NEIL POSTMAN is rightly remembered for his prescient classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which, way back in the 1980s, he worried about how visual media was reducing important news to the level of entertainment.
He is less well-known, however, for a sort of follow-up work that provided something of an antidote to his gloomy prognosis. How to Watch TV News, written with journalist Steve Powers, offered some helpful insights for viewers to recognize how a medium can shape a message (even if it doesn’t actually become it, Marshall McLuhan).
For example, he noted how television news presents everything the same size and at the same volume; you lose the sense of priority found in a newspaper, where some things are in large print on the front page and others are a short paragraph on the back.
I’ve observed that there are other things to take into account when watching TV news. For instance, you’ll notice that, most times, news broadcasts end on something of an upbeat note—a human-interest story, or the latest viral cat video. Might that just have something to do with the fact that the adverts come next, and it’s harder to sell someone a luxury when they’ve just seen people recovering from a hurricane or starving somewhere?
And, ironically, many people tend to trust visual news more than what they read because they have “seen it with their own eyes.” This is even though the context and perspective of that short clip could be terribly skewed. Plus, the average two-minute broadcast report has far fewer words—those all-important little details—than a print piece.
The technological changes don’t even take into account another subtle shift—that what some cable news channels broadcast actually isn’t news at all. It’s a bunch of people sitting around and pontificating about what they think might have happened, why it might have happened, or what might happen next. This may be interesting, but it’s conjecture, not real content.
All of this came to mind recently when I began wondering what Postman would make of how smartphones and technology have further messed with our ability to really absorb the news we see.
Time was when you used to have to literally wrestle with the news, on occasions—anyone else remember trying to open and fold a broadsheet so that you could read it on a commuter train without blocking the view of people sitting on either side?
Today, the news of the world see on our phones is often not as polished as the TikTok videos we love. Because live-from-the-battlefield reporting doesn’t always lend itself to high production values, it’s less captivating. And, increasingly, it has to be short, to compete with the typical 60-second TikTok burst (yes, the app has extended the length of its running format, but many remain brief).
And what do we do if we don’t like what we see on the news on our phones? We flip over to something else, or we just tuck it away in our pocket, as if the world’s woes are just something we carry around for our own amusement and which can be dismissed at will.
If television broadcast news “flattened” our understanding, smartphone news has miniaturized it. “Honey, I shrunk the world.” What, subtly, does this mean for our capacity to understand and care about what’s really going on out there?