Learning the news: More compelling than entertaining

The ‘Internet Age’ combined with our obsession with entertainment hit serious journalism like a freight train, writes Roger Plothow.

It’s been 64 years since Ray Bradbury published his most famous and widely read book, “Fahrenheit 451.” Its themes of cultural numbness, lack of human interaction and a desire for mindless entertainment can begin to sound strangely contemporary.

We all know the story basics. In a dystopian future, people spend hours staring at enormous television screens on their walls, listen to music through “Sea Shell Radio” (think ear buds and a smart phone) and have only the most superficial conversations.

Hmmm.

Thirty-two years later, Neil Postman published “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Here, Postman noted that Americans of 1985 were already addicted to television, but the need for entertainment was seeping into education, religion, politics and, yes, journalism.

It’s not like we weren’t warned, is it? Bradbury saw our day coming in 1953 and Postman articulated a more precise version in 1984.

Welcome to the Age of Entertainment, where fake news can thrive because it’s usually more, well, entertaining than the real stuff.

USA Today came of age in the ’80s by making its front pages and even its newsstands look like a TV screen. Short stories were demanded, an acknowledgement of the shrinking attention span of the reader. Serious journalists, including, I admit, yours truly, scoffed at this and warned of the Bradburyesque direction we seemed to be headed. We didn’t see the entertainment freight train called the Internet barreling down on us.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a good time, of course. In a life full of stress a little entertainment can be good for our physical and emotional well-being. It used to be that the biggest danger in seeking too much entertainment was the simple squandering of time. We seem to have turned an ominous corner, however – the gravest danger today is that we can begin living in a virtual world so apart from reality that the line between real life and entertainment becomes impossibly blurred. Fake news rules.

This is one reason why certain radio and cable shows purporting to be about politics or news succeed mostly because they offer entertainment. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Much of what is on the Big Three cable information networks – CNN, Fox and MSNBC – can rightly be considered more entertainment than anything else.

On the other hand, one of the problems with “serious” journalism today is that it’s just too darn serious. The presentation is typically still too formulaic and dull.

Unfortunately, most attempts at making journalism more interesting have succeeded only in making it less credible. We encourage tweeting and Facebooking and turning the sound bite into a word snippet. What we should be aiming for – we serious, high-minded, ivory-tower journalists – is to make our product more compelling. That’s a higher bar than just making it entertaining.

We haven’t figured it out, and time is of the essence.


Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.


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