The Job of the Media…

billmaherThe job of the media is to make interesting what is important. That was Bill Maher’s challenge to CBS’s Lesley Stahl on his show last night. He’s exactly right. What the legacy media do mostly now, an indication of lazy, cowardly, chintzy, risk-averse journalism, is try to make important what the lowest common denominator of viewers find interesting — irrelevancies like celebrity trials and sensational crime stories. In a recent post I said it was time to give up on the mainstream media and create new ones with a progressive compass and a deep sense of journalistic responsibility — the responsibility to do precisely what Maher challenges them to do.

The example he used, and which he has used more than once on his show, is the environment. I’m delighted that he understands this as one of the most important issues of our time. He even took Howard Dean to task on this issue. The way you make this important issue interesting, he suggests, is to present it in a context that people can personally relate to, and can and should be outraged about — the poisons in the air, water, in our food, and in the medicines largely doled out to remedy the poisons in the air, water and food. He blames big agribusiness (and the massive agricultural subsidies paid to them by governments of every stripe) for the poor state of nutrition and the accumulation of toxic products in the food we eat — hormones and antibiotics in meat, over-marketed milk, and high-calorie low-nutrition corn-based sugars that are added to almost everything on the grocery shelves. (Contrary to rumour, he’s not a vegetarian, though, like me, he is working towards it). And he suggests that big pharma is quietly working in cahoots with big agribusiness — the former selling  people treatments for the illnesses the latter are negligently and recklessly causing.

The American and Canadian media have been at least sporadically on issues like trans fats, asthma, and the dangers of aspartame, e coli bacteria infection, anti-depressants and, of course, the Swine Flu threat. They appreciate that these items are news, and they have even done a bit of investigative journalism on them. The problem is that the media are set up to deal with news that are either one-shot events that are reported and promptly forgotten, or ongoing stories where there is a continuous feed of new facts to report. Because they fit this model so well, stories about crime, law and justice make up over half of all legacy media news reports. “What is important” — issues like the environment, the debt crisis, the cycle of poverty and illness in the third world, global warming, domestic violence, the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill and animals in factory farms and laboratories, the lunacy of the ‘war on drugs’, etc., do not lend themselves to this model — they are not manifested in a single ‘event’, nor is there a continuous daily flow of new information that ‘keeps the story alive’. So what are the media to do?

The answer: Change the model. Unless you’re cynical enough to believe most people don’t care or want to hear about issues that are really important, the media need to come up with a new model of how to report the news, one that does accommodate and “make interesting” important news stories. The New Yorker has done this by providing insightful, in-depth investigative reporting, and analysis, and allowing its journalists to write about meta-issues that have nothing to do with daily events — issues like learned helplessness, the tipping point, and the wisdom of crowds. The success of the magazine and the many successful books it has spawned (not to mention the volume of online journalism that has picked up the conversation on these issues) suggests that people do care and want to hear about these issues. Programs like ’60 Minutes’ have tried to emulate this model by doing in-depth analysis and even some investigative reporting, and such programs are quite popular.

urgentimportantBut as worthy as these attempts are, they do not constitute a new model, and have had minimal impact on the quality or quantity of information conveyed to the average viewer, listener, or newspaper reader. We need a completely different model to “make interesting what is important”. That new model cannot pander to the short attention span or passion for gossip of the audience, nor can it self-censor information that the audience might not really want to know, because it’s unsettling or suggests popular wisdom is wildly misguided. Such a model should be built on the following principles:

