I’m old enough to remember when MTV used to play music videos (way back when Sting made famous the lyrics, “I want my MTV”). I’m also old enough to remember when news outlets used to produce real news.
Around the time MTV moved toward more reality shows and less music, news outlets moved toward more infotainment and less journalism. Yes, great journalism still exists on all platforms. Too much of what passes for news today, however, is superficial and sensational.
We are subjected to a 24/7 barrage of clickbait headlines, dueling pundits, shock video, excessive coverage, personality dramas and hyped controversy. It’s noise over nuance. Soundbites over substance. Snackable content over meat and potatoes. Solid analysis and good ol’ shoe leather reporting lose out. The winners are those outlets racing to be first (not necessarily right or relevant) and who hype their work to the hilt to attract more eyeballs, generate more clicks and ultimately sell more adverting at the expense of all else.
Blame it all on corporate media if you wish, but sensationalism sells – which means we, as consumers, are buying it. If we weren’t responding to all the fluff and hype, the media would adjust to customer demand and instead offer up news with greater exploration and depth. Which brings me to National Public Radio (NPR).
By contrast to so much else, NPR is thoughtful and uncluttered. Nobody yells at each other or at us. Stories generally don’t just report the “what,” they often get underneath to suggest the “how” and the “why.” Commercial sponsorships are understated voiceovers and kept to a minimum.
One recent night I sat in Safeway’s parking lot for a few extra minutes, unwilling to turn off the radio mid-story. It was an investigative piece, using first-person storytelling to reveal how some U.S. military counselors were incredibly callous and potentially criminally negligent in their dealings with service members scarred from war and suffering from PTSD. The story was as gripping to hear and it was important to know. Such regularly found gems rise above the cacophony of cable news, dig deeper than 140 characters and are relayed in a compelling manner not as achievable in print.
NPR, to be sure, is not without its critics (it’s also struggling to attract younger listeners). The knock against it is that it leans leftward in terms of topics covered. However, in my view, when it comes to the stories themselves, and unlike with so many others, listeners typically hear opposing views in a non-combative manner. This allows us to make our own conclusions based on reasoned dialogue and differing perspectives. Isn’t that what solid journalism is supposed to deliver?
It was for good reason that this great nation’s founders prioritized freedom of the press in our constitution’s First Amendment. Democracy works best when an active and thoughtful media reports to an active and thoughtful electorate. The media should inform, challenge and inspire. Citizens, too, must take responsibility. Keeping well-informed requires looking past the surface to dig deeper and get real news from various sources with differing perspectives. Our hyper-connected world makes it easy to get news and information from wherever we want, whenever we want. Quantity and speed, of course, does not equal quality and substance.
Like classic rock and roll that still towers above many of today’s fleeting hits, I want my news to be the real thing. I want my NPR.
John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm and consumes news across a wide spectrum of old and new media platforms (and still listens to classic rock and roll, perhaps a little too loudly).