Six Media Conglomerates: Mainstream Media’s Sensational Quest for Attention- Part 2
ROLE OF THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA
The purpose of the mainstream media changes over time to reflect the prevailing thought and behavior within society as a way to express the current, underlying feelings, emotions, truths and beliefs of a nation and its citizens. Mainstream media companies control the filter of news for the majority of Americans- especially older Americans- that receive their news from just one of several news sources on cable television. This leaves news organizations in a unique position to either provide quality information for the public to decide on the facts of a story or provide a safe platform that does not challenge the status quo or the established government ideology in order to attract large, unassuming, and uncritical audiences for their advertisers to exploit.
When these cable news organizations conduct quality journalism and reporting to educate and inform the public, their role helps to improve the overall health and wellbeing within the democratic population. This provides people with greater intellectual tools to stand up against government oppression and corruption, which is the very thing that mainstream media outlets uphold under the current sensationalist, ideological journalism strategy.
The media represents an important and stabilizing role in providing the public with a free and objective press, in which individuals are able to debate ideas, speak freely about marginalized groups and races, as well as challenge different ways of thinking in order to reach a fair and common ground. The media’s purpose is to report the news in a way that empowers viewers to make their own decisions based on their own personal beliefs without having to sift through journalistic bias or a hidden advertising agenda that may not be obvious without an extensive understanding of the inner workings of the corporate media.
A rational and active press informs the public on matters of national importance without leaning towards a particular ideology that may alienate certain members of the population that hold different beliefs and attitudes. The press provides a forum for social and political expression; provides national checks and balances; and acts as government watchdogs by reporting on corrupt behavior from elected officials and public institutions that may be misusing their power to conspire with corporations against the benefit of the public. The press sets the agenda for public discussion. When the media reports on a particular topic, citizens act accordingly and take a stance on the issue affecting the nation as a whole or a local community in specific.
Even more telling than which stories the media reports on are the stories that the media ignores altogether, which often comes down to what stories mainstream advertisers approve of. If a mainstream media story contradicts one of their advertisers demands, the news organization may either run the story and face the threat of the advertiser pulling their ads from that channel, which means less money for the news corporation; the media company may bury the story during obscure hours when they know that most people are not watching to hide the uncomfortable truths in the story, or the media company may even ignore the story altogether in order to protect their profits and their advertisers wellbeing. The power of social media in today’s culture places greater power in the viewer’s hands to call out mainstream media companies that support radical organizations, which may force media companies to pull that company’s advertising from their channel.
Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.George Orwell
The business model of journalism as an advertising revenue generator replaced journalism as a public service decades ago when corporations took over the United States government for their own private profit. Real media reports on uncomfortable truths, even if those truths go against the status quo and corporate advertising profits. When a media company shifts from informing the public, to protecting their profits and their advertiser’s demands, then the original purpose and role of that news organization changes from protecting the public to protecting their advertisers. When this occurs, then the mainstream media business model transforms from purveyor of knowledge and information to news as entertainment, or infotainment, which is news that appears as informational and beneficial for the public good, but is actually a means to attract a large base of viewers with stories that lack any substance or purpose.
Media executives look for the stories that entertain, amuse, and excite, rather than stories that challenge the publics’ critical thinking skills, as critical thought and analysis require mental effort, which may cut into the viewer’s attention spans. People want to be entertained. Hard news that contains uncomfortable truths that uncover the illusions which govern people’s lives threaten corporate media profits. Media companies, like all companies, are in the profit business; if the profit resides in news as sensational entertainment, then news as an information and educational tool loses its significance.
News stories are selected based on their ‘shock value,’ which is based on how extreme a story appears to the public and the level of shock and surprise that it generates in society. The familiar journalistic mantra, ‘If it bleeds. it leads,’ functions under this shock value business model with stories that contain blood, violence, aggression, and other forms of emotionally based content that conjures up a visceral reaction in the news viewer.
The horror of mass shootings, and the willingness of media companies to focus inordinate amounts of attention on these violent acts, follow this mantra. When media companies dedicate weeks of news coverage to describing the details of mass shootings, the lives of victims, the family of the shooter, the shooter himself, and the steps that lead to the entire violent act, they are not only exploiting the suffering of victims but also contributing to the likelihood of ‘copycat’ attacks by other criminals seeking infamous glory and attention by being elevated by these greedy, amoral news organizations.
The rise of social media and of the internet coincides with the downfall of traditional mainstream media, which flails and flounders in its attempts to remain relevant in the digital world under modern media rules, but still conducts its business (news reporting) and uses an outdated and archaic business model that relies on ancient news gathering and information disseminating techniques to attract larger, more fractured audiences that receive their news from a myriad of sources.