  1. If a news item is not actionable by the audience, it isn’t news and should not be reported. This is a lofty principle, but if we really believe people are so busy they only have time for thirty minutes of new information a day, shouldn’t that scarce and valuable time be spent telling people about things they can actually act upon? This means an end to crime blotter reporting, coverage of local fires and distant natural disasters (unless they call for immediate humanitarian action), and regurgitation of ‘press releases’ and ‘press conferences’, the greatest abominations of the fourth estate, which are advertising, promotion and public relations, not news.
  2. News items should be long enough to inform the audience what needs to be done. That means no sound bites, no items less than 1000 words or shorter than 15 minutes, and that time should be spent conveying only important information and discussing its implications in an interesting way. This will require a complete revamping of the layout of newspapers and news broadcasts, and weaning the consumers of news off the ’empty calories fast-food’ news diet and onto a completely different one with a lot more fibre. The best way to do this is by simply presenting something that works better. If people realize that a nightly detailed, hour-long explanation and analysis of an important and actionable issue is useful and interesting, and that they don’t miss in the least the old-style news broadcast or newspaper with its useless and superficial coverage of events that they can’t do anything about anyway, they’ll vote with their feet, and the other media will be forced to switch to keep up. Just because that old model has been around since the invention of the telegraph doesn’t mean it’s the right one for today.
  3. Reports should be assessed on their position on Covey’s urgent/important grid, and only items in quadrants I and II should be reported. And if someone asks the meaning of ‘important’, just tell them to consider whether ‘urgent’ news like the state of the Pope’s or Michael Jackson’s bowel movements or the arrest of a local arsonist will be remembered as important five years from now. If it won’t be considered important with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not important now.
  4. The media should abandon the pretense of objectivity. There is no such thing, especially when you start telling people what action to take. The reason Faux News is so popular is that it tells people what to do with the (dis-)information it perpetrates — lobby their representative to attack Islamic oil states, assassinate abortion doctors, kill homosexuals, nuke Canada. The fact that this advice is abominable is beside the point — people want information that is actionable, and they want guidance on what to do. That’s why there was such a frenzy over duct tape and plastic sheeting after 9/11 — Ridge was the only guy meeting this need, albeit incompetently. Everyone else was just saying ‘be vigilant’, and the public found that advice completely useless. If there’s no action needed, it’s not news, so stop talking about it. And be honest enough to say ‘we believe’ before you tell the audience what you think they should do.
  5. Every story should be followed up on a regular, scheduled basis. If it’s important, it’s not going to go away, and that means the actions you recommended on the first broadcast should be built upon in the subsequent programs. The media should actually like this, because it makes their job easier — every second Thursday is Environment Day, so they can stop running around looking for news and do some advance research, analysis, and investigation in an orderly, measured, scheduled way actually reporting the news — the important issues that five years from now people will look back and say “Whew, good thing we learned about that and took action in time.”

I think that’s all the principles. To me these are common sense, a simple explanation of “understand what the customer needs and deliver”. But the implications are enormous. Imagine a whole daily paper consisting of 50 in-depth stories on a single subject, each concluding with well-reasoned advice every reader can take. Imagine that at the bottom of page one of that paper it says “No paper tomorrow — our next issue on Saving the Family Farm will be out Thursday”. Imagine the content of these newspapers being so useful — so valuable — that readers keep them for years in their library and refer back to them regularly (especially if you’re an advertiser).

If you think this is a stretch, recall that newspapers started as broadsheets — partisan, single-subject reports cranked out by activists, and that at one time people were so engaged in long-term thinking that they flocked to meeting halls to hear advocates, philosophers, scientists, and writers talk at length about one subject, and then retired to the local bars to debate about what to do.

Now, think about the current model for online journals (blogs). Let’s see, we write mostly short articles talking about events we read or heard about in the legacy media, those articles are displayed in reverse date order, and after a week or so, they disappear into the ‘archives’ never to be seen again. Hmmm…

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10 Responses to The Job of the Media…

  1. Great post, Dave. I can actually image a media working like that, although I doubt that any of the current big networks would be the first one to switch to such a format.But a new player coming on the scene, through video on the internet and then satelite and eventually cable could do it and, with its success, make others follow suit.I guess that the dream would be for Google or Apple or Al Gore or Wikipedia or whoever has money to sponsor such a thing.

  2. David Parkinson says:

    Pardon me for going O/T on you, but this floated across my radar today, and I thought you and other readers here might find it interesting. (It came to me via this post at MetaFilter:; this is a compendium blog which is a bit of a timewaster, but which occasionally digs up some real gems.) (I won’t bother re-posting the full text here.)This sort of thing bears repeating (to me, anyway):”It is in the nature of a limited company that it can have no responsibility either to the environment around it or to the people who work for it. It is no use blaming the directors – if they do anything that might reduce profits for the shareholders they will quickly be replaced. And the shareholders not only have no liability for debts incurred by the company – but they take no responsibility for the world of nature around them. If the directors can secure bigger profits by dumping poisons into the nearest river – they have to do this. If they do not, they will very quickly be replaced. If they can make more profit by halving the work force – they will have to do so or again they will be replaced. If both shareholders and directors suffer from that most uncapitalist thing – a conscience – to the extent that it interferes with profits – that company will be swallowed up by another giant that has no such inconvenient scruples.”It’s a terrible mistake, conceptually as well as politically, to focus all blame on the human ‘agents’ inside the corporate world.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    David: I’ve already covered this in my posts on The Corporation, People Before Profits, etc. notably this one from last month. It’s the corporatist system that must be dismantled. At the same time, anyone who benefits from this system knows that they’re doing so on the backs of others, and they have to accept some of the responsibility for keeping the system going.

  4. Mike says:

    It may be useful to think in terms of ‘fitness landscapes’. Current media, in fact all current major US business, is all coalescing around the narrowest of ledges on what is only a local optima. In other words, things need to get worse before there’s any chance of them getting better. Perhaps Dave’s recent essay on incapacitance may lead to clues. Maybe the difference between societies that succeed versus those that fail is a worldview that extends beyond the next fiscal quarter.

