Journalists satisfy sensation-driven populace

It surprises me a little that the Yale Daily News still doesn’t have a daily gossip section — a full spread of who hooked up with whom in whose bathroom when. Because given current trends in national reporting where news outlets like CNN are trying to become more like E!, I think Yale students would welcome the addition.

To a considerable degree, we understand contemporary journalism in the same way anthropologists understand the rituals of hunting. Like hunters, reporters follow leads and stay on the trail to capture their prey. Once the news is uncovered, photographers swoop in to shoot and display their quarry online or for a breakfast broadcast. And as they would a wounded animal, journalists break the news until they finally grill it up at the proverbial campfire in the modern forms of water coolers and dining halls.

Like fresh meat, news can have nutritional value: The news can give us a deeper understanding of an issue or even inspire us to modify our behavior and beliefs. Investigative reports on the president’s wiretapping policy, for example, challenge me to protest, while if it weren’t for news about the weather, I might plan a picnic during a thunderstorm. But unlike hunters, news corporations are businesses that make most of their money from advertisers. Advertisements, in turn, are only profitable when people look at them. As a result, news outlets have a stronger incentive to issue stories that draw as many returning viewers as possible than they do to report “nutritiously.”

Accordingly, as media outlets keep trying to find more and more entertaining news to feed us, they essentially overfish existing issues so that their “developing reports” are either recycled or almost completely irrelevant to any of our lives. As I write this, the two breaking stories in Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room are that O.J. is in jail again and that Princess Diana’s driver was seen at a bar two hours before her fatal accident. Ten years ago. Okay, maybe they’re both new twists on old stories, but I might as well watch VH1’s I Love the ’90s.

The explosion of sensationalistic stories has created the equivalent of an obesity epidemic within our culture, changing what it means to be newsworthy. As good as it might seem for me to know the latest political scandal about which senator hooked up with whom in whose bathroom when, it’s really just about as useful for me as junk food. Similarly, the biggest issues of the past two weeks, in both Time and People, were not developments with Iraq or the Jena 6, but with celebrities like Marion Jones and Lindsay Lohan. Don’t lie: You probably spent more time talking about Britney Spears losing her kids last week than the Blackwater shootings in Iraq.

Even then, however, “real” news has no moral superiority over celebrity gossip. Similar to our collective preference for chicken nuggets over kale, national news outlets reduce complicated issues into easily digestible portions. To cater to the busy reader, for example, CNN.com recently added “Story Highlights” to its articles, outlining their content in ten-word bullet points. Meanwhile, Really Simple Syndication feeds (yes, that’s what RSS stands for) give web users quick summaries of popular articles from various outlets. And although critics have long sniped at college students for watching “fake-news” programs like the Daily Show, such critics are as morally chauvinistic as diners who munch their bacon salads while chiding the fat guy with the McFlurry. Comedy Central basically offers the same content as stations like MSNBC, only without the pretentiousness.

The Yale Daily News may not have a gossip beat yet, but it is not because it or Yale students have avoided being swept up in the celebrity culture of news. We like the hunt, and whether we search for stories about politics, entertainment, or sports, we’re essentially picking different items off the same Dollar Menu. Indeed, through Facebook, we even participate in our own form of modern journalism by furtively hunting for changes in others’ profiles with the thrill of being “prey” ourselves.

After all, when Facebook created a daily ticker last year that listed all of its users’ photos, parties, and events, the most common student criticism centered on how easy it made finding new information. That such a ticker would be called a News Feed was completely taken for granted.

Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.

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