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Thursday, July 28, 2005

News vs. Entertainment: Should newspapers give readers what they need or what they want?

"Northwestern women students wearing flip flops to a White House ceremony" - not exactly a story one would consider to be a hot topic. But nevertheless it received big coverage in the media. Louis B. Raffel called it "herd journalism" in the Chicago Tribune. He concludes: "Cute story, but what ever happened to news judgment?" Is this story maybe an example for a wider trend in news coverage to be softer and more entertaining while serious news stuff is declining? Are news values changing?

One signal is the increase in reporting about celebrities. It is not the question whether stories about celebrities should be reported, it is more about the balance as Warren Watson from the American Press Institute (API) argues: "Until recently, celebrity newsmakers were kept in their place: big-city tabloid newspapers, special scandal-hungry publications...? No one disputed that the news should be covered, but rarely did celebrity happenings warrant top-line news play. That has changed in the last dozen years. The proliferation of cable television broadcasts and other media, an infatuation with Hollywood scandal, and a pronounced focus on the personality of newsmakers are pushing serious news off news broadcasts and the front pages of newspapers large and small."

The reason for this change might be that newspapers are trying to deliver what people want in order to stay competitive. John Carroll, the outgoing editor of the Los Angeles Times, states at API: "The public, particularly the much-sought-after young reader, has an insatiable appetite for celebrity coverage. And newspaper-owning corporations are more interested these days in responding to raw market demands, no matter how demeaning."

Perhaps as an answer to this "insatiable appetite for celebrity coverage" the Virgin Group is planning a daily free newspaper in New York City which focuses on show business and entertainment as Forbes reports. Not only would that challenge existing "entertainment newspapers" such as Variety, but it could also be attractive to readers of Metro and am New York, the two general interest free dailies.

So what to do about it? "The media give the public what the public wants, but maybe it's time to give the public what it needs instead" argues Salma Ghanem, professor of communications at University of Texas-Pan American in a comment in Dallas News, found through Mediachannel. She claims that with ever more entertaining news the media "don't fulfill the social-responsibility role ..., which should serve as a catalyst for an informed citizenry. The struggle for ratings, which translate into advertising dollars, is behind the media's insatiable appetite for sensational stories. Perhaps we should start exploring new ways to fund the media so they won't be susceptible to market forces." Could uncoupling the media from market forces be a solution? What would be the alternatives? There could be directly government-funded media, which is surely not desired in democratic societies. And there could be more public models such as the BBC. But why should we wish to abandon private, market-driven mass media? After all, to remain relavant, an alternatively funded newspaper would still need to maintain an audience. Wouldn't that audience simply go elsewhere if said paper didn't give it what it wanted?

Sources: American Press Institute, Forbes, Dallas News, Mediachannel, Chicago Tribune

Posted by Anna-Maria Mende on July 28, 2005 at 03:58 PM | Permalink

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Comments

When John Carroll was at the L.A. Times, circulation went down, even as the paper won several Pulitzer prizes for their content. Maybe he's the exception to the rule, not giving readers what they want, but what they need (and don't want). There's an interesting discussion about it at New West.

Posted by: Lenit at Jul 29, 2005 10:19:39 PM