Ian Leach: The perils of breaking-news culture

Monday, January 15, 2018 - 4:36pm

I spent the majority of my Winter Break watching CNN while doing some reading. It felt like every few seconds, I was hit with a “breaking” story that made me turn my eyes toward the television. Then, I was spun around by a ringing notification from the New York Times telling me there’s another story I have to read. Before I can even open the app, I would get an email telling me that there’s another news story that requires my attention.

Could it have been a big story that’s just developing and requires the public’s immediate attention in every medium? Unfortunately no. All three of these stories were either day-to-day events in the Trump White House (a press conference was just starting), an article from The New York Times about a diabetes epidemic in India and a daily briefing on politics from The Hill. And yet all of these stories attempted to convince me to read their story first by parading around as critically important to my political awareness.

I’ve always questioned the efficacy of a journalist slamming a symbolic fist on the table in an attempt to change the reader’s mind. In today’s day and age, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve become adept at sifting through this information to create coherent messages that can influence opinion. For instance, while magazines can celebrate the news media influencing public opinion, we are left with marginal gains at the most. About one in 50 people with access to these particular stories had ideological shifts in the direction of the opinion articles they read.

This requires an astonishing feat that isn’t quite acknowledged: A journalist does not only need an attentive reader, but a reader who is willing to comprehend the article, spend cognitive resources negotiating this article with existing opinions and trust this source as credible enough to influence their opinion.

In stark contrast to the late 2000s that suggested conventional news was dying, we are consuming news through our mobile devices more than ever before. The Pew Research Center suggests nearly two out of 10 people consume news often because they can freely access it through social media outlets and seven out of 10 get at least some of their news from social media. But as columnist Farhad Manjoo eloquently put it, we’re confined by our technology into somewhat comfortable prisons. Your “new” devices, websites and apps compete with the “old” television and radio with daily alerts trying to get you to pay attention in ways you may never have before.

In order to compete, news organizations have increased “breaking news” stories that have no reason to be called as such. Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting up on a podium isn’t news; perhaps what she says on that particular day might be, but I refuse to believe that everything in a press conference is worth streaming live on television or on Facebook live feeds. Nor is it worth calling, in totality, breaking news.

In finding ways to get viewers, journalists have given up on a key tenant of reporting: interpretive journalism. This kind of reporting ensures that viewers get news that matters and protects journalism from a legislator or president using them to become a press release. In this way, the CNNs and the New York Times of the world have slowly spiraled downward to become another arm of a presidential administration.

Not all hope is lost, though. There is still important local and national reporting that is helping us shape our perceptions on a variety of issues. There is great reporting about systemic issues of sexual assault. The Michigan Daily has kept the University of Michigan abreast in news regarding Richard Spencer, the tax plan and net neutrality. The news still has the ability to garner interest in stories that previously weren’t being talked about, and they can help us find standards with which to judge our candidates and individuals in office.

Long-form reporting, especially when done about topical issues in ways that provide substantive evidence and potential policy solutions, can help fight the breaking news culture across a variety of challenges, but consumers (like those of you reading this article) need to acknowledge faux breaking news when it happens. Demand better of your journalistic outlets and consume news that not only informs, but provides deeper insight into issues you might care about. Is an outlet not doing that for you? Find a better one, and we can combat the 86,400-second news cycle that has become so pervasive in our everyday lives.

Ian Leach can be reached at ileach@umich.edu.