The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
Voyeurism: Journalism's 21st Century Crisis
May 2007

by Terry Heaton

Britney Spears baldIn his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey makes a remarkable observation about life: "You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into."

This is the single most important problem facing journalism in the early part of this century, for we've behaved our way into quite a mess. What came first, our credibility problem or the personal media revolution? Or are they two sides of the same coin?

One of the biggest academic criticisms of postmodernism is that its practices — especially deconstructionism — eventually lead to the chasing of one's tail. Modernism's roots attacked the faith of premodern times and the source code of western culture, the Bible—perhaps not the book itself but the belief in its absolute authority.

But postmodernism isn't based on any historical or philosophical narrative, which is part of the reason critics say deconstructionism will always lead to nothing. However, this argument becomes irrelevant when the deconstruction process reveals existing assumptions to be the fruit of false assumptions, assumptions that seemed right at the time but that the clear lens of history has proven otherwise.

Nowhere has this been truer in my life than when deconstructing the roots of professional journalism. The trade became a profession when powerful people towards the end of the 19th century said it was. Examining their thinking tarnishes the nobility that professional journalists assume and helps explain the conundrum we've behaved our way into. This group — headed by Walter Lippmann and his friends from Woodrow Wilson's Creel Committee — used the ruse of objectivity in journalism to create a sterile environment for their newspapers that was more conducive to advertising.

Christopher LaschIn his powerful 1990 essay, "Journalism, Publicity, and the Lost Art of Argument," historian Chris Lasch noted what he viewed as an unhealthy relationship between the professional press and advertising.

The rise of the advertising and public-relations industries, side by side, helps to explain why the press abdicated its most important function—enlarging the public forum—at the same time that it became more "responsible." A responsible press, as opposed to a partisan or opinionated one, attracted the kind of readers advertisers were eager to reach: well-heeled readers, most of whom probably thought of themselves as independent voters. These readers wanted to be assured that they were reading all the news that was fit to print, not an editor's idiosyncratic and no doubt biased view of things. Responsibility came to be equated with the avoidance of controversy because advertisers were willing to pay for it. Some advertisers were also willing to pay for sensationalism, though on the whole they preferred a respectable readership to sheer numbers. What they clearly did not prefer was "opinion"—not because they were impressed with Lippmann's philosophical arguments but because opinionated reporting did not guarantee the right audience. No doubt they also hoped that an aura of objectivity, the hallmark of responsible journalism, would rub off on the advertisements that surrounded increasingly slender columns of print.

Lasch's deconstruction of Lippmann's child (he's known as the "father" of professional journalism) was bold and timely, because it came at a time when the tilt to a new definition of journalism was appearing — voyeurism. In very simple terms, voyeurism as news is the natural fruit of journalism that's designed to boost advertising. Gone are the days when advertisers only want to reach the elite. Mass marketing exists to reach, well, the masses, and reaching them IS the core competency of contemporary media companies.

A quick check of Google:define reveals many definitions for the word "news."

  • Information
  • New information
  • Unexpected information

"Aberration" is another definition. Dog bites man? Not news. Man bites dog? News.

Now we can add "voyeuristic information" to the list. This is not an academic definition; this one is based in behavior, the fruit of an industry that has redefined the mission of the business to the creation and maintenance of audience.

In the mass marketing paradigm, an environment that is conducive to real eyeballs and nothing else is the quest. So we can talk all we like about the lofty goals of journalism, but they crumble under the weight of the necessity to put eyeballs in front of our work.

Attention is solicited by news organizations through slick promotions, but people are wise to promos, so the solicitations come off as nothing more than hyperbole. Let's not fool ourselves by claiming that the marketing of news is the responsibility of only the marketing people. It is etched deeply now into the DNA of any newsroom in America, because the "business" of news demands it.

But hyperbole is not the case when events themselves occur that strike a resonate chord deep within people, one that seeks more, more, more. This is why Hurricane Katrina was such a blockbuster for the news industry. Hyperbole was blown aside by a storm, one that not only captured our attention but created that rare thirst for more information.

In this sense, the mission of "the news" is to satisfy that longing, and that's when everything clicks in the attention power curve.

