Hard Leads and Twitter Memes: The Making of News

woman shocked by newspaper...
woman shocked by newspaper...

This semester (and presidential campaign) are in full swing, and my students have a lot to say. As part of the "Blog Blog Project" I began last semester, students in my fall semester Politics & Technology class at the University of Delaware are writing blogs on current issues, relating them to class content. This entry, written by UD sophomore Hannah Rosenberg, examines the struggle between traditional and new journalism.

"What the [newspaper] industry partly sacrificed with its cost-cutting is the one attribute that has protected it against all previous competitive threats -- the overall quality of its journalism." - John Morton

We are looking at what could be a shoot-out -- Wild, Wild West style. On one side stands a band of columnists, investigative reporters, newscasters and other traditional journalists. On the opposing side, a mob of bloggers, YouTubers, and Twitter-sensations. Confronted by the latter, the journalists have what appear to be two choices: fight or flight. But what happens is more along the lines of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." In our textbook, "Campaigns on the Cutting Edge," Joseph Graf and Jeremy D. Mayer chronicle mass media's rise to and fall from prominence. According to the authors, traditional mass media found its ruin with the introduction of modern technology to the news cycle. Citizens and advertisers alike have redirected their valued gaze from traditional news outlets to the so compelling (and so cheap!) world of social media to get their news and promote their agendas. This has forced outlets to cut back on spending, leading to layoffs and compromising the depth and scope of reporting. Instead of rising above and adhering to journalistic ethics, mass media have brought back a strategy previously thought to be dormant: yellow journalism.

If we were to graphically represent the incline and subsequent decline of mass media, the graph's origin would be the end of the Partisan Press Era and likely start with William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. No doubt, some journalists at the time intended to provide objective news coverage, but there is no denying the prevalence and success of yellow journalism, which was characterized by sweeping exaggerations, false information, and stories based on hearsay.

I'm not claiming that yellow journalism has returned to incite another Spanish-American War, but I'm also not passing it off as a one-hit wonder. Components of this journalistic malpractice are being used as a means to compensate for the declining workforce of journalists. Reporters now must face competition from anyone with Internet access. This threat has materialized to the point where, from 1990 to 2008, a quarter of all newspaper jobs were lost. Journalists who survived the cuts are supposed to be more flexible, expected not only to deliver a story, but perhaps also to provide the photographs that accompany it. The result is that journalists are beginning to rely on dramatized fluff pieces to ensure circulation and relieve some of the pressure to keep producing.

Take for instance the recent exploitation of Big Bird and all his friends on Sesame Street. Of all the issues discussed in the first presidential debate, the Big Bird comment was memorable. Why? Because, once released by the media, these stories sell themselves -- the people market them. These stories hit Twitter or Facebook and they go viral with little need for organized media output, automatically filling the gap left by laid-off journalists. Suddenly, Big Bird is knocking on death's door and there are memes depicting him begging on the stoops of Sesame Street. Therein lies the difference between the historical definition of yellow journalism and what we see today. People are the means by which stories snowball. Sure, the people are mainly stirring the pot -- they have always stirred the pot -- but now, the media are providing the ingredients.

Is hard news too hard to produce? We've seen its decline to the point where the standard for what is newsworthy is anything that can be turned into a meme. When one considers the pressure of filling the 24-hour news cycle with limited reporters and investigative journalists, the type of stories that pass the meme test (think Paul Ryan's marathon time "mix up") are the answer to the prayers of modern journalists everywhere. Once surfaced, they take on a life of their own, becoming new stories themselves. The Big Bird comment evolved into stories about how much of the budget PBS actually consumes, and an Obama campaign ad featuring Big Bird, among others.

In order to differentiate themselves from the citizen journalists, mass media must do what they do best: utilize their connections and skills to deliver in-depth, comprehensive stories with substance. Mass media are intended to be a beacon of truth in a world already rampant with sensational gossip. Instead, we are left with smaller newspapers, less in-depth reporting and sound-bite TV coverage rather than a better, bigger, more in-depth product that sets itself above its low-budget competition.