Selling Fear and Amusement: News as Entertainment

The news media have contributed to our deteriorating—but entertaining—political situation. Mr. Trump is President partly because he is entertaining. My research on TV news shows that the promotion of the politics of fear is a byproduct of entertaining and sensationalized reports to build audience ratings. Contemporary news practices have increasingly been wedded to new information technologies that provide visuals and images, particularly portable cameras and smart phones. The entertainment format of much of U.S. TV news promotes the use of video or other visuals that are dramatic, conflictual, and emotional. Screen images dominate broadcast news as well social media. Investigations of news coverage of numerous local, national, and international news reports reveal how our current “news code” operates. Basically, TV tells time with visuals. Although the intent may be to use visuals to tell a story about something, the logic in use amounts to telling a story about the visual at hand. Events that are more likely to satisfy these format criteria are more likely to be broadcast.

Our work over the last 4 decades also demonstrates that politicians and others who provide visual events and dramatic performances are more likely to receive news coverage. We have documented the profound effects this format-driven media coverage has had on social institutions ranging from sports, news, politics, education, and religion.

Contemporary news practices continue this trend. Indeed, even the prestigious evening network newscasts have adopted this approach, especially as social media have provided seemingly ubiquitous videos of a wide array of events, many of which are posted on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. As newscasts seek higher ratings, it should not be surprising that they have adjusted their selection of news items to include visually interesting bits that have already been viewed—or gone viral—on the internet and social media.

This has important consequences for the allocation of precious news time that influences what audiences learn is significant in domestic and international affairs. For example, on December 11, 2018, ratings leader NBC Nightly News—now in its 46th year of broadcasting—chose to allocate more than 40% (8+ minutes) of its news ‘hole’ of 21 minutes to items that were largely driven by available video. Six of the fifteen news items received coverage because of visual material. I briefly summarize these:

1. The 2nd report lasted 3 minutes: This was video of a meeting between President Trump and Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in front of cameras, with the President threatening to shut down the government if he did not get funding of $5 billion for a border wall. This was a performance for the cameras, and could have been more briefly summarized. (This was also carried by ABC and CBS).

2. The 7th report lasted 1:25: This consisted of smart camera video of NY Police forcibly taking an infant from his mother’s arms. This had been shown on a previous newscast as well. The charges against the woman were dropped. An official said that this was not a good police incident. (CBS devoted :20 and ABC :10).

3. The 12th report lasted 1:25: This consisted of a voice over video of a man helping a woman who was having a seizure on an airline flight. The good Samaritan was also interviewed. Two doctors on the flight said that there was no reason to abort the flight rather than continue to its destination where help would be available. There are hundreds of in-flight medical emergencies, and most—like this one—are benign and not broadcast because video is not available. (CBS report lasted 1:30).

4. The 13th item lasted :15 seconds: A video of a youth riding on the back of a bus was described as risky and not a good idea. There was no news story whatsoever.

5. The 14th report lasted 1:25: This consisted of smart camera video of NY police urging and assisting people to jump from a burning building. The grainy video was dramatic.

6. The 15th report lasted 1:15: As part of the Inspiring America segment, a partially paralyzed man, aided by an exoskeleton, walked across a stage to receive his diploma at Florida International University. It is a feel-good story that would not have been shown without the video. (ABC summarized the walk in :10).

Nearly eight and a half minutes of questionable news-worthy reports took precedence over other national and international items. It is ironic that at a time when zealots pummel journalism as fake news that NBC, like other networks, promote audience entertainment rather than information for citizens.


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David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.

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