Sunday, September 26, 2010
News with Attitude
Media organisations, like most businesses these days, like to talk and fuss about their "brand". The idea of the brand is a nebulous concept at the best of times, and journalists are notoriously (and rightly) cynical about such self-serving management psychobabble.
But with the need to differentiate a commoditised product now a little more urgent and hounded editors increasingly adding MBAs to their professional credentials, brand awareness is starting to creep into editorial meetings and shaping how media outlets cover everyday news - in terms of content, style and overall tone. Call it news with attitude.
Highlighting this trend is CNN, a news organisation that once stood at the vanguard of the new, always-on, globalised news age at the start of the Reagan-era '80s. These days, CNN is struggling for relevance, a fact underlined last week by the dismissal of Jon Klein, the network's US chief, due to plunging ratings and the loss of audience to Murdoch's Fox network. Determinedly non-aligned and stuck somewhere between Fox's rabid right-wing editorial stance and MSNBC's more liberal tone, CNN's beige output has been accused by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen as "news from nowhere". This is the sort of offend-nobody "NEWSAK" that can safely play as background in hotel lobbies from Bahrain to Bangkok.
But while this rootless cosmopolitanism may work internationally, it seems that to be successful a domestic media business needs to tread on toes and get up noses a little more purposively. With so many more distractions today than 30 or 40 years ago, media organisations have to shout every louder, both figuratively and literally. That means hiring soap box journalists and columnists who excel at infuriating one half of their audience and reinforcing the prejuidices of the other. Clearly we are talking here about the likes of Janet Albrechtson and Paul Sheehan and Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne and all the other larger-than-life "personalities" whose job it is to get those prized eyeballs looking at the clients' (the advertisers') products.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. Media organisations have always used iconoclastic, noisy and provocative columnists as differentiators. If anything, the ultra-competitive landscape we are now in makes the need for news with attitude even greater, which is what we are seeing now.
That's all very good. But the flipside of the carnivalisation of news is it makes it even more critical to have a relatively straight, fact-bound and unhyped news provider. Traditionally, the public broadcaster played that role. But now, as we are seeing, even the ABC is starting to put a little more "attitude" into its own news. This can be seen in the increasing use of loaded terminology in leads and scripts. It can also be seen in the adoption of a prematurely cynical tone by even the youngest press gallery correspondents, which usually means they're aping what someone else has told them. And it can be heard in the ease with which interviewers ask questions that incorporate spin as the assumed reality. It seems pretty clear the word has gone out in ABC Land to commercialise its news, in other words make it look and sound exactly like all the other advertising-driven products.
Which leaves one thinking that our media (and democracy) is suffering from a fraction of too much attitude and affectation and too little old fashioned accuracy, context and information.
Posted by Mr D at 4:12 PM