News For Sale

As I travel outside the US, I find it interesting to see what kinds of things get air-time or make the news in other countries. For instance, I found it interesting (but not surprising) that while staying in China during one Olympic season, just about all I saw when I passed a TV was ping pong. During the 2012 London Olympics last summer I noticed a lot of weightlifting on Thai TV (one of the three 2012 Olympic medals awarded to Thai competitors was a silver in women’s weightlifting). I suppose it’s very human for news outlets to report on those things which people in their viewing community are most interested in seeing.

What can be discouraging in American media is the relative disinterest in international news which does not have some immediate bearing on the US. My very superficial and non-scientific observation is that, as Americans, we appear to be more interested in ourselves than most anyone else in the world. I was in England for a couple of months in 2010 and was amazed at the lengthy reporting on all sorts of issues outside of the UK which did not involve English interests. On one of the multiple non-commercial channels available I watched a 20 minute segment, without interruption, on Burmese rural life. It was at least as much a documentary movie as it was a typical news report.

I’ve blogged before about the inane stuff that shows up on the “most read” sections on various news sites. The Pew Research Center recently came out with their annual report on American journalism. One of the interesting findings was that 40% of our local news is dedicated to sports, weather and traffic. While it may seem like these three things take up a large part of our conscious existence, there are plenty of local issues which might interest me and many other non-local things that I’d love a local perspective on.

Most troubling to me are the ways in which commercial advertising rules the news. It feels as though I cannot watch televised news for more than 5 minutes without a commercial appeal. In reality, about 1/3 of our local news is devoted to advertising (about the same percentage as prime time TV shows), which is nearly 3 times what it was in the 1950s, but I have a suspicion that local news intersperses their 1/3 visual diet of commercials more frequently. They also bait you through several commercial segments with promises of airing the 20 seconds worth of tomorrow’s weather you want to see.

The fact is that commercial news programs would not exist if we did not buy the stuff they dangle in front of us. Their very survival is based on selling us stuff. Of course electronic news is not much different. On the homepage of CNN, Fox News, Al Jazeera and BBC I found the following number of overt ads by paying customers[i], including the little phrases at the bottom of some sections “powered by” or “sponsored by”: CNN – 10, Fox News – 4, Al Jazeera – 0 and BBC – 7. (NOTE: Curious that those sites which reflect a very specific political perspective – Fox and Al Jazeera – are the least laden with ads on their homepages).

I have also written about my concerns on Christian advertising, including ads on my own blogsite where I like to talk about the dangers of consumerism!

What’s even more troubling than the overt ads are all the covert ads. These are faux articles – advertisements in the form of an informative article. It is the wolf of Pfizer selling a product in the sheep’s clothing of an “article” on the merits of exercise (along with certain Pfizer-produced medications) in preventing heart disease.

No media outlet is without some bias. I’d like to think of it as viewing current events from a certain angle – and there is value in these angles so long as we view a variety of perspectives and recognize the bias. But what gives me enormous pause are the ways in which our news is “powered by” those who find ever more subversive ways to sell us their wares. It is a form of propaganda, only instead of State propaganda it is Corporate propaganda (I am idealistic enough to believe there is still a modest difference between State and Corporate).

Please, someone, create an advertising filter for our TVs and computers which will remove or limit the number of people appealing to me to consume! If such a device were available, I might not mind it being advertised on a news site!

[i] I did not count “ads” for their own news sites which were plenteous for each of them.


There is a product. Thanks for alerting me Nigel.

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