We are seeing the last vestiges of the traditional mainstream media model grasping desperately for notoriety and attention in an ever-increasingly, complex digital world. For every dollar lost by mainstream media companies through the loss of advertising revenue as a result of lost viewership, media companies must find increasingly outrageous ways of reporting and writing stories that solidify their existing audience, hardens their beliefs and disbeliefs, and constricts their worldview towards one of short-sightedness and ignorance.
The further a media corporation leans towards a particular ideology, the greater chance that company has of attracting a large and loyal ideological base of viewers willing to ignore factual and objective information that contradicts their values and worldview in order gain acceptance into their selected political or social party, tribe, team, group. When an individual abandons their individuality and their unique opinions for a groupthink ideology, they are also less likely to speak out against their tribe’s issues, faults, incorrect thinking, and behavior.
Mainstream media companies recognize that the partisan political ideology of republican vs. democrat, right vs. left-wing, conservative vs. liberal represents a pre-existing and a pre-defined viewer base with an established set of beliefs. This pre-existing partisan political ideology makes the marketing of news stories a simple task for cable news organizations, who are saved the costly venture of discovering a unique and novel viewer demographic. For mainstream media corporations, rather than challenge their viewer’s ideas, attitudes, beliefs and overall worldview, which they already know and understand, they seek out stories that confirm this worldview while rejecting other stories that might threaten their viewer’s beliefs to save them the uncomfortable reality of addressing their illusions.
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.Benjamin Franklin
Modern press reporting, news gathering, journalistic integrity fails under the traditional media model of news as a public information tool but succeeds in the attention-grabbing sensationalism of the short-attention-span social media age. Facts are taken on a subjective and emotional basis, rather than an objective and fact-based analysis. While social media offers a raw and unfiltered flow of information with little-to-no fact-checking or editorial bias delivered across the planet instantaneously, cable news is forced to compete with the immediate dissemination of news under their old advertising business model, which pushes their reporting and stories further towards sensationalism for profit’s sake.
One of the fundamental issues with the model mainstream media’s business model comes down to their lust and greed for more viewers at any and all costs, even at the cost of their journalistic integrity. Their willingness to say and do anything for the smallest inkling of a story opens up the probability that they will engage in sensationalism to attract the largest amount of viewers based on the lowest common denominator of information.
Sensationalism in the media is defined as too much opinion and editorial bias in which events in a news story are overhyped, embellished, dramatized, hyperbolized and manipulated in order to attract more viewers; tactics include:
- Heavy appeals to our emotion and appeals to our primal reptilian egos that seek out threats of violence and aggression as a defense mechanism, it’s in our DNA.
- Deliberately obtuse or controversial (fake or made up controversy) information.
- Intentionally omitting facts/information or distorting the truth in order to fit into a certain editorial narrative (crafting myth out of reality).
- Heavy focus on unimportant and trivial information.
- A focus on stories with blood, violence, and aggression.
Sensationalism works best with an illiterate, ignorant, uneducated, non-critical thinking and problem-solving population that would rather be entertained than informed. It also works best with news organizations that would rather make a profit off of our ignorance than educate and inform. Modern mainstream media corporations constantly pursue news stories that are high in extremism and sensationalism in order to manipulate, hyperbolize and embellish the truth as a way to attract more viewers and advertising revenue. The modern media advertising reliant, profit-driven business model amplifies sensationalism to attract more viewers, which increases the likelihood that a particular advertiser will continue to pay for their ads to appear on mainstream media channels.
More viewers mean that media companies are able to charge more for advertisers to put their commercials on the media conglomerates airwaves. News organizations sensationalize complex topics to dumb down the message to attract a larger swath of viewers without contributing to what they view as unnecessary confusion; with confusion, in the media’s eyes, being that of too many concrete facts and objective analysis. The 24-hour news cycle encourages sensationalism. News organizations must compete round the clock to be more extreme than their competitors, or face the threat of lost viewers and lost advertising revenue.
For media companies, mass shootings, car chases, theft, drugs, death, and other forms of crime and aggression represent a strong marketing tool to attract large audiences. But the focus by the media on this type of negative activity within our society morphs and changes our worldview by manipulating our internal psychology to think and feel that crime and cruelty are abundant and ubiquitous in our culture, which represents a cognitive bias that behavioral psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, call the Availability Heuristic: People estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a thing to occur based off of the ease that a particular instance comes to mind. If the media reports on the statistically rare instances of crime, epidemics, crises, scandals, then the public is more likely to believe that these criminal instances occur regularly and ubiquitously. People will overestimate instances of crime in their community and country if the media reports on it repeatedly. Crime rates are falling in the United States, and have been falling for decades, but if you watch the news you may believe that crime is increasing as this is the sensational news that mainstream media favors. In the media’s eyes, they should never let an epidemic or crisis go to waste. Part 3