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The marketplace is a terrible way to produce news. Because it the end, being the market, it’s not about what viewers need. Or about what viewers (think they) would prefer to see. It’s about giving those viewers who are willing to spend money whatever content makes them watch the most, because ratings means selling commercials means profit.
Any news that isn’t doing that is driven out of the market. It’s not enough to just be making a profit, because sooner or later the station or network will be bought out by someone whose interest isn’t in making a profit, but in making the most possible profit for the least cost.
And the easiest way to get viewers to read or click or watch is to make us feel like we’re in a violent crime wave.
Goodbye, in-depth reporting. Hello, “if it bleeds it leads.” From the Oxford University Press blog:
In the United States in the 1970s, local “action news” formats, driven by enhanced live broadcast technologies and consultant recommendations designed to improve ratings, changed the nature of television news: a shift from public affairs journalism about politics, issues, and government toward an emphasis on profitable live, breaking news from the scene of the crime. The crime rate was falling, but most Americans didn’t perceive it that way. From 1993 to 1996, the national murder rate dropped by 20%. During the same period, stories about murders on the ABC, NBC, and CBS network newscasts rose by 721%.
I initially misread that as murder stories rising by 72%. But nope. Seven hundred and twenty one percent.
It’s not just the news – it’s also the entertainment. TV shows and movies and novels often base their plots around murder, multiple murders, even serial killers. I myself watch lots of this violent media – because it really is compelling. (And fun!)
And what we see makes us afraid. To quote one study (among dozens that have found similar results):
Results indicated that exposure to tabloid front page stories was significantly associated with avoidant behavior and higher levels of fear of violent victimization. Moreover, people who exposed themselves to many different sources of crime news were more likely to fear violence than those exposed to fewer crime stories. These findings remained significant after controlling for personal and vicarious victimization experiences.
This cartoon makes the media much more virtuous than it is in real life, which (hopefully) just adds to the absurdity of the cartoon. I wrote it this way because I wanted the cartoon to focus on us, and our drive to watch this stuff, rather than on the media.
Drawing this cartoon was so much fun! I really wanted this cartoon to feel energetic, so I deliberately scribbled a lot while drawing, trying to produce spontaneous lines instead of perfect lines.
I’m pretty pleased with how this came out, and I’ll definitely want to try this approach again.
I want to make a “my best cartoons of 2022” list. If you can remember any cartoon we did in 2022 that you thought was especially great, please let me know, directly or in comments. Or on the Discord, which I really should mention more often.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has four panels. They all show the same scene: A middle-aged man, balding and with a beard, is watching (and yelling at) his television set. He appears to be at home; he’s sitting in a cozy armchair, and we can see a little side table with a lamp on it. The room seems pretty barren otherwise.
The man squirms in his chair as he angrily yells at the TV.
TV: Stay tuned for nuanced reporting about crime, with important context and reasonable statistics.
MAN: No! That’s NOT what you’ve conditioned me to want!
The man is now standing on the seat of his armchair, leaning forward and waving the remote control in a threatening manner as he yells. The TV leans away from the man as it responds.
MAN: I’LL CHANGE THE CHANNEL!
TV: But… Don’t you think accurate news is important.
A closer shot of the man as he jumps up above his chair, yelling even bigger than before. (The TV speaks from off-panel). The remote control, forgotten, flies into the air near his hand.
The coloring in this panel is done in shades of red, emphasizing the man’s fury.
MAN: You KNOW what I want!
MAN: GIVE IT TO ME NOW!
TV: Okay! Okay!
The TV, leaning forward aggressively, speaks in red lettering. The man, looking sated and happy, collapses back into his cozy chair.
TV: YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY VIOLENT CRIME! YOU’RE IN DANGER! YOUNG PEOPLE WILL RANDOMLY MURDER YOU!
MAN (thought balloon): Ahhhh… THAT’S the stuff.
Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted To Fear | Barry Deutsch on Patreon