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News that matters, not nonsense
On juvenile taunts, seductive details, and why transcribing the words of malcontents gets in the way of reporting the news
A brand-name media outlet is publishing "news" about people chanting insults at a Presidential candidate in Iowa today. That's not news. It's amplifying people who don't deserve the additional attention.
■ This kind of carelessness, recklessness, or general dereliction of duty starts with a misunderstanding which is all too often found in the news media. It's the misunderstanding that news is what piques the interest of the audience. That's false.
■ News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Most everything else masquerading as "news" really falls under the categories of "events" or "information".
■ Events and information can be valuable. If it's going to rain tomorrow or if preparations are underway to celebrate the nation's semiquincentennial, then those can be good things to know.
■ But the threshold for treating any subject as "news" ought to be higher than "People said nasty things about someone, and here's what they said". Transcribing insults and then repeating them for publication or broadcast doesn't really advance the First Amendment. It's allowed, to be sure...but it's a counterproductive waste.
■ Social and digital media in particular flatten the media hierarchy -- every story appears in the same streams with the same degree of emphasis as every other, with no real distinction between an above-the-fold page A1 headline and filler buried in the Lifestyle section. That flattening makes it doubly toxic for serious outlets to engage in the mindless amplification of the kinds of events that anyone of sound mind and character recognizes as dumb. It's easy content to generate, but it just sludges up the whole system.
■ Nobody should get a free pass to enjoy "earned media" just because they're effective at heckling. It's no surprise that reporters often take dictation for those spitting insults, but in amplifying those insults, they're working at cross-purposes with themselves.
■ The words of a heckler are what the educational field would call a "seductive detail": Something not crucial to the main point, but interesting enough to draw in the audience. Seductive details can be very good at capturing attention, but they are lousy for actually transmitting information precisely because they seduce the audience into caring about the thing that matters less than the main subject.
■ Textbook authors are often suckers for seductive details: They know something interesting but not crucial about a topic, so they insert that material as a sidebar, thinking that the interruption will help spice up the text and keep the audience interested.
■ But once the audience has taken a detour from the main point (especially if they're implicitly told that the detour is more interesting), it's all the harder to bring them back around to what matters. It's like the old trick: If someone says "Don't think about a pink elephant", you're likely to be on the verge of pondering pink pachyderms.
■ And so it is when reporters get hooked on the wrong details. What a heckler said is a seductive detail, but it's too much of a pink elephant for the rest of the story to get through. We shouldn't expect news outlets to be up to speed on the latest in academic research on learning quality.
■ Yet we should expect them to know from rudimentary self-awareness that amplifying lowbrow stunts and juvenile taunts crowds out the precious attention of the audience and gets them hooked on things that are not news. Self-interest, a sense of shame, or common decency should stop them from playing transcriptionist.