How media has failed us

I think I (and many others) have made the point before that our major media outlets have failed us in tremendously significant ways. Consistently the only accurate, in-depth, intelligent reporting I see is from PBS, NPR, or other countries. Part of me wishes I had pursued a career in journalism so that I could somehow make a positive impact in the field, rather than just rail against it weakly (though that’s most likely what I would have done from the inside, as well).

See, big media needs to sell ads to survive. To sell (the right) ads, they have to meet certain ratings and demographic numbers. To draw in those numbers, a lot of work goes into targeting audiences, a lot of market research. Market research is a process of distillation, a precision instrument. When you’re honing in on your target, there’s no room for externalities. When you’re drawing in the subject, you can’t risk boring them with depth or complex discourse. You’ve got to offer the most stories with the highest impact in the least amount of time – I hear CNN is now advertising more stories per hour:

But I digress. The real point of this post was to link to this article, which offers insight into the inner workings of a major network. It sheds light both on its failure to uphold the standards of old media and to keep up with new media. I love the way the article opens, so I’ve quoted that as well as some other salient points (after the jump):

The most memorable reporting I’ve encountered on the conflict in Iraq was delivered in the form of confetti exploding out of a cardboard tube. I had just begun working at the MIT Media Lab in March 2006 when Alyssa Wright, a lab student, got me to participate in a project called “Cherry Blossoms.” I strapped on a backpack with a pair of vertical tubes sticking out of the top; they were connected to a detonation device linked to a Global Positioning System receiver. A microprocessor in the backpack contained a program that mapped the coördinates of the city of Baghdad onto those for the city of Cambridge; it also held a database of the locations of all the civilian deaths of 2005. If I went into a part of Cambridge that corresponded to a place in Iraq where civilians had died in a bombing, the detonator was triggered.

When the backpack exploded on a clear, crisp afternoon at the Media Lab, handfuls of confetti shot out of the cardboard tubes into the air, then fell slowly to earth. On each streamer of paper was written the name of an Iraqi civilian casualty. I had reported on the war (although not from Baghdad) since 2003 and was aware of persistent controversy over the numbers of Iraqi civilian dead as reported by the U.S. government and by other sources. But it wasn’t until the moment of this fake explosion that the scale and horrible suddenness of the slaughter in Baghdad became vivid and tangible to me. Alyssa described her project as an upgrade to traditional journalism. “The upgrade is empathy,” she said, with the severe humility that comes when you suspect you are on to something but are still uncertain you aren’t being ridiculous in some way.


Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the narrative of shock and awe. The lesson stayed with me, exploding in memory along with the confetti of Alyssa Wright’s “Cherry Blossoms.” Alyssa was right. Empathy was the upgrade. But in the early days of the war, NBC wasn’t looking for any upgrades.


This was one in a series of lessons I learned about how television news had lost its most basic journalistic instincts in its search for the audience-driven sweet spot, the “emotional center” of the American people. Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate.


For 90 seconds several guards pressed the inmate into a bunk. All that could be seen of him was his feet. By the end of the video the inmate was motionless. Asphyxiation would be the official cause of death.

This kind of gruesome video was rare. We also had footage of raw and moving interviews with this and another victim’s relatives. The story had the added relevance that one of the state prison officials had been hired as a consultant to the prison authority in Iraq as the Abu Ghraib debacle was unfolding. There didn’t seem to be much doubt about either the newsworthiness or the topicality of the story. Yet at the conclusion of the screening, the senior producer shook his head as though the story had missed the mark widely. “These inmates aren’t necessarily sympathetic to our audience,” he said. The fact that they had been diagnosed with schizophrenia was unimportant. Worse, he said that as he watched the video of the dying inmate, it didn’t seem as if anything was wrong.

Anyway, it’s a pretty interesting read. There’s plenty of good stuff in there I didn’t quote here, so go check it out. Related: Best Weblogs About Media and Journalism

3 thoughts on “How media has failed us

  1. …while we are sharing links, there is a very good 4 part series on Frontline that I happened to catch several months back on this very subject(did I already post this?). It’s actually pretty exhaustive as it covers the entire scope of the issue on many fronts. It’s long (270 minutes in total) but is viewable on the web in parts. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the state of the media and it’s future for both the journalists and the news outlets.

    …hell it even talks about Craigslist’s impact on print media.

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