Selling Fear and Amusement: News as Entertainment
The news media have contributed to our deteriorating—but entertaining—political situation. Mr. Trump is President partly because he is entertaining. My research on TV news shows that the promotion of the politics of fear is a byproduct of entertaining and sensationalized reports to build audience ratings. Contemporary news practices have increasingly been wedded to new information technologies that provide visuals and images, particularly portable cameras and smart phones. The entertainment format of much of U.S. TV news promotes the use of video or other visuals that are dramatic, conflictual, and emotional. Screen images dominate broadcast news as well social media. Investigations of news coverage of numerous local, national, and international news reports reveal how our current “news code” operates. Basically, TV tells time with visuals. Although the intent may be to use visuals to tell a story about something, the logic in use amounts to telling a story about the visual at hand. Events that are more likely to satisfy these format criteria are more likely to be broadcast.
Our work over the last 4 decades also demonstrates that politicians and others who provide visual events and dramatic performances are more likely to receive news coverage. We have documented the profound effects this format-driven media coverage has had on social institutions ranging from sports, news, politics, education, and religion.
Contemporary news practices continue this trend. Indeed, even the prestigious evening network newscasts have adopted this approach, especially as social media have provided seemingly ubiquitous videos of a wide array of events, many of which are posted on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. As newscasts seek higher ratings, it should not be surprising that they have adjusted their selection of news items to include visually interesting bits that have already been viewed—or gone viral—on the internet and social media.
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