Failure of the Fourth Estate

Posted February 7, 2010

A little while ago I was catching up on the news, and I noticed that every site I visited was publishing celebrity gossip along side significant world events. It's been bothering me ever since. Why do these two things share the front page of reputable news organizations and aggregation sites?

I suspect the answer is straight forward: they report on the topics that people want to hear about. This is not an unreasonable proposition -- why wouldn't a news organization provide broad based coverage? Shouldn't the power and influence of the major news networks be used to help people become better informed about the things they care about?

On the front page of every news site there were articles about the Grammy Awards, along side news about the Haiti earthquake. It didn't sit right. The juxtaposition of wealth and devastation was distasteful, but that wasn't the problem. The thing that gnaws at me is the editorial decision to present an entertainment event with the same importance as an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Don't get me wrong -- the Grammys are an important entertainment event. If you're in the business, it's a huge deal. If you enjoy following the fashion and social entanglements of the artists and industry, it's an annual high point. Hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars slosh through the financial ecosystem of The Grammys.

Never the less, news about the Grammys is entertainment on the grand scale. Some jobs are on the line for a select few, but for the rest of us it's simply entertaining -- the drama, the spectacle, the fantasy, the occasionally unruly guest. It's a welcome break from the humdrum of ordinary life, something we click through on our coffee breaks and after work. For the vast majority, participating in the Grammys means watching the television and chipping in to the office pool.

On the other hand, the earthquake in Haiti is a significant world event: hundreds of thousands dead, ruined cities, refugees, poverty, corruption. The relief effort is a very complex task, undertaken by dozens of governments, and hundreds of volunteer staffed aid organizations. Responding to emergencies like the Haiti earthquake is a moral imperative in a civilized world, requiring us to pay attention and contribute what ever it is we're best able to contribute.

I struggle with the editorial decision to promote entertainment to the same level as moral imperatives.  I think news organizations fail us when they only report on the topics that people want to see, by measuring their success by the number of eyeballs consuming the information. They no longer serve to inform the people about what is important -- they simply serve to entertain.

Finding the Grammys on par with Haiti indicates to me that our largest news organizations should simply be considered players in the entertainment industry, not bastions of responsible journalism.

Is this a fair litmus test?

It is a failure of the fourth estate when "all the news that's fit to print" is printed because they know we'll read it, not because we need it.

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