Thursday, June 28, 2007

What They Want

One of the great things about the Internet is that we can easily track which stories people are looking at, how long they're looking at them, what times of day they come to us, and even where they're coming from.

One of the disturbing things is that this also gives us a constant snapshot of what the public is interested in, and it's not always high-brow content. In fact, it's almost never high-brow content.

For example, the "Most viewed" stories on our Web site right now happen to be "Police Respond to MBTA Shooting," and "Man Charged with Stripping in Hair Salon," as well as "Ex-Sox Player's Drug-Infested Property Raided."

"Viewers Beach Photos" is the most viewed slideshow and "72 Year old fends off pickpocket" is the most viewed video.

If you were an alien from another planet, studying our civilization 2,000 years from now, what would this tell you about us? It's a bit frightening. Going on the theory that we "are what we eat," what does this tell you about us as a nation?

In one of my past lives editing a newspaper, we put together a little feature that looked back at newspaper articles from 100 or 150 years in the past. All the old articles had to do with topics such as U.S.-Spanish diplomatic relations during Cuba's fight for independence, or tax policy. Anything even remotely "sensational" such as man jumping off a bridge, was buried in the back pages and usually didn't merit more than just a few lines. It was as if in those more genteel times, such items were considered in "poor taste," as, indeed, they are.

But today it is nothing to see photos of young entertainers exposing panty-less crotches to paparazzi lenses. I'm not a prude, but ... this is journalism? In fact, it isn't. But so many people seem to want to see it and read about it and I haven't quite figured that part out yet. It's like all those people who slow down on the highway to see a car accident. It always makes me want to yell, "YOU'VE NEVER SEEN A CAR ACCIDENT BEFORE, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE?" after waiting in the 3-mile backup on the highway and realizing that the slow down was caused primarily by gawkers.

What is it that makes humans so interested in grizzly details. The Fear Factor? The thing is, I don't think it serves our broader interests. The same people who'd rather read or see a story about some actor's drug addiction will be the first to cry foul when they find out they have to pay three times as much for car insurance next year, but they would not have been interested in a story about the debate over whether to raise those rates.

The notion that we have a right to a free press is founded on the principal that a free press is necessary to keep us informed so we can make the decisions needed to run an honest, efficient government. It's something we need to have in order to govern ourselves. If we're not using it for that purpose, why have free press at all?

1 comment:

macbuck said...

Excellent post and one that dives into the heart of what is wrong with journalism of almost all forms today (and why I left the businesses some 8 years ago).

Yes, as humans we have a basic and base interest in the brutal and the bizarre. And siiigghhhh, I guess producers and editors must make some accomodation for that.

The problem is, is that few real journalists are calling the shots in our newsrooms (especially TV newsrooms) anymore. Sales guys, consultants are running the business. They tend to look at the data you cite and order up more of the same for broadcasts tabloids and web pages.

They aren't interested in informing the public, in providing a valued service, just winning the war for eyeballs and they think, mitakenly, that "if it bleeds it leads," celebrities behaving badly, and three legged frogs will win. (true story - a news director once took me to task for not running a story on three legged frogs that a couple of other news stations ran, even though the three legged frogs were half a country away from my market. My show won its time slot chock full of news that mattered, yet I get asked why I didn't run the 3 legged frogs story!)

What the powers that be don't realize is that if you present news of import in a compelling way, make sure to explain why it's imortant, and sure mix in a little of the sensational if you absolutely have to, you will have an award winning, and ratings winning news products that does what's supposed to - inform and educate.