November 6, 2011

Manufacturing Conflict

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TV news programs are increasing annoying me. Previously I have written about their disaster junkets, now I’m ranting about their apparent need for argument. It is not so much a matter of manufacturing consent as manufacturing conflict.

Many Channel 4 News and BBC Breakfast broadcasts usually include at least one segment where two people with opposing views discuss some news item. I have also seen this on current affairs shows and Sky News – but I don’t watch them often (to their credit I am not aware of this being done on the main BBC news). It is claimed that they are promoting discussion, but the impression is of a bunch of schoolchildren circling the combatant and chanting “fight!”. Humans have an attraction to conflict, and suggesting a controversy may gain viewers. Certainly such an approach is prevalent on the Internet (witness Godwin’s law). However, I hold news journalism to a higher standard than blogs (and I think they consider themselves superior too). Perhaps the media is just catering to baser instincts to fight for viewership in an increasingly competitive news market.

These discussions rarely add any value to the topic at hand. The participants are in opposition by definition (or they wouldn’t be invited) and can’t be persuaded by a 5 minute TV confrontation. At the rare best there is a reasonable logical exchange, although normally the parties use all the non-logical weapons of rhetoric to win the debate. Sometimes there is a heated argument and if the producers are lucky enough to provoke a physical confrontation it can be covered as news itself! Often the role of the news anchor in these segments appears to be goading the participants.

There is the idea of journalistic balance, but this can be provided without the need for argument. Instead “talent” seems more important than reasonable, logical and most importantly truthful statements. A new journalist once explained to me that an eloquent, presentable and outspoken person is better “talent” – that is they come across well onscreen. This is why the same experts appear on TV news repetitively even to discuss areas outside their area of expertise. This is used to advantage by politicians and PR people. Even today it is possible to find flat-earthers. A news discussion with them may imply opinions differ on the shape of the Earth! Channel 4 often suggests viewers visit their website site after a discussion for fact-checking. I find this strange because I watch the news for facts, but they don’t have time to present them.

Rant over.


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