On the surface, it may seem like newspapers and all sorts of mass media have kept up with the times by embracing technology. Yet, if one looks at the content of mass media, very little has changed over the centuries.
Newspapers have not strayed far from the slogan, "If it bleeds, it leads." Some might argue that the content of newspapers is merely a reflection of society and a reminder that we live in a society that continues to create murder and mayhem.
The question in my mind is, "What is news and who decides what is newsworthy?" Phil Barber, in "A Brief History of Newspapers," has hit the nail on the head.
"Some preliminary remarks are in order on the subject of just what 'news' is, anyway. We normally think of news as a particular kind of historical reality, which could probably be defined analytically. That is a mystification of the subject. If journalists are experts on anything, it is their audience, and not some other aspect of reality. Viewed 'phenomenologically,' news is simply what made it into today's paper or news broadcast... But news is not about history, really, but about profits, when publishers are thinking clearly, and newspaper publishers were thinking clearly from the very beginning."
The items considered newsworthy are determined by the people who give us the news. They have to think about the financial viability of their publication and advertising revenue, although there is often a disconnect, at least on a daily basis, between the advertising people and the news people.
It is worth looking at an historical perspective provided by Barber, "The history of newspapers is an often-dramatic chapter of the human experience going back some five centuries. In Renaissance Europe handwritten newsletters circulated privately among merchants, passing along information about everything from wars and economic conditions to social customs and 'human interest' features. The first printed forerunners of the newspaper appeared in Germany in the late 1400s in the form of news pamphlets or broadsides, often highly sensationalized in content. Some of the most famous of these report the atrocities against Germans in Transylvania perpetrated by a sadistic veovod named Vlad Tsepes Drakul, who became the Count Dracula of later folklore."
Imagine if news media went through some sort of moral reflection and decided that it was time to change the content of news. We are fed violence and tragedy minute to minute, day to day because that is what is happening around us. Do we really need to be reminded of all of the bad things in the world so often?
News does also includes politics, which often means war, but it also includes entertainment and many of the more positive events in the lives of the planet.
It must also be said that the quality of writing and the veracity of content in newspapers and many forms of media has improved over the years. Yet, what has not changed is the nature of the stories that are presented. Disasters, especially with high numbers of casualties, lead the news and the murder of large numbers of people are always worthy of being placed above the fold.
One has to wonder how much of what we are fed as news really drives the behavior of people who receive the news. Does the constant stream of reports of mass murder make too many people feel that one human life is not worth much or that it is worth dying or being in jail for the rest of your life after you become "famous" as the person who killed 40 people at a shopping mall.
I doubt we will ever see a steep decline in the reporting of murder and mayhem. The fact that the content of news has changed so little over the centuries does make one wonder if we have really have made much progress as a species, despite the 24-hour news cycle and the explosive market penetration that has been made possible by the Internet and social media.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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