21st Century Yellow Journalism

July 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

From Foreign Policy

Turning on Fox, CNN or MSNBC or opening any well respected news website yesterday would have informed you not just of global affairs, but of the sorry state of Western news media. The top headlines consisted of updates on Casey Anthony, News of the World and Derek Jeter, stories that are designed to be attention grabbing and money making (or, in the case of News of the World, were about other media outlets pursuing those ends). Profits are a necessary evil for media outlets in the West, but overstating their importance shifts the balance away from informative news to pop-culture melodrama.

In the late nineteenth century, the competition over news media predominance in New York between Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal led both media outlets to increasingly turn to sensationalism and scandal-mongering in addition to their typical,  more serious stories in order to drive up demand for circulation (for more historical details look here). These tactics were described as Yellow Journalism by critics of the two media outlets, a term that refers to the exaggeration of the more eye-catching, entertaining aspects of daily news for the sake of popularity or profits. The problems with this approach to media should be clear: by focusing the newspaper’s resources towards these ends, informative and research driven news was undermined and readers were presented with a biased, unrealistic portrayal of the world. The Pultizer and Hearst competition was over one hundred years ago, but viewing any and all of the most popular media sources yesterday (or today, or tomorrow) would lead one to conclude that Western media has ignored its lesson.

Dominating the headlines on July 7, 2011, alongside more useful stories concerning Libya and the US deficit debate, were the conclusion to the Casey Anthony trial and the News of the World scandal involving unethical journalistic practices. The former story likely needs no explanation; by this point most of us have been saturated with intimate details concerning Casey Anthony’s social life, the mysterious death of her child and the subsequent trial. The latter story originates with much the same type of journalism. News of the World, in an effort to get a leg up on the competition, hacked a missing girl’s cell phone in order to hear her voicemail messages, and even deleted messages when her mailbox was full in order to maintain the flow of headline-worthy details. Additionally, News of the World has been accused of bribing political officials and hacking the phones of others, including deceased military personnel and their families, all of which has led to the shutdown of the media organization by its owner, Rupert Murdoch. These stories share an unsavory link that we are all, to a certain extent, complicit in: the profitability of scandal and sensationalism driven news.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a press conference today where he admitted he and members of his administration and of his precursor’s administration shared blame in the News of the World scandal. Additionally he called for three inquiries, one into this specific scandal, one into future regulation of the press and one into the culture of media and politics. Here are some excerpts from his speech:

“This second inquiry should look at the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press. In particular, they should look at how our newspapers are regulated and make recommendations for the future. Of course it is vital that our press is free. That is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life. But press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law.” … “So I believe we need a new system [of regulation of the press] entirely. It will be for the inquiry to recommend what that system should look like. But my starting presumption is that it should be truly independent … independent of the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves. But vitally, independent of government, so the public will know that politicians are not trying to control or muzzle a press that must be free to hold politicians to account.” (The full text of this speech is available here)

Cameron is proposing that the British government will finance a not-for-profit third party regulatory institution to monitor not only all of British media, but also the media’s connections to politicians, police officers and other government officials. The Prime Minister’s move suggests that our media can no longer be trusted to adequately fill its role as a monitor of both business and government, and curiously he has turned to civil society  to meet this need (non-profit, non-governmental organizations are by definition a part of civil society). The fact that the Prime Minister turned to civil society to act as a third party arbitrator of government and the press is not only indicative of the problems associated with for-profit culture, but of our growing reliance on the non-governmental, non-profit sector for regulating human affairs. This, however, is a subject for future discussion.

What was interesting for the purposes of this post was what the Prime Minister did not address in his speech. It appears that Cameron blames the News of the World scandal on a lack of regulation, but history suggests a more pervasive issue. The news stories that led to the scandal were those typical to Yellow Journalism: sensationalism, scandal-mongering (irony?), and the blurring of news and entertainment. Similarly, News of the World turned to those tactics for the same reasons that Pulitzer and Hearst did: for the sake of greater profits relative to their competitors. What was at stake for News of the World on a day-to-day, edition-to-edition basis was not the quality of its news stories or the knowledge of its reader base (it was, after all, a tabloid newspaper) but profits. News of the World did not hack the voicemail mailboxes of deceased soldiers or missing girls because the people working there felt the information gained by that violation of privacy would enlighten their readers in any manner, but because it would yield provocative and novel information that would give their newspaper a better headline than whatever The Sun was publishing that day.

Reading Cameron’s speech, one might believe that establishing a third party regulatory watchdog that is designed to occasionally say “hold on there, the items in that news story were acquired through unsavory means and corruption!” will be a realistic solution to the problem. In my opinion, this is not the case. The real problem here is the pervasiveness of profit-driven culture. Today, government officials appear more concerned with acquiring greater political clout relative to their opponents than they are with solving real problems (for example: US deficit reduction, climate change, etc.), Western media outlets appear more concerned with providing the best entertainment (for what other reason are Fox News and MSNBC so unabashedly partisan?) and so on and so forth. Replace “political clout” and “entertainment” with “personal gain” and “profits” and the two become synonymous.

Establishing a non-governmental regulatory agency to monitor news media is, at best, a bandage on an infected wound for Britain. The real issue is the ubiquitous perception that short term gains in profits or influence are more important than the long term pursuit of knowledge and resolution of real problems. Of course, profit will likely always be a necessary reality for our media, but the goal should be to tilt the balance from pure profit-driven decisions to a strategy that pursues profits without sacrificing journalistic integrity or over-selling pop culture sensationalism or ideological demagoguery. Until we in the West stop paying to be distracted by frivolous issues like the Casey Anthony trial or the intimate details of a missing person story, and until we decide that what we want from our news media is a thorough, unbiased report of the day’s most pressing issues, we will have to suffer the dysfunctional and unsavory media culture that we all have helped perpetuate.

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§ 2 Responses to 21st Century Yellow Journalism

  • George Newell, Sr. says:

    It’s impossible for me to disagree with your criticism of journalism and news media; however, I wonder if “thorough, unbiased” reporting is possible. Perhaps these are goals to constantly work to attain rather than to presume. I also think that different audiences take different things from the news regardless of content. For example, I was interested in the Anthony case because CNN, FOX, etc. were airing the trial. But I also wondered what’s going on here? What does interest in this trial say about family life, about me, etc.?

  • Alan Law says:

    The News of The World and The Sun aren’t competitors, they are owned by News International and would be regarded as sister papers. NOTW is a Sunday only publication and The Sun Mon to Saturday. They font compete for headlines. It has been alleged that the NOTW also hacked the voicemail accounts of 9/11 victims and families.

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