  5. .0sa says:

    …the strength of david’s article lies in the understanding – i believe – that the capacity to exceed the infantile amounts of diluted and altered information by the mainstream media not only exist within the human mind: but represents a constant need to be answered: in looking around the mainstream media scene — the addiction has been created to sound-bites and what i call ‘media smega’ (..those stories that talks about how a man driving his car down such and such a road was killed when ____ and the segment ends with: ‘…police are investigating the details..’) as a means to keep the minds dulled and wanting and waiting for something more:…and then comes the commerical breaks that shoves down the throat of the senses lotto: food: more food: fast food: investment for retirements: more food: and then back to the news waiting to keep the addiction alive and strong:a forum where exchange becomes the criteria will arise from the internet and from the use of the internet as a tool for deepening the communication channels between individuals – all too often i have encountered blogs that reads like gossip sheets for the perpetually bored: the internet represents a powerful tool that will create not so much the ‘new’ media but will expand expotentially the concept of media and communication returning both forums to their original domains.thank you for the article david.

  6. David Parkinson says:

    I accept that responsibility. And absolve myself of it as of April 29, which will be my last day of work for a large infamous software corporation based in Redmond, WA. What a glorious day that will be.

  7. Jim says:

    Dave, the first principle of your model is way off track, i.e. if a news item isn’t actionable it isn’t news. No news outlet, no blogger, no media organization or individual can know beforehand in detail which individuals will make up its audience, what they will pay attention to and ignore, and what they will think or do either now or in the future based on information they receive. In other words, as soon as you tried to implement this aspect of the model you would have an insurmountable problem coming up with a standard of actionability. What you appear to be after is an end to what you consider the trivialization of news. I’d argue that paradoxically the professionalization of news gathering and reporting has contributed to the trivialization of news, because many news orgs even though they typically don’t pay reporters much can’t afford to have their journalists not fill space or air time. Thus, in order to generate a predictably steady flow of information into the news room, a beat system was developed where reporters have assigned territories, either topically or geographically and are expected to come up with something, anything, so that there is content in which advertising can be embedded.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Mike: Very wise. The last sentence of your comment would make a great blog header quote.0sa: Thanks, you’re hinting at my thesis for this week’s post based on Rob Paterson’s astonishing post on the implications of social networking.David: Bravo. Keep us informed on your future directions.Jim: I agree with the latter part of your comment but don’t see how it invalidates my principle. If there’s a story, with something that can or must be done about it, it will find its audience. You don’t need to know who’s watching to know that an expose on Trans Fats is actionable and Michael Jackson’s side trip to hospital is not.

  9. Jim says:

    Dave, even a seemingly clear example like the one you provide is more complicated than it first appears. It’s simply untrue that a story on Michael Jackson’s side trip to the hospitable is not actionable by all possible viewers. For the team working to prosecute Jackson that is definitely an actionable story and one that would definitely interest them. Asking yourself whether you yourself can take action in response to a particular story is not the same as asking whether others can do the same because we cannot know whether others are in the same position we are.So here is my challenge: in your blog (which is awesome, by the way :) ) write stories only on those topics that are actionable, and for each entry describe what makes it actionable and by whom.

  10. I agree with Jim in saying that the first condition should be rethought. There are several ways to put the argument:- Not everything that’s important is actionable: things like scientific discoveries, items that indicate a trend, background information, etc. is not actionable but is nonetheless useful- Not everything that is actionable is important. The news that Michael Jackson is on trial can make me protest at City Hall, but both the news and the protest would be trivial.- Anything can be presented as actionable. The knowledge that ‘grasshoppers have six legs’ can, with appropriate coversgae, cause outrage, protests at city hall, demands for an enquiry, etc.- Anything can be presented as non-actionable. “It’s just human nature,” is a common instance of this stance, explaining why we can do nothing about everything from crime to education.I agree with what you’re after with this condition; I disagree only with how it has been measured.News should be salient. That is, it should be relevant to the needs and interests of the reader or viewer. ‘Actionable’ is a means of determining salience. However, as the examples show, it is not effective.Salience is a personal property, not a global property. What that means is that a piece of news will be relevant to some people, and not all people, and that even the means by which this determination is made will vary from person to person.I have a mechanism in which I derive patterns in the environment, and then select items of interest according to whether they inform this system of patterns. I do not evaluate news items on whether they are actionable; my patterns may become actionable, but it depends on how the pattern evolves. Many news Items I read do not fit a pattern; they don’t come pre-labled and I have to scan likely environments and sources, filtering content as it comes in.The problem with news isn’t in the production end (except that so little of it gets produced); the problem isin the distribution and filtering end. The problem is the news reports contain information that is trivial *to me* and that it shouldn’t. What I need with respect to news is a means of determining for myself a means of determining which items are likely to be salient, and then to have a news service that delivers those items (and only those items).– Stephen

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