In 1992, Neil Postman and Steve Powers co-wrote a book entitled How to Watch TV News. Their aim was to inform people that the news is constructed, biased, irrelevant, and unreliable. The book educated people on what techniques should be employed when watching news shows.
While their views are probably more relevant today, I believe that the real question today is WHY should we watch TV news programs. Online news is more current, obtained faster, selective, and provides a variety of perspectives. I have five arguments of how television news is largely a waste of our time:
First, I begin with advertising. Postman and Powers did discuss how news shows “deliver audiences to advertisers” and how extensive advertising is. This has come even further today. Rather than just commercials, advertising is now part of the news. For example, every segment of the newscast is now sponsored by businesses or corporations. The weather is brought to you by KFC or sports is sponsored by Wheaton Chevrolet. Furthermore, news stories are now advertisements in themselves. Whenever Apple releases an updated phone or gadget, the news will report on it. Is this information I need know, no, just more advertising.
Secondly, is the increase in social media in newscasts. People’s opinions should occasionally be offered on the news. This does not mean we need a twitter feed as part of the news program. Some opinions are ignorant, biased, irrelevant, or perhaps even discriminatory. What is more informative and useful to the television audience is expert opinion on the subject, discussion, or possible suggestions for action. This would increase Postman’s “information-action ratio”; the relationship between hearing a piece of information and the action taken by its audience.*
Another part of this is trending segments. Popularity rarely means that the information is important. These often work inversely of each other; the more hype the less relevant it is. Just because seven million people have seen the cat riding the skateboard video doesn’t mean that others need to. Trending is usually a distraction from more crucial topics which the news team could be reporting on. (This is why I can’t stand Jeanne Moos).
Fourthly, there is speculation. Speculation is part of many news stories. This happens especially when the news is just breaking and reporters do not have enough content for their story. All they can offer is conjecture, what they think happened or will happen. Audiences do not want part of the story; they want the whole story. Without accurate details, there is little reason to watch the segment and the information-action ratio, again, is low.
Finally, there is the matter of news tickers. I have two beefs. First off, they distract the viewer from the news currently being reported on. Secondly, they are concise sentences often removed from any context. For example, “Family has truck inspected by SGI,” tells us nothing about what makes this daily activity special or newsworthy. My favourite is CBC reporting on their ticker that you are watching CBC News.
These are the reasons why I acquire much of my news online.
*For instance, if I read that a train derailed in Italy today, the chances of me taking action is very slim, resulting in a low information-action ratio. Perhaps I could donate to the Red Cross, but this information will not change the course of my day. However, if I hear that my neighbour’s house had water damage, the opportunity for action is much greater. I could help him move furniture, water, provide him with a pump or place to stay, or help him with his repairs.