What does the media stand to benefit from the ISIS attack on Paris this past week? It’s a question that seems calculatingly cold to even dare ask.
War and conflict equal viewer attention. Viewer attention equals higher ratings and bigger audience. Bigger audience equals more advertisers and higher advertising rates. More advertisers at higher rates equals more net profit.
The variables of war and conflict mean more money for media outlets. They’re good for media business. And trust me, these variables are discussed both in the editorial board room where they select which stories to publish, and among the executive staff of media outlets when they compare their actual financials to their budgets.
Spanish-American War – In the 1890s, competing newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst engaged in what came to be known as “yellow journalism.” Their respective newspapers, The New York World and the New York Journal, would run stories of unverified events, with increasingly exaggerated headlines, designed to tug at the heartstrings of media consumers and induce the consumers to demand government action. Hearst ran weeks of such headlines and stories relative to Cuba in the later 1890s, culminating in the Journal running an unverified story of Spain’s military sinking the U.S. battleship Maine. The public inundated Washington DC, demanding that “something be done.” The result: the Spanish-American War, often called the “media war.”
A visit to Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California tells you how media can benefit from war.
“If it bleeds, it leads” – Up until 1982, WNAC Channel 7 in Boston reportedly had a content airing policy that was known as “If it bleeds, it leads.” This is the earliest reference to the phrase anyone can find. But it describes the motive behind media content producers selecting what they allow to run. That term has been used frequently by media insiders, sometimes with a wink and a nod, but always indicating serious motive.
Topics today such as gay marriage, abortion, racial strife and especially terrorism, although very polemic and potentially dangerous to many people, may actually have immediate interest very few. However, one look with a critical eye at any portal page to news websites will tell you a lot about the media outlet’s motive. You are likely to see 5% of time and space devoted to breaking news, and 95% to the reactions to that news, featuring political and governmental pundits. No matter how altruistically motivated media executives say they are, they run sensationalistic and exaggerated headlines of human suffering with the same motive as William Randolph Hearst 120 years ago: More viewers, bigger audience, more net profit.
Journalists are just as motivated by war and conflict as executives are, although not for more net profit. They interestingly serve as both co-exaggerators with their media employers, AND media pawns for the media profit. Reporter Glenn Greenwald, of Edward Snowden fame, described them in this way:
The American media benefits immensely from war. A huge number of people watch CNN and MSNBC when there are wars. They get to go to war zones and dress up as soldiers, you know, with camouflage flaks, and they embed with the American media. It’s exciting for them. They win awards as part of their career. They feel nationalistic. They feel like they have purpose. Telling people that they’re part of a civilization war and fighting for freedom and democracy, that makes people feel really good, especially journalists. And so, journalists are hungry for war.
The casualty of media’s involvement in creating public perception is obviously those who are truly suffering. We all know about the 129 victims of the Paris bombing. We know relatively little, however, about the thousands who are suffering from ISIS’s terror in Syria, and thousands more dying in other parts of the world. The thought is that Western media realizes we westerners will relate better to the suffering of fellow westerners.
Dr. Deborah Serani, in Psychology Today, takes a rather clinical examination of the effects on the human psyche of consuming depressing media. A good read.
Word to the wise: While you’re spending hours per day absorbing media content, never forget what the objectives are. Media outlets are for-profit companies, and their journalists are career award-seeking employees and freelancers.