Media objectivity goes commercial

(U-WIRE) NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Although it happened almost three years ago, I can still remember the headline staring me in the face like a grim death sentence: “Possible Ebola outbreak threatens the lives of millions.”

Without even hearing the story on the local-evening news that night, I already knew my days were numbered. Soon, however, the rather mundane events contributing to the “scare” were relayed, and my mounting anticipation quickly turned to a sick disappointment as I realized nothing was actually amiss.

At issue was a monkey farm outside the city limits that received a shipment of primates possibly containing a single Ebola-infected monkey. The entire facility was quarantined, the monkeys killed and incinerated, and, all the while, no human came in contact with anything that may have been infected with the lethal virus.

Although the situation was potentially dangerous, officials from the Centers for Disease Control agreed that there was absolutely no danger of infection or infectious outbreak and that those in charge had handled everything perfectly. Yet all local news agencies still found it necessary to make this occurrence their top story and interviewed the surrounding community as though they were all going to drop dead the next day.

After seeing this debacle, I soon became quite aware of the manner in which my local news was presented to me night after night. In my opinion, this was only the beginning of the end. In the past three years, all local news programs in my hometown of Houston, Tex., have become corporate machines driven solely by a lust for money. As a result, essentially all programming seems directed toward increasing viewership, thus increasing clout with advertisers.

The means of accomplishing this goal are quite obvious: each station presents its “big story” for the evening with much fanfare beginning much before the news program itself. Some offer $5,000 a night in contests that involve calling in at a specified time, and the catchy meaningless slogan of each channel is heard at every moment possible. Although short “commercials” informing us of what would be seen on that night’s news were commonplace for years, stations now show actual advertisements explaining why their news program is better than the “competition.”

I knew that the transformation of the evening news to a money hungry machine was complete when I saw one particular advertisement that claimed that one station was better than another simply because of its Doppler radar, which could track storms six minutes earlier than that of another. Yet some may ask why this constitutes a problem. The answer is quite simple.

The media always have claimed to be an institution that prides itself on absolute objectivity. While the print media seem to have maintained their commitment to such a goal, the local media have not. With the rise in popularity of tabloid journalism shows such as “Hard Copy,” the local news has seen the writing on the wall, and the evening news is becoming more akin to an episode of “Jerry Springer.”

The actual news is becoming uninteresting to the general populous. Those in the newsroom seem to be forced to latch onto at least one outrageous headline a night just to get people interested enough to sit through the rest of the night’s uninteresting news. And if this means creating something out of nothing, the newscasters decide to do so at the expense of objective news reporting.

The national nightly news programs seem to remain unfettered by these pressures, relying on reputations based on the names of their news personalities, such as Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. People will watch the evening news because it’s what they have done for years. For this reason sensationalism seems not to have occurred in print media yet.

But one may wonder what will happen when Bill Clinton is replaced by a less interesting president and these newscasters retire, leaving unknowns to fill their seats. Will the nightly news turn into a three-ring circus which tells fish tales about the happenings in Bosnia? The prospects are frightening.

Perhaps the day will come when such tactics are not necessary to hook viewers. The only solution seems to be skepticism about what is heard on the nightly news and the realization that, unfortunately, not everything that purports to be sacred really is.

-The writer is a student at Vanderbilt University.

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