Are viewers really to blame for shitty TV news?

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Kai Nagata

Kai Nagata’s online essay, Why I quit my job is a journalistic cri de coeur from the belly of the mainstream media beast. The 24-year-old CTV correspondent from Quebec City posted his  essay on Friday, July 8 and judging from its website where his bio still appears, CTV has yet to catch up.

“I quit my job,” Nagata writes, “because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life.”

Nagata, who says he grew up without TV and chose not to have one in his own house, gives several reasons for quitting, but his main one is what he calls “the elephant in the room,” namely that, “information is a commodity, and private TV networks are supposed to make money. All stations, publicly funded or not, want to maintain or expand their viewership.”

TV news and the commercial imperative

Nagata’s essay exposing the superficiality of TV news shows considerable insight and courage. He points scathingly, for example, to the recent coverage of the British royals as both private networks like CTV and the publicly funded CBC competed for viewers:

It’s a vicious cycle, and it creates things like the Kate and Will show. Wall-to-wall, breaking-news coverage of a stage-managed, spoon-fed celebrity visit, justified by the couple’s symbolic relationship to a former colony, codified in a document most Canadians have never read (and one province has never signed). On a weekend where there was real news happening in Bangkok, Misrata, Athens, Washington, and around the world, what we saw instead was a breathless gaggle of normally credible journalists, gushing in live hit after live hit about how the prince is young and his wife is pretty. And the public broadcaster led the charge.

But are viewers really to blame?

Nagata is not the first to observe that the drive for ratings “dumbs down” TV news. He assigns part of the blame to network executives and the consultants who advise them. But significantly, he also blames viewers:

…there is an underlying tension between “what the people want to see” and “the important stories we should be bringing to people”…

Human beings don’t always like good nourishment. We seem to love white sugar, and unless we understand why we feel nauseated and disoriented after binging on sweets, we’ll just keep going. People like low-nutrition TV, too. And that shapes the internal, self-regulated editorial culture of news.

Nagata’s reasoning reflects an all-too-prevalent attitude among mainstream  journalists who have internalized the commercial imperatives of TV news. It’s a variation on the old theme, much touted by commercial broadcasters, that “we’re only giving people what they want.”

The truth is, however, that mainstream TV routinely gives viewers content that is cheap and easy to produce. Blaming viewers themselves for the gush of mindless pap only adds insult to injury — especially in a country where there are few, if any, non-commercial alternatives.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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