Thursday, October 9, 2014

Traditional ethics mixed with new media recommended to avoid 'America's Got Talent' news

Arriana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post
Much of our news today is driven by popularity, by votes and comments.  This means someone who spends considerable money, time or both on social media, or has an agenda that supports many followers, may acquire readership for articles whereas news and information the public needs can be abbreviated and sensationalized to attract attention.  Do we want news that is treated like Americas Got Talent so that serious, ongoing education is interrupted? Or is there a different way to offer news that most especially is critical because of the need for collaboration and solid information as new threats to world security occur?

The Huffington Post consists largely of articles written by hundreds of unpaid bloggers, quoted as reliable sources, which many can be; but like many outlets who's picked for the stable and who stays in it is like  America's Got Talent.   Some of the bloggers, for example, have been chosen from those individuals who have outstanding activity from posting comments and obtaining followers and responses.  But it isn't just large blogs that respond to social media vote-getting activities but other news outlets too, which may negatively impact the traditional role of the press in its role of educating, informing and holding power to account.

 The television show America's Got Talent allows people to rise to the top and perhaps win the contest and receive a recording contract and other perks.  It selects people at each level based on the judge's selections and audience response.  This means a balance of popularity and merit, although the judges also consider audience potential in casting their vote.

The outcome of a given contest might offer a serious surprise, as in the case of 10-year-old Jackie Evancho, when many people believed she would ultimately win on America's Got Talent because of her uniquely gifted voice and presentation on the show, that everyone agreed was special.    She lost, however, to Michael Grimm, a talented fellow for sure but didn't have the accolades and YouTube views that Evancho had had all along.  But America seems to likes being contrary too, a form of defiance that sometimes is used just to upset the odds in a fashion that says "you can't control what I do."  Even when the audience favors a contestant, the person actually picked to proceed may simply be a result of this contrariness that often occurs when there is a dispute and people want to voice their independence.  The same thing occurred in the case of Susan Boyle, who lost the top spot on Britains Got Talent, as people began to find the unpopular or the negative in her personality or simply were contrary in not wanting to conform to any predictable outcome.

Popularity picks may not, therefore, foster the best talent but the most popular for a segment of the culture that happens to vote.  But there are many people who enjoy the talent of those who perform who never cast votes in these contests.  So the potential of picking the best talent is lessened by those who don't participate in the voting process.  The cream may not rise to the top.  Do we want the news treated the same way?  What has been the result?  The press is said to be no longer trusted, as observed by Gallup Poll results in 2012, and divisions in social and political areas are often along the lines of the more sensationalized factions.

The same strategy of using what is popular, or anticipated as vote-getting by readers or news observers, is now used for news sites as well, both citizen and traditional, if we could call the Huffington Post either.  The Huffington Post is a mix of both professional journalists and bloggers with specialties in particular areas, making it difficult for the public to sort out what is fact-checked and responsible information and what is not. Guiding the front page by picking the popular, based on a select few who vote, means front page news, and news that lingers, often focuses on the trivial not the headline material that may be most important.

Picking the popular also means those with enough Facebook friends and other contacts on the Internet have great advantage over those who focus on important news and features and have less time to solicit attention on social media sites.  There are those who write well and those who sell well; and sometimes they are both very different. 

News outlets have editors and America's Got Talent has judges who assess the talent and offer feedback.  But the owners of newspapers, and their investors, look for readership numbers as the evidence that a news item is of value, even as major news stories are sometimes cut short in favor of the details of a recent celebrity wedding, such as that of George Clooney, where days were spent in covering every detail.  This occurred in the midst of weather disasters and terrorist threats, with 10 minutes at the top of the hour devoted to the major news and the rest a narrative of entertainment value.

This tendency to vote for the popular, as it dominates all forms of media, means the petty, irrelevant or simply entertaining, offered as it is in large quantities everywhere, simply overwhelms news that has major information and education.  The need to know is answered by shorter and shorter phrases and sentences, so that even the language of the news is abbreviated like so many text messages.  This is explained away by those who say people are simply to busy to read or listen, yet this negates the fact that books like Fifty Shades of Grey are read by millions.

Traditional news sites are driven by popularity also because of the growing number of citizen news sites where people offer their take on the news.  Some of these sites are managed by editors; others are blogs set up by ordinary folks often with political or religious agendas. These continue to proliferate; and as they do, it simply drives the problem deeper that the important, front-line news may not have either the details or the top tier for public notice.  Search engines also favor the flavor of the month.

The concern in using vote-getting to determine the headlines and what is featured first is that it takes away from the premise most pronounced by those who wrote the protections for the press in the Constitution.  The U.S. Constitution, in terms of its guarantee of freedom of the press, is one form of providing the press its own platform, but other free governments have their protections as well.  Those protections relate to the relevance of the material and the primary role of the press.  That primary role is not entertainment but education and information relevant for living one's life.  This, and holding power to account, were the three main goals of journalism, according to Thomas Jefferson.Polls and popularity votes and cliques that gather together to foster a friend's success do not protect democracy but in fact jeopardize the ongoing, universal education democracy needs to succeed. 

Most people want to find an area where they can succeed and be noticed.  If a child is a budding artist, he or she feels good when the teacher puts the drawing on the wall for all to see.  But is this the way media should be managed?  

This is a simplistic explanation for the problems related to using popularity as the measure of what counts in the news, but the tendency for people to use vote-getting to measure their own success, and for others to assess them as well, means information written by well-meaning, motivated, yet agenda-driven people, who may not fact check sources, nor even write well,  will be read more often than others.  The result is that the popular continues to rise to the top, and the very art of writing with skill, detail and fact-checking may be lost.

.America's Got Talent is surely good entertainment, but too often many people wonder why obviously talented people are chosen over someone with a unique following and an absorbing personal story.  The problem is that when the news is treated in the same way, it is a world of us that suffers from lack of knowledge and quality information, at a time when universal education is important for creating and maintaining free communities and preventing or correcting the major problems around the world..

A new direction might be to re-examine some of the old ways used in the new methods of transmitting news via print, online and other forms of mass communication.  Rewarding quality news material that is in-depth, detailed and fact-checked is important, and that reward means to let investors and owners know by active reading and participation.  And perhaps news outlets need to remove the comments per article and return to the Letters to the Editor methods for reader interaction, so that vote-getting for popularity does not drive the news. Universal education through the mass media might then become a reality, as people learn the sciences, history and other details to help them understand why government leaders make certain decisions.  It can also serve to improve holding power to account, that goal of the press established by Thomas Jefferson's words that are likely as good today as they were when written and that allow the past and present best methods to present news in ways that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and nations.