But what about when there are no storms? What happens then?

marketing image used for coverageThis is when the real tragedy of contemporary "news" clicks in, for in order to fulfill the new definition of news, organizations must tap the base lusts of human nature, not the theoretical or the abstract. This is what gives us wall-to-wall coverage of the death of a person who gained notoriety via gossip and nothing else. This is why we must relentlessly pursue Britney Spears, always in hopes of (don't deny it) yet another tragic twist in her life.

This is not news, unless the definition of news is "voyeuristic information." Who does it satisfy? The reader, the viewer, the voyeur in each of us, our human nature. This is why researching news coverage is so difficult. People will tell you one thing, but their behavior belies reality. Scandal magazine sales have skyrocketed in the wake of Anna Nicole Smith's death, as have the ratings of the entertainment magazine shows. Why is this? Because people -- regardless of what they say -- want this kind of information.

We've all heard the old saw about driving down a street on which there is a lemonade stand on one side and an accident on the other. The attention of everybody in the car will be drawn to the accident, not the lemonade stand. This is why "if it bleeds, it leads," and so we have the sheep leading the sheep in shaping the whole of what is news.

Add to the mix the omnipresent and competitive pounding of 24-hour cable news channels, prime-time news magazines, and supermarket check-out stands with pictures of Britney's bald head, and it's hard to argue with the view that this is all we talk about.

And the astonishing and frustrating thing for news organizations about all of this is that it's led to a serious credibility crisis. The audiences that are drawn to these images and gossip are the same people that are telling us its our fault. This is the paradox of the "news as voyeuristic information" paradigm.

So who's to blame and what do we do?

The assigning of blame in all of this is counter-productive. It simply is what it is. Mass marketing demands a mass audience, and we will keep doing what we're doing.

Moreover, the reader might infer a suggestion that the audience is really to blame. After all, we're just giving them what they really want—as evidenced by their viewing. But this is just an excuse to validate and continue our behavior. Blaming the audience is also quite absurd, because our culture itself has no internal governor anymore. Without it, can we really say people are to blame for watching what we put in front of them? So if one wishes to assign blame, it must go to western culture as a whole, and who's capable of doing anything about that?

"I have seen the enemy," Pogo said, "and he is us."

If, however, voyeuristic information is a fruit of Lippmann's professional journalism, perhaps there is something we can do about that. The reality, however, is that the answer is being birthed outside our inner circle, which brings us back to the personal media revolution.

Lasch tracks the lack of participation in the political process in the U.S. with the rise of a professional press. He hammers home that what's lacking in contemporary journalism is argument, and that is what our culture so badly needs right now. Argument is what's protected by the First Amendment, not the bland "just the facts" vision of Lippmann, and yet it has been stripped from culture by a press that serves advertising and by that greatest of all argument-eliminators, political correctness. Only the status quo is served by the unbridled continuance of an argument-less press.

Within the personal media revolution, however, people are taking matters into their own hands, because journalism isn't really a profession in the same sense as, for example, medicine. It's not the sole purview of the elite, nor does it belong to any inner circle. Anyone can "be" a journalist, and now that anyone can be a publisher, anyone can share their journalism with anyone else. Argument is evident again in the so-called "amateur" journalism of bloggers, and it has profound ramifications for our culture.

An important aspect to the personal media revolution is the social or "connected" nature of it. Bloggers and the technical community that serves them (made up, in part, of bloggers themselves) are creating marvelous tools to connect to each other, talk to each other, keep track of each other, and manage their place within the whole. This is counterintuitive to the traditional press, which has built its empire on remaining disconnected, except through hierarchical organizations that work to maintain the status quo.

Sources of information for purchasesAs people are connected, they're increasingly turning to each other for all kinds of advice. This is evident in a GfK-NOP report last year from the U.K. that shows three-fourths of consumers prefer information from other people when making purchases. This is considerably higher than the media, advertising or even the Web. The numbers for word-of-mouth and the Web are trending upwards, while editorial and advertising are trending downward.

While these numbers come from the U.K., they reveal the nature of the business problem for traditional media, for in the end, it's really about money. If people are increasingly getting less information about purchases from editorial and advertising, where will the sellers of goods and services turn to reach an increasingly guