If you think TV news programs keep you informed of the latest developments in the world, or even make you smarter, you could be making a huge mistake.
That's how I feel these days watching network news in the United States. The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which is vital to the future of humans and the planet, gets very little coverage. Instead, my senses are constantly being bombarded by the latest detail on the car crash of the world's top golfer, Tiger Woods, and his alleged affairs with other women; the efforts to extradite Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski to the United States for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old 31 years ago; the unfolding drama of American college student Amanda Knox, who has been sentenced to 26 years in Italy for murdering her British roommate; and the couple who gatecrashed President Obama's first state dinner.
The networks are clearly trying to convince viewers that these are what they desperately need to know every day before going to work or when they get back from work. They are at least as important, if not more important, than major issues people face in the US, such as the new war strategy in Afghanistan spelt out by Obama just last Tuesday, the concern over serious unemployment and quality of education Obama expressed in a town hall meeting in Allentown, Pennsylvania, last Friday, or the healthcare plan on which Obama tried to reassure his fellow Democrats in Congress this past Sunday. Other pressing world issues, such as hunger and disease in poor countries, simply find no mention.
The reason for such overplaying or hyping is simple. Celebrity and crime stories are simply sexier and more helpful in boosting ratings than serious news such as global warming and world peace.
This is, of course, nothing new, when I recall my previous stays in the US. The most important news in 1994 was the prolonged O.J. Simpson trial. In 1998, it was the total obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, while every other major issue in the country and the world was ignored. In 2004 and 2005, business magnate Martha Stewart's jail sentence and the later comeback campaign as well as Michael Jackson's trial for child molesting dominated the network news almost every day.
Having respect for some good programs on these networks and some of their investigative reporters, I feel ashamed as a journalist by the way news events are being covered like an entertainment show. That is surely one reason why the news media is less trusted and respected today by the public, the very people that the press should represent.
When news events are covered like entertainment, or infotainment as some call it, the news value is reduced dramatically.
Author Stephen King, in an interview with Time magazine two years ago, said journalists are just covering "the scream of the peacock" while "missing the whole fox hunt".
Unfortunately, the concept of infotainment has been picked up quickly by many Chinese news organizations. To survive and thrive amid increasingly tough market competition, many of them are eager to learn and copy the latest trends in the West, particularly commercially successful models in the US. As a result, print, broadcast and Internet media now devote huge space and air time for celebrity news and scandals as well as crime.
While this may prove to be effective in selling copies and commercials, and raising ratings, it will not make the Chinese smarter and more knowledgeable about the serious challenges we face in our community, society, country and the world, which is exactly the duty of the news media.
(China Daily 12/08/2009 page8)