Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

A safety aide for news-watchers

WITH MORE AND more people watching the news than reading it, the time has come to adopt and adapt a safety feature of the auto industry. I propose that all TV, computer, and cell phone screens be etched with the warning, “Not everything you see here is the same size, despite appearances.”

Rather like the side-view mirror labels advising you that the truck behind is closer than you think, this simple alert could help us keep things in true perspective. For while we are increasingly becoming news viewers or glancers, there’s a downside to relying on just what you can see.

Television has for some time been the primary source of news for many people. But according to the latest Pew Research Center for People & The Press biennial survey of the public’s attitude towards the media, the number of those turning to the Internet first has quadrupled since 2001, while those citing newspapers as their preferred choice has fallen by almost half.

Admittedly some of that online traffic goes to articles rather than visuals, but the overall trend is towards pixels rather than words. I’m not dismissing the power of broadcast news, of course, but the the shift from print to pictures—magnified by online and mobile capabilities—comes with a subtle but profound change in emphasis.

One of the primary determinations of “newsworthiness” moves from what is considered important to what looks good. It’s an over-simplication, for sure, but in some ways news goes from education to entertainment.

It’s true that there’s been a commercial side to the news business since the earliest broadsheets—any time you charge someone for something, you face the need to package it in an appealing manner. Print isn’t immune. And certainly television still tackles important issues, but much coverage is driven by the demands of the medium—which fundamentally appeals to what the Bible calls the lust of the eyes.

Why else are there so many of those broadcast-live-now freeway police chases, other than because we might see something shocking happen right before our eyes? Why do so many news reports feature some poor correspondent standing outside a building in the rain, providing just the same information someone could give from inside a dry studio? Because the “remote” looks more dramatic. It’s no surprise that the industry term for exciting footage (of any kind) is “sexy.”

The need to dramatize everything—so people will keep watching until the next ad break—was exemplified by the odd recent CNN split-screen interview in which two anchors took part in a live satellite interview (“high drama, folks!”) while apparently sitting not far from each other in the same parking lot.

If TV news “fattens” events, it also flattens them. When you read a newspaper or magazine, you are given a sense of what the editors perceive to be scale and significance—even if you disagree with them—by whether the article’s on the front page or tucked away in the back, has a World War III font or not, and how long it is.

Broadcast news comes at us all the same size, the same volume, and pretty much the same length. And with online and mobile news offering individual stories on demand rather than as part of an overall package—turning fast-food news-meals into vending-machine news-snacks—even the “top of the show” or “lead story” emphasis is lost.

Now add to all this the innate belief many people have that because they see something with their own eyes—forgetting that what they are looking at may be distorted by the camera angle, or taken out of sequential context—it is more “objective” and trustworthy than a “subjective” written account.

But conflicting eye-witness evidence at trials underscores how we can see the same event and yet interpret it differently. What you see may be what you get, but that doesn’t mean that you really get it.

Photo credit: LabyrinthX-2 via Foter.com/CC BY-SA

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