Why the media passes off bunk as news
LEXINGTON, KY. — In early February, the lead story on CNN.com – "the most trusted name in news" – was about tattooed fish.
Emblazoned on the website was a large picture of a fish with some kind of design on its belly. I don't have fish but if I ever wanted any, I'd probably get that fish. It looked pretty cool.
Here's the problem, though: Surely there were more important things happening in the world. I think there is a war going on somewhere. Is Social Security fixed yet?
Don't get me wrong. I like oddball news as much as anyone. In fact, I make a decent living showcasing a daily collection of silly news, offbeat items, and real news with amusing headlines on my website, Fark.com, which attracts 3.5 million unique visitors each month. What's scary, though, is that the ratio of filler news to real news is now so high that the content of Fark and major news websites is often nearly identical. That should never happen because, in theory, mass media outlets are staffed by full-time, serious journalists who have better things to do.
So what's going on?
Part of the blame lies with the 24-hour news cycle. Sometimes there just isn't anything substantial going on. But the mass media, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Journalists have developed proven techniques to fill it.
Consider the recent announcement – almost certainly bogus – by movie director James Cameron that he discovered boxes that once contained the bones of Jesus, his alleged wife, Mary, and their alleged boy, Elroy, or whatever his name was. This news item is a combination of two common "not-news" stories slammed together.
1. Headline Contradicted by Actual Article. Headlines of most of the articles about this subject stated that Mr. Cameron had found a box with Jesus' bones in it. However, the actual articles tell us that there were no bones inside after all, and we don't have samples of Jesus' DNA. Headline Contradicted by Actual Article is either an editorial oversight or an intentional misleading of the public to draw attention to an otherwise lame article. In this case, however, the article wasn't just lame, it was inflammatory because of its close relation to our next type of bogus media article.
2. Ad Masquerading as Actual Article. Several hundred publications ran this article, so it's not likely that anyone was paid off for placement. But this isn't a news article – it's a commercial. Most articles tell us that the "startling" claim about Jesus will be examined in-depth in a documentary Cameron produced. And they helpfully remind us what channel it's on and what time to watch. That's an ad in my book. Figuratively and literally. (Sharp readers will see what I just did there.)
There are several other techniques media use to stir reader interest. They're transparent and simplistic, but they work.
The good news is that every journalist I've talked to agrees this is a problem that's getting worse and they're not happy about it. They didn't go to graduate school to spend their time researching and writing about nuts who think Noah's Ark is visible from space on a mountain in Iran or what Brad Pitt thinks about stem-cell research.
Mass media aren't intentionally trying to dumb down the news, but there's no getting around the fact that nonnews types of articles are what drive ad revenue on the Internet. It's a subtle difference but an important one, because it removes intent as a motivation. Sadly, we still end up with the same result: bunk being passed off as news.
Sometimes, the revenue incentive in media produces hilarious results. Remember the girl who couldn't stop hiccuping this winter? ABC's "Good Morning America" representatives called her home 57 times in one day in a bid to book her for the show. Occasionally, though, you get horrific results, such as this past January when nearly every news outlet ran video of Saddam Hussein's execution ad nauseum for days. Apparently, snuff films are now OK for mainstream news. Now all that's left is a live on-air killing passing as news, maybe in a high-speed car chase. Wait, that's already happened. That leaves just pornography, and that's not far behind.
So whose fault is all this, the media's or the public's? Both. Real news is simply not a ratings leader. Evening network news shows aren't shown during prime time because they can't hack it. This is also why prime-time news shows consist almost entirely of celebrity interviews and pedophile arrests. Note which type of "news" gets the better time slot.
It's looking more and more as though the age of impartial journalism was a temporary blip in history whose reign ended a few years ago when the Internet turned news consumption from all-inclusive (per newspaper) to a la carte (per story).
My forthcoming book offers some solutions. Here's one: Split 24-hour news channels in two – one carries all the "Fark," the other carries all the real news. Revenues funnel into the same bank account; everyone wins.
Until that happens, news consumers will have to adjust to a world in which journalistic principles are being thrown out the window in a frantic quest for ratings. And mass media outlets need to make a call: Either report serious news or give up all pretenses.
• Drew Curtis is the founder of Fark.com. His book, "It's Not News It's Fark," is out May 31.