The weather events of the past months in Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico have been a catastrophic, tragic, and crushing experience for millions of Americans. Two massive hurricanes, only separated by several days, barrelled through the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking havoc on urban infrastructure and impoverishing formerly vigorous communities.
The unequivocal silver lining has been Americans setting aside their partisan biases, for the first time really since Trump was elected, to work in synchrony on an issue that resonates with everyone; helping hurricane ravished communities recover.
How do I know this? Because for the first time in recent years 24/7 cable news is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. In the past week I’ve been able to turn my T.V. on without seeing Kellyanne Conway, Paul Begala or any CNN paid pundits spinning the issue back to the typical selling point for the channel; liberal vs. conservative conflict.
Instead I see news anchors braving the elements to cover stories of human compassion in times of strife, and mayors with no (D) or (R) next to their names being interviewed on their non partisan safety procedures and evacuation plans.
Initially this seemed like a relief.
“Wow,” we think, shaking our heads in dumbfounded glee. “The media has finally abandoned it’s endless partisan hackery, for a moment of altruism. They’re recognizing their mistakes, and moving on to issues that unite, not divide us.”
Wouldn’t that be lovely.
Imagine cable media suddenly transforming from a collection of greedy corporate conglomerates drawing out as much conflict as possible from daily news for the sake of ratings, into a benevolent public service with the sole goal of keeping the public safe and informed.
While this might seem believable, especially considering how impressively Cable outlets have covered tragedies like Texas, Florida, and now the mass shooting in Las Vegas, there is a less appealing explanation.
Cable News is designed to cover disasters. In fact that’s all they are really prepared for. Much of Fox, CNN and NBC’s billions and billions of dollars in revenue come from advertising premiums, and more viewers mean more advertising revenue for the companies. Luckily for the American public, during times of tragedy networks are incentivized to produce excellent, compelling live coverage, as their goal is to literally get their audience to drop what they are doing and rush to the T.V.
And we as a population encourage this, glued to our T.V. sets to see which cities are getting hit by the chaotic weather or under siege by an active shooter. However in doing so, we are communicating to the networks that the only way we’ll tune in is if there is a crisis at hand.
This is why every mugging and soft news story is now “Breaking News,” and why even the smallest insignificant protest, or silly political gaff, according to cable news, is somehow relevant to Trump, Clinton, the White House, and the fate of America.
“Breaking News,” independent of the now ridiculed moniker for whatever CNN is trying to sell as important information in the middle of an uneventful day, implies an urgent update on a series of events that could have major implications on viewers’ lives. It used to mean something, and I strongly believe it can be salvaged, but only if it is utilized legitimately and with restraint.
The story of the media is the same as that of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. If the media continues crying “Breaking News” on every minor event that occurs, and trumps up (no pun intended) the significance of these stories to absurd levels simply for attention, eventually we, the audience, are going to become desensitised to News in general.
That leaves us in a precarious position. If we can’t trust our primary news sources, how do we sift through the steady flow of information from multiple platforms to differentiate reality from fiction?
For many people the answer is simply apathy: “If I don’t make any attempt to stay up to date, I can’t be manipulated or abused by the media.”
For others it is to dismiss the media as “fake” altogether: “I can’t tell the difference between the partisan hyping of unimportant issues and real problems, so I’m just going to label it all fake news, and ignore it all.”
And most dangerously, alienation from ratings driven cable coverage causes some to simply choose whichever source of news that lines up most accurately with their political bias out of sheer frustration: “CNN isn’t reliable, so I might as well just read Breitbart or watch Infowars because they hate the mainstream media too.”
It is time for the cable media to grow a conscious. And not just when it is convenient for ratings, like now, as we recover from a hurricane. If they can’t or won’t succeed here, then the effects of the political climate they have created will come back to bite them.
More media haters will be elected, fewer people will be informed, and the legitimacy of news as a whole will be lost in the cacophony of pleas for attention from cable media channels and even less reliable online outlets.
As a student of journalism, I implore cable media to consider my pleas for restraint in coverage so that being a journalist is still a viable career choice when I enter the workforce.
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