d like to thank … ”

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