In middle school, I spent most of my weekend mornings watching Sports Center. The show would last for one hour, and then start up again with a repeat of the same show. Each day, it presented highlights and scores of the previous day’s games and discussion of the current day’s sporting events. ESPN would use the same episode for multiple showings throughout the day unless there was breaking news to be reported. Sometimes after watching Sports Center, I would channel surf and come across networks such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. These channels never caught my attention for long, but I always wondered why there were panels of people discussing the news. The news wasn’t presented as straight information or highlights the way I saw it on Sports Center; it was just people talking around a table. Eventually I would reach Nickelodeon or the Disney channel and move on, but as I got older I began to take this question more seriously.
At its beginning, national TV news was a 30-minute broadcast in the evening from ABC, NBC, and CBS. Americans would gather around their televisions and listen to the anchor of their era, such as Cronkite or Brokaw. These were short, information-filled airings about the news of the day. These anchors were some of the most trusted voices in America. Americans felt that they were listening to the truth without inflections of opinion or partisan leaning. This all began to change in the 1980s with the launch of CNN, soon followed by other cable networks. 24-hour TV news became a normal part of cable and with it the way we receive our news changed forever, and for the worse.
The fundamental problem with 24-hour cable news is that there are not enough different news topics for the media to report on for 24 hours. The way networks tried to solve this was by creating different news programs throughout the day. Each program has its own set of anchors and personalities. Morning shows are filled with discussions and guests, afternoon shows have commentary on events, and nightly shows now do some reporting along with heavy commentary on the day’s topics. Thus, news networks were no longer simply reporting the news: they had begun to give discussion more airtime. At the beginning of this trend, these shows featured discussion of the news but they still contained reports of the events without opinionated commentary. Soon enough that would change, as networks created shows that provided only commentary and debate. CNN introduced their debate show, Crossfire, in 1982. In 1996 Fox News created Hannity & Colmes. Both shows had hosts who aligned politically to the left or right debate and discuss various topics. That type of show has now become commonplace on most news networks. Americans are no longer turning on their television to learn about the day’s events and form their own opinions: they are given opinions to agree with and adapt as their own.
“Fake news” is the term used by President Trump to describe what he sees as partisan news coverage, or at least those who present the news in ways that contradict his own views. President Trump and his administration have taken extreme measures in pinpointing certain networks they do not agree with, and attacking them with claims of partisanship. Many Americans complain about what they see as partisanship shaping certain news networks. Those who watch Fox News complain about CNN, while those who watch CNN complain about Fox News. News should not be a partisan issue; it is meant to be reports of the true events that have occurred. Turn off your TV and go pick up a newspaper, you will be amazed how much there is going on in the world. The rise of partisanship in all of these networks comes directly from the shows and commentators that these networks air because they need to fill 24 hours of programming. It is not television news in general that is the problem: local news is an important type of news coverage, and it has not become nearly as politically polarized as national news. That’s because local news shows are typically no longer than 30-60 minutes, and are full of filed reports and local topics with the intent of informing the local population rather than filling airtime or shaping viewer opinions. This is similar to the way news used to be nationally.
News websites and apps and their up-to-the-minute nature also pitfalls like those of the 24-hour TV news cycle, because every event prompts an update, even if all the information is not yet available. Instead of reading full articles, many people turn on push notifications for news apps and receive the most important headlines throughout the day. Within minutes of an event occurring, millions of people will immediately know about it. Recently, this has been the way many stayed up to date on all of the executive orders President Trump has signed in his first 100 days. While executive orders and updates on scores of various sports games are a great way to stay connected, there are times where these push notifications keep us up to date on a very basic level, but leave us in the dark on the specifics of an event, and can therefore create fear and seed false explanations. In November 2015, the night that the Paris attacks began, millions received notifications about the attacks. It was clear that an attack had occurred, but the information reminded very limited for many hours after the initial report. It is important to report attacks and other catastrophic events as soon as possible, but there is a journalistic problem in sending reports to millions with little information immediately available. It can lead to fear and panic when there is no reason for it. The ability today to stay connected up to the second through push notifications and online publishing is important, but there is a need for both the consumer and the journalists to understand that a push notification is not the end of the story, that it is the content inside that matters more.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that there is a drastic difference between getting your news online, even if it’s from a reputable source, and getting your news from print newspapers. An issue with online newspaper articles is that many are first drafts of the articles that will later be printed in the paper. When an event occurs, the first draft of the article with all the information that is available at the time is posted online. This is helpful in staying up to date with current events, but does not give all the information that can be read after the story develops and journalists have time to put together more information. As more Americans begin to get their news online and from their phones, we enter into a territory where there is less content and more headlines that function as clickbait rather than to convey information, even on credible websites.
This all goes to show that the print newspaper, which Americas have been reading since the late 1600s, is still the most trustworthy way to receive the news. Even with all of the advancements in technology and mediums to distribute news, there is no better medium than the print newspaper to avoid the issues that the up-to-the-minute nature of today’s TV news cycles, as well as online news websites, create. Newspapers are delivered in the morning to report on all the news events from the previous days. Readers are presented with front cover stories and can then flip through different sections. Headlines are used to catch the eye, but also just as the title of the piece. There is no need for click-bait, as the reader has already purchased the paper. Readers can pick and choose which articles they would like to read, but it is not as easy to only see what interests you as it might be if you only turn to a specific news channel or website. This is the best way to present news that is full of information without any opinion. Editorial sections at the end of the papers can give opinions on events, but do not overshadow the actual news content itself.
With the increasing number, availability and speed of sources of news media, the impact of the news and the way in which it is relayed has become nonstop. The type of media we consume affects the way we think and feel about politics and policy. 24-hour television news has created a world in which news is subsumed by commentary and reactions, obscuring the information itself. To continue the American experiment of an informed public actively participating in democracy, we need our media to be based on facts and non-opinionated information. Many changes must be made to television news to focus on reporting, not debate. Television news has the potential to serve the public well, but as of now the best form of media continues to be the newspaper. The fourth estate has been under attack both by the people and the President, but it must continue to stay strong. Newspapers are the key member of the fourth estate and if supported will continue to help inform the people and protect them, at least to some extent, from relying on false or skewed information. How we choose to get our news is important and has consequences for our government and ourselves. Turn off your TV and go pick up a newspaper, you will be amazed how much there is going on in the world.