Mainstream media sacrifices substance at altar of ratings


As you browse the Internet to kill some time, you see two news articles come up on your feed: one is a C-SPAN live feed of a town hall meeting in some rural city in Iowa, while the other is a mainstream news network that covers what Donald Trump said about why anyone who wants to cut military spending is delusional and is “living in a fantasy land.”

Which do you choose?

Based on which one looks more entertaining, you most likely clicked on Trump.

This scenario is a prime example of how we view our news nowadays. In a battle for ratings and money, news networks put up their flashiest and most eye-catching articles to be read. The more views, the more money is generated for the network.

The primary goal in running a business is generally to make money, but is money so important to the news industry that it has to degrade itself into a click-bait industry based on sensationalist articles?

While I think it needs to be toned down a bit, the networks’ sensationalism is understandable. According to, the average attention span is 8.25 seconds. If an article doesn’t look interesting in the first few sentences, the reader skips it and moves on to the next interesting thing.

When sensationalist headlines are all a news network strives for, however, there is a problem.

The Center for Media Literacy said that back in the 1960s, “The ‘church’ of news was to be separated from the ‘state’ of entertainment.”

In an idealistic world, such a thing would be nice and informative, but it would also be rather boring. In order to sell news, reporters have to put a spin on their articles to make the piece sound interesting. In a race to sell stories, it seems like the entertainment aspect of news has overtaken the substance in terms of priority, especially given the coming election.

Time magazine described the spectacle-over-substance conundrum using the words of Craig Robinson, a former political head of the Iowa Republican Party who now works as an editor of a newspaper in Iowa.

“It’s not that candidates are necessarily similar to contestants, but that modern coverage can feel like reality TV,” Robinson said in the Time article, “The Presidential Race Is Now a Reality TV Primary.”

That same article compared the candidates and their endorsements to the alliances made on the show, “Survivor.”

One example was the coverage of the truce between Ted Cruz and Trump, and how it broke down toward the end of last year.

“Cracks are showing in the long-held truce … as the simmering rivalry between the two rivals … appears to ready to spill over into the open,” said an article from The Hill, entitled, “Cracks appear in Trump-Cruz truce.”

There was never a truce to begin with, as neither candidate thought it was necessary to attack the other until it became expedient. The spinning of the truce made the situation seem like a falling-out between two contestants in an episode of the aforementioned reality show.

Now, obviously not every news station has gone down the “reality show politics” route, and since it is an election year the news outlets are going to be pushing the most recent political happenings like they were no-holds-barred cage-matches. Surely though, there has to be some sort of middle ground between “infotainment” and a plain presentation of events as they occur. Finding that middle ground in today’s media, however, can prove difficult.

Personally, I think the news is in a corner they can’t write themselves out of because of the medium it’s using.

On TV and social media, you have to blow things out of proportion or present the newest things in an attractive fashion to get views and money as a result. According to the American Press Institute, news is largely viewed on a mix of TV and the Internet. Because of this, today’s media culture of click-bait articles and exaggerated stories is becoming a trend on many news outlets.

As I’ve mentioned, the political context of this year will make news coverage more intense than usual. Part of me thinks, however, that the news outlets will calm down again and give out substantive news soon after the presidential election is over.

I do not see the social media-like tactics of presenting news going away any time soon. News companies do need money to operate and I understand the need for attention-grabbing articles in order to get revenue. When overly-hyped stories become the norm, however, there needs to be discussion on how to balance out entertainment and substance.

And yes, criticizing news being attention-grabbing in an opinion piece, with a title like this one, no less, is a bit hypocritical, but that just goes to show that the news is in a tight spot in terms of getting viewers. The only way to wrestle over the viewers’ attention is to present attention-grabbing headlines and articles.

Up next: Why electing the wrong candidate could bring about the Apocalypse.