Not your momma’s media

The media we know today is quite different from what my parents relied on or, for that matter, what my older brothers and sisters knew. The shift forces a nation of media consumers to rethink and readjust how they approach and absorb the information presented.

That was the message I shared with a group of young political activists in Des Moines recently and, given recent happenings surrounding the 2014 campaign, one I’m now beholden to share with readers.

Looking Back

Not too many years ago, media offerings were much more robust and straightforward. Each of the television networks had their nightly news broadcasts, which often recounted the same news stories. There was no 24-hour news cycle, since CNN had yet to be launched.

Print publications flourished, with nearly every small town having at least a weekly paper and many larger cities having morning and evening competitors.

Media consumers today must approach news with much more caution and skepticism than what was warranted a few decades ago.
Media consumers today must approach news with much more caution and skepticism than what was warranted a few decades ago. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Instead of radio stations grabbing syndicated content from larger networks, many incorporated local news hours or at least intermittent local news reporting.

Before the Internet made its way onto the media scene, people rightfully understood information handed to them in the form of news was not going to be a regurgitated news release from this or that political party or think tank. They knew a journalist had already spent time listening to voices in the public square and would provide a balanced picture — whether they agreed with it or not.

When a journalist needed or wanted to step outside the confines of true reporting, listeners and readers were given the cues to understand that moment was an opinion or otherwise slanted to a specific point of view.

Even when CNN and other networks set their sights on cable and satellite, the tradition of clearly separating news from commentary continued. But such a platform did not lend itself easily to all-day coverage, and there were pressures from advertisers to make offerings more memorable or appealing to increase viewer share.

Outlook Today

By the time the Internet erupted with blogs and citizen reporters, a significant shift in the marketing of news to consumers was already underway. No longer did an advocacy group or even a political party need to rely on the restrictive filter of journalists to express their viewpoints.

The sharing of information, of giving citizens what’s needed to make educated decisions, has now taken a back seat to making a point or purposefully shifting perceptions toward a certain goal. As an added complication, those providing slanted information then parade about as heroes, as those giving citizens the “true story” or as discussing items the “Mainstream Media” were too timid to amplify.

As local newsrooms and broadsheets shrink, the previously unfounded criticism becomes a self-fulling prophecy.

Long gone are the days when a journalist could file a 50-inch report on a single state bill alongside an informational graphic, or spend five minutes of a local newscast offering pros and cons to viewers. In today’s limited space market, 12 inches or less is the norm.

Since so many readers are consuming the news on the unpleasant-to-the-eyes platform of a computer screen, they too want to believe that less is always better. For those wondering, most outlets believe you’ll lose focus if we ask you to digest more than about 400 words at a sitting. Quite obviously, I feel more optimistic regarding your capabilities.

The latest media landscape is not too different from a crowded neighborhood party. While discussing a car accident that tangled traffic, someone tells you the driver had been seen drinking at the local bar. Another tells you the stop lights malfunctioned. Someone else notes a pedestrian was struck, while a conversation interloper jumps in to say it wasn’t a person but a dog.

You know that somewhere in the room is a person who knows what really happened, so that you can decide if it is a reason for greater concern, but you have to navigate through all the noise.

Amplified Noise

An example of perhaps the greatest threat in this era of consumer-beware news reporting is when the few remaining traditional harbingers of information are compelled to amplify the noise created by advocacy-driven outlets, elevating them to a status they have neither earned or deserve.

This recently occurred in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race when an online site, The Iowa Republican, published a post about an animal dispute at U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley’s Holiday Lake property. The piece was authored by Jeff Patch, a GOP political consultant, and its opening paragraph asks, “Is Bruce Braley chicken?”

The Iowa Republican is a multi-authored blog that does not hide its advocacy. The logo proclaims it is “news for Republicans, by Republicans.” It can’t get much clearer or in-your-face than that and, frankly, it would be beneficial if other advocacy organizations adopted similar transparency.

But is it equally as transparent when organizations perceived as traditional news groups write a report about this post?

The National Review ran it with a headline of “Bruce Braley’s Chicken-Hearted Legal Threats.” If you read the italics all the way at the bottom, you learn that the author is in the editorial department and the writing is, presumably, commentary. The Washington Free Beacon (project of the conservative Center for American Freedom) used “Bruce Braley’s War on Chickens,” which was picked up nationally by Fox News.

Those outlets could learn from the treatment given by most of Iowa’s traditional outlets. Ed Tibbets of the Quad-City Times wrote, “Republicans mount attack on Braley over chickens.” Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson led with, “Republicans ridicule Braley for complaining about chickens roaming on his vacation property.”

In both Iowa pieces it is immediately clear to readers this is a story about a launched and coordinated political attack, not skirted as a vetted news item from the Associated Press or Reuters.

In all of the cases, however, the consumer needs to dig far enough past the headline to understand this isn’t “organic” or traditional news to be taken at face value. This wasn’t an item that came up in a newsroom where discussion is driven by a mission statement for the public good. It was born of a partisan want to tarnish a political competitor.

Welcome to the 24-hour news cycle. Please don’t forget your reading glasses for the fine print.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 20, 2014.