Media diversity in the age of the internet offers even less excuses for the corporate press to ignore the depth and complexity of the world. And yet…
Evidence one (via the Columbia Journalism Review):
For the first time in history, mankind is developing a universal language: video. People now communicate with video on two billion computers and more than one and a half billion television sets, and by 2013 you can add another one billion video-capable people regularly accessing the web from their cellphones. The most popular spoken and written language is English, with 1.8 billion users. Looks like video already wins.
No wonder. Video is the distillation of the four ways people exchange information—speech, print, sound, and pictures. Video can convey more information more powerfully to more people in more places—and more quickly—than TV, radio, print, or the voice of the evangelist. And since, historically speaking, this age of video is relatively new, people are still getting better at acquiring and distributing their information via video.
Good news for the future of television news, right? “Luckily,” says Alex Wallace, an NBC News senior vice president, “we’re TV; we’re also based on pictures.”
Yes. Logically, the video revolution and television news should thrive together. But just as the rest of the world is alive with video information about a bullet-train crash in China or revolutions in Bahrain or Syria, America’s television screens, especially on cable news, are tuning out the world. When YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter show so much video of real life, why do ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox show us so little?
Data from long-term monitoring of American television news by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as well as observations from our own much shorter-term sampling of American TV news outlets and a handful of foreign news channels, reveal several things:
• CNN has made a sharp turn away from video reporting. Fox News Channel now shows more video than CNN, while MSNBC, after some excellent reporting of the Arab Spring, rarely uses any video. Most of what it does broadcast is sound bites from the campaign trail, talking-heads-coal to talking-heads-Newcastle.
• At the networks, the loss is not in airtime but in authenticity, as “new ways to cover the news” increasingly substitute for journalists actually reporting from the scene.
• Worse, and displacing far more airtime from reporting, is the amount of talk. Interviews, panels, conversations among anchors, pundits, scholars, and “experts” which, at best, produce intelligent but evergreen generalizations by people who haven’t “been there” for a while, are preempting the current and specific observations available only from those who are there.
Evidence two (via the Nieman Journalism Lab):
The diminished capacity of American TV news networks to cover international news became sharply evident during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, most notably Egypt. Into that void stepped Al Jazeera English (AJE). With headquarters in Qatar and staff already stationed in Egypt, the global news media outlet quickly mobilized an on-the-ground newsgathering presence.
But most Americans couldn’t just turn on their televisions to watch AJE’s coverage. The network is largely absent from cable and the main satellite providers’ offerings despite being available in 250 million homes globally. As Ph.D candidates in communication studies at the University of Michigan, we were interested in the role that Americans’ perception of the channel might have in its difficulties getting cable carriage — and how online distribution might serve as a fruitful workaround. That led us to an experimental study that looked at how Al Jazeera branding might influence public perception of a piece of journalism.
We conducted an experimental study (pdf) on how potential viewer attitudes toward AJE change with exposure to the channel’s news content. Carried out online in late February to early March, our study involved 177 American participants, drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk pool.
The participants were randomly assigned to three groups. Two of them watched an AJE-produced news clip about the Taliban’s position towards peace talks, which included minimal reference to America. The first group watched the original clip with AJE’s branding.
The second group saw the same news piece re-edited to carry CNN International’s (CNNI) logo.
The third group, the control, viewed no clip. We then asked participants in each group to rate, in general, how biased they thought AJE and CNNI were.
Watching the AJE clip — branded as AJE — did not seem to have an impact on perceptions of bias; bias ratings were equal between those in the AJE-clip-watching group and the control group.
But in the group that had just watched the clip with fake CNNI branding, participants rated CNNI as less biased than those in the control group.