Why You Should Watch Boring News

Here’s a sampling of recent headlines gleaned from major news websites:

  • Gigantic Cavity in Antarctica Glacier Is a Product of Rapid Melting, Study Says [1]
  • Why the Fed Made a U-Turn: Perceived Risks to Growth Shifted [2]
  • While E.U. tries to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran, Trump administration amps up pressure [3]
  • Republicans want mortgage giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac to be private companies again [4]

Still awake? Congratulations if you are. If you started to nod off, this article pertains especially to you.

We must consume more news that we find boring. When we don’t, news organizations favor sensationalistic, exciting stories at the expense of those that are less exciting, but still important. This decreases coverage of pressing issues that citizens should be aware of, and increases coverage of more eye-catchingbut not necessarily more importanttopics. As long as ratings determine what is covered and how, we must commit to consuming news that we may find dull. In doing so, we make it easier for journalists to fulfill their societal function by prioritizing and publicizing the issues that are most important.

Given that this problem is most evident in television, examining the history of TV news can illuminate the current state of affairs.[5] In its infancy, TV was poised to become news’ next great medium. David Sarnoff, the founder of the Radio Corporation of America (which included NBC), predicted that TV would greatly increase the “cultural level” of average Americans. He envisioned entertainment programs, such as soap operas, sitcoms, musical and dance performances, variety shows, and action programs, all coexisting with news and public affairs programming. The programming would be advertiser-supported, relieving the customer of paying for it all.

That last concept proved to be a massive flaw for news broadcasting. Advertisers were attracted to programs with large audiences, and entertainment programs were more popular than news programs. Thus, their ad space was in higher demand.[6] This made it increasingly difficult for TV stations to justify putting news shows on their air, given that news contributed less to the station’s bottom line than entertainment.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried to rectify the problem. Stations needed an FCC license to operate, and licenses required periodic renewals. To renew their licenses, stations had to demonstrate that some of their programming was in the “public interest.”[7]

This idea, conceived to counterbalance entertainment’s popularity advantage over news, did not function as planned. The FCC employed a broad, lax interpretation of the public interest requirement, allowing TV stations to renew their licenses with a minimal amount of news and public affairs programming. This lack of stringent enforcement tilted the scales even further in favor of entertainment programs and accelerated broadcasting commercialization.

Too often, American media prioritize money, not sound journalism. Media organizations make money by attracting advertisers, and they attract those advertisers by having the largest audience. They draw their audiences by providing the most exciting news, not necessarily the most informative, useful, or important; i.e. the news they need to cast informed votes.

TV news channels are the best example of how prioritizing audience size can supersede responsible journalistic practice. Save for public broadcasting, every news show has a ratings obligation. This is because news networks like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC are ultimately in the same business as The Voice, The Bachelor, and professional sports. The problems of Sarnoff’s era haven’t subsided; news shows are still competing with each other and with entertainment broadcasts during their time slots. This shifts the news’ priority from informing the public to profiting.

While this problem is most noticeable in TV, newspapers are not immune. American print newspaper circulation has plummeted from over 60 million to under 40 million since 1990.[8] While online subscriptions and advertising revenue have risen in recent years, that increase is far outweighed by falling print subscriptions and advertising revenue.[9] This, combined with increased focus on Internet content and digital services, has forced newspapers to enlarge their audiences as well. Thus, they fall prey to the same conflict between principled journalism and exciting coverage.

At first glance, these shifts toward entertaining programming and reading may seem beneficial for the news industry; if more people are consuming news, the population will be more informed. However, the outlets’ bottom line can harm journalistic quality.

One example is concerns with ratings causing a network to manipulate coverage of important, necessary stories. CNN, for instance, frequently broadcasts screaming matches between aggressive anchors and pugnacious pundits. They have paid Donald Trump supporters, like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany, to use lies, misdirection, logical fallacies, and other rhetorical and political deception to defend President Trump.[10]  These primetime sparring matches don’t always analyze substantive information or provide relevant context, but they generate excitement and controversy.

This approach isn’t accidental; Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, has said: “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”[11] This indicates a strategic shift from earlier decades. Rather than using its public value to justify its place alongside entertainment programs, the news mimics them. Unfortunately, news that entertains often does so at the expense of educating viewers. This results in a clear shift away from public-interest journalism towards journalism for enjoyment.

Ratings considerations can also supplant good journalistic practice regarding which stories are covered. Making politics into sport is not an inherently difficult thing to do; there are teams to root for, key players, battles, and recurring narratives. But applying the same philosophy to coverage of economic issues, international affairs, environmental problems, and similar issues is much more difficult, if not impossible. These issues rely more on complex data, expert analysis, and an attentive audience to absorb it.

