Often formatted to stoke fear and keep audiences from flipping channels, broadcast news is heavy on soundbites and light on context.
On Sunday, I finally turned off my television for the first time in weeks, and the world immediately became brighter. Recovering from knee surgery and relegated to my couch, I’d spent two weeks in my living room watching the Olympics on broadcast television—we don’t have cable—with a variety of friendly, attractive local newspeople appearing every few hours to tell me about a thousand problems, all on my doorstep. These neatly coiffed messengers of doom would disappear periodically, only to reappear to tell me about more problems after another round of triple lutzes or big-air snowboard tricks.
Versions of one particular story, about a man who found a hypodermic needle on a BART train, dominated my local NBC affiliate one day. The big scare—Holy shit, a hypodermic needle!—was always the lede, and the piece featured multiple and frequent close-ups of a photo of the needle, circled in neon green, sticking out of the train seats. The story closed with brief, vague statements from officials about homelessness and opioid use. Absent from the reporting was the kind of context that would have made the story into a useful piece of local journalism instead of a little light afternoon fear-mongering. Background about the displacement of marginalized communities and factors contributing to the pervasiveness of homelessness in the Bay Area, and details about opposition to addiction treatment services and needle exchanges would have been a start, but maybe that’s too much to ask in two minutes.
The affiliate was also pushing hard on a dirty–streets story about San Francisco’s downtown and Civic Center areas, where sidewalks are often littered with needles and human feces. I know this firsthand; this is my neighborhood. My husband and I often give each other a heads up about the locations of new piles of human waste before we walk our dog, and sidewalks are often blocked entirely by heaps of trash. I am exactly the person this story is for, but as I watched the broadcast—mostly featuring footage of adorable children walking hand-in-hand down needle-strewn streets, and terrifying descriptions of (you won’t believe this!) how unhealthy random piles of human shit can be—I felt nothing but cynical helplessness.
I was getting so, so much “who, what, where, and when” and so little why. Instead of being given any context whatsoever about housing and wealth inequality in the country’s wealthiest geography, I learned that everything is disgusting and that everything being disgusting is expensive and gross. I did not learn how my area became this way, or hear the names of folks who are behind efforts to decrease or block resources needed by my neighbors who live on the streets. Gentrification, skyrocketing rents, corporate landlords, and overburdened public health services? I imagine that any or all of these things are part of the problem—but these things were hinted at only briefly in a fleeting mention of funding for temporary housing services.
And then it was time for the weather—actually, it was time to be teased about the weather, which is always coming at some later time in the broadcast, after the needles and the shit and the knives and the guns and this adorable dog which is available for adoption at the local shelter, but also needles.
I became deeply depressed, and not just because it sucks to be stuck on the couch, in pain, for weeks at a time. After watching so much news, I felt unsettled by problems that appeared to have no origin; I felt scared of the people outside my own window. Contrasting stories about do-gooders or cute pets didn’t lift my spirits, they just made the world seem arbitrarily cruel and unpredictable.
It makes sense. Two-minute television clips are not built for why. Television news creates a horrifying void—a world where people are hurting, are horrible, are harmed, but where there’s just no time to explain, really explain, why, or what can be done about any of it. It’s a thin, black-and-white snapshot featuring some people saying this, and others saying that, and then it’s time for a commercial break. Confrontations and car crashes take top billing, and the world’s messy truths succumb to death by soundbite. These are common enough critiques of television news, of course, but they really come to the fore when you consume enough of it.
And even though overall television news viewership is dropping, many are still watching and relying on it. Viewers of local television news tend to be older; the median cable news viewer is in his or her 60s. As I noticed my anxiety levels rising after watching multiple newscasts, I couldn’t help but think of the Gen-X’ers and Millennials who’ve written about “losing” their parents to Fox News’s racist fear-mongering and sexist nonsense. I wonder if it is a coincidence that older voters also skew to the right—we know, of course, that television news viewing habits influence votes.
It was just a couple of weeks, but in that time, I could see how it happens. I could feel myself becoming confused, scared, and apathetic, because the stories I watched lacked narrative depth, not just once or occasionally, but over and over again. They lacked why. And when journalists don’t delve into the why, readers and viewers will fill in their own blanks with the most convenient explanations, and you can be sure that there is always someone waiting with an explanation that is not just convenient, but personally or politically profitable. Convenient explanations don’t often include thoughtful systemic analyses of complicated sociocultural issues that call for sacrifices to be made by the most politically powerful and wealthy among us. They usually add up to “Build that wall!” or “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
For example: The Parkland, Florida, high-school shooting happened at the beginning of my two weeks on the couch, and as I watched the coverage unfold, I kept hearing the same refrains over and over again. Mental health, one news anchor would say. Bump stocks, another would chime in. Thoughts and prayers, always. I didn’t hear about the Dickey Amendment, which prevents government researchers from studying gun violence and its causes. I watched one thousand clips of NRA mouthpiece Dana Loesch saying that news reporters love mass shootings, and one thousand clips of someone who was mad about what she said. I heard the word “tragedy” a lot; I didn’t hear the phrase “history of domestic violence” or “domestic terrorism” ever, even though the overwhelming majority of mass shooters in this country are white men with histories of domestic violence.
Controversy and crime got a lot of play; facts and solutions, not so much. Every opinion had an equal and opposite opinion. After days of this high-TV media diet, dipping into even the most banal newspaper coverage, or logging into Twitter, actually became disorienting. The conversations in print and digital media were so different than what I was seeing on television—and believe me when I say that it pains me to describe Twitter as a bastion of nuance, but compared to the five o’clock news, it was practically a free doctorate program.
On Twitter, gun violence researchers and survivors were talking to and legitimately, thoughtfully debating each other, in real time and in public, about NRA funding and toxic masculinity and white supremacy. On my local public radio affiliate, local kids talked about organizing against gun violence and experts weighed in on what arming teachers might really look like in practice—often delving deeply into the potential effects of the politically conservative solutions to gun violence being pushed by the NRA and their bought-and-paid-for lawmakers. Meanwhile on television, I watched a much-hyped three-minute special interview with a former gun smuggler, of which the highlight was a shadowy figure from the witness protection program chuckling about pulling one over on the cops. The fear factor was high; the fact factor was very, very low.
Finding myself even temporarily beholden to the television news cycle was, to take a tip from President Obama, like being on another planet, and I don’t think I’ll be going back. In the future, I think I’ll go back to using my television for something a little more edifying, like a weekend video game binge, or getting really into that Netflix program that’s just a two-hour shot of a crackling fireplace.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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