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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
This (beautifully done, btw. ) cartoon reminds me of an episode of “Leverage” in which the team had to take down a horrible “reporter” with a one-hour show based on fearmongering that regularly destroyed peoples lives when she decided to make them the “bad guys” of the week in her stories. The gang’s attempt to appeal to her dreams of being taken serious as a reporter and make a mockery out of her by convincing her to run a story on an imaginary government conspiracy to hide top secret prisons for terrorists spread all over american cities failed. Not because she didn’t fall for it, but because she decided not to do the story. Her reasoning? Secret prisons for terrorist make people feel safe. To keep her ratings, she needed to sell her “moron” viewers “a steady diet of fear“. (Because that’s the only way to keep up with sharks and Nazis, cables “heavy hitters“.)
(Only once they turned the fake conspiracy into a threat for everybody – poisoned water supply that only “the elite” would be protected from – did she go for it.)
The producers of Leverage have often said that the real cases they used as inspiration were usually even worse than what they put on screen, so…
I think the phrase you’re looking for here is “confirmation bias”.
I thought I might be mis-remembering news programs changing from news to E!-style entertainment as happening around the time of the ‘White Bronco slow motion car chase” before the OJ Simpson trial, but wiki records the OJ trial occurring in 1994. The change over might have started even earlier than 1993 given Don Henley’s song “Dirty Laundry” a decade before, but tabloid headline news a definitely was in place by the end of 1994.
The Fairness Doctrine was eliminated in 1987.
Reinstatement of the “Fairness Doctrine” would never succeed. The Supremes would shoot it down, and in my opinion properly so.
Wait–the news from California reports that the people who will randomly murder you are 66 and 72 yrs old. That’s not the right stuff at all!
One star; would not recommend–I demand a refund.
Whoa–My last comment was just a joke, riffing on the quirk that the last two mass shooters were old, not young.
But in today’s NYT, two profs from The Violence Project argue that mass shootings are really another manifestation of “deaths of despair,” which are systemically the actions of disaffected middle-aged and older men. It’s not a quirk; it’s a pattern.
From looking at this graph, it seems that men are most likely to become shooters between age 20-45, and the likelihood drops off quite a lot outside of that window.
Thanks, Amp. That’s more along the lines I had imagined.
And glad the blog page is loading again. Is there a story behind the glitch?
The story behind that particular glitch seems to be that “Alas” had used up all the allotted space on the servers. I deleted a bunch of large files (after backing them up to my home computer), and Alas began working again.
Query du jour: Some ideas are so contentious—say, whether an election was stolen or whether the US faked the moon landing—that pollsters ask people about their beliefs. But in the absence of polling, how would a reporter/researcher/witness document that some belief is widely held, even if doubtful/false?
Well, if I wanted to investigate prevailing language usages (whether “correct” or not), I’d use ngram. Is there something similar for beliefs/arguments?
Consider … ChatGBT? I haven’t used it. But if I ask the software to write an essay about whether I should feed my rabbit a diet of carrots, I guess it will scour the internet to collect people’s statements on the subject. If it returned an essay saying that yes, you should feed your rabbit on a diet of carrots, would that demonstrate that this view is widespread? Would I need to pose the question multiple times in order to generate “reliable results”? If so, how many times?
(From what I understand, the erroneous idea that rabbits eat a diet of carrots was promulgated by the Bugs Bunny cartoons. But I only learned that by reading the internet—so this might not be the best belief to use to test the ChatGBT thesis.)
h/t Scott Sumner
Do not feed carrots to your bunnies. Except, maybe, tiny bits as a treat now and then. So sayeth the bunny maven.
Horses LOVE carrots.
Amp, re: #8: the tendency to commit violent crime in general is highest among that demographic, so that’s no surprise. Although in Chicago itself I bet it skews more to the 16 – 25 year group.
Exactly what I’d expect a chatbot to say.