Because of this, such issues are often left uncovered or inadequately covered, reserved for the closing minutes of a show or the back of a newspaper. But they don’t belong there. No reasonable person would argue that major developments in foreign policy, the economy, or the condition of our environment are insignificant, irrelevant stories. Yet they are often pushed aside because they aren’t as exciting as President Trump’s celebrity feuds and alleged mistresses.[12][13]

The blame for the aforementioned flaws doesn’t rest entirely on the news organizations. While many of them violate sensible journalistic ideals in the name of audience expansion and profitability, it’s not just about their greed. The culpability partly rests with the public.

As the target audience of the news networks, we must acknowledge that they are supplying the news in response to audience demand. If a Congressperson’s affair makes the front page ahead of a story about the impact of global warming, it is because we have collectively chosen that the former is more important, interesting, and worthy of our attention.

Just as we vote in elections, we vote regarding media consumption. The papers we buy, the articles we click on, the shows we watch, and the radio we listen to constitute our vote regarding what is covered and how.

We need to consume more news that we find uninteresting. We must reject fruitless arguing, overplayed scandals, and Capitol Hill skirmishes. We need to give our attention and, by extension, our dollars, to news organizations that prioritize facts, expert analysis, and the stories that are relevant if not fascinating. We must watch and read news sources that adhere to universally acknowledged journalistic principles, including truth, fairness, independence from factions, and holding the powerful to account. In doing so, we might find that certain topics and presentation methods that we previously considered tedious can actually pique our interest.

It is true that news organizations can make their coverage more interesting and engaging for their readers. Relevance is a great place to start; if more people find a story relevant and important to their lives, interest and engagement will follow. Visually pleasing graphics, compelling investigative reporting, and absorbing presentation techniques can make the news more appealing. But until a report on pertinent economic trends can rival the interest generated by singing competitions, the public should refocus some of its attention to more tedious endeavors.

It will require a commitment of time, energy, and mental faculties exceeding that which is required for exciting news. But the seemingly monotonous things are some of the most essential, and only by paying more attention to them can we inform ourselves on the issues that matter most. News organizations will cover them if we make it clear that we want to see them covered.


[1] Jacobs, Julia. “Gigantic Cavity in Antarctica Glacier Is a Product of Rapid Melting, Study Finds.” The New York Times. February 01, 2019. Accessed February 04, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/climate/thwaites-glacier-antarctica-cavity.html.

[2] Timiraos, Nick. “Why the Fed Made a U-Turn: Perceived Risks to Growth Shifted.” The Wall Street Journal. February 02, 2019. Accessed February 04, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-the-fed-made-a-u-turn-perceived-risks-to-growth-shifted-11549108800.

[3] Witte, Griff, and Erin Cunningham. “While E.U. Tries to Bypass U.S. Sanctions on Iran, Trump Administration Amps up Pressure.” The Washington Post. February 03, 2019. Accessed February 04, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/while-eu-tries-to-bypass-us-sanctions-on-iran-trump-administration-amps-up-pressure/2019/02/02/6be486c0-1f22-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html?utm_term=.806d867e3ceb.

[4] Merle, Renae. “Republicans Want Mortgage Giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac to Be Private Companies Again.” The Washington Post. February 01, 2019. Accessed February 04, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/02/01/republicans-want-mortgage-giants-fannie-mae-freddie-mac-be-private-companies-again/?utm_term=.6e7a72072366.

[5] “The Beginnings of TV News” from That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America by Charles L. Ponce De Leon. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/excerpt/2015/De_Leon_Thats_Way_It_Is.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Barthel, Michael. “Trends and Facts on Newspapers | State of the News Media.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. June 13, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/newspapers/.

[9] “The Whole Story about Newspapers.” MediaBuyers. March 22, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://www.mediabuyers.com/the-whole-story-about-newspapers/.

[10] Maza, Carlos. “CNN Treats Politics like a Sport – That’s Bad for All of Us.” Vox. April 17, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/4/17/15325172/strikethrough-cnn-espn-trump-surrogates.

[11] Mahler, Jonathan. “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It.” The New York Times. April 04, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/magazine/cnn-had-a-problem-donald-trump-solved-it.html?mtrref=undefined.

[12] Melley, Brian. “Stormy Daniels’ Lawsuit Against Trump Could Be Tossed.” Time. January 23, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. http://time.com/5510293/trump-stormy-daniels-lawsuit-tossed/.

[13] Zaru, Deena. “9 Fiery Celebrity Feuds of 2017, Starring Trump.” CNN. December 31, 2017. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/30/politics/trump-celebrity-twitter-feuds-2017/index.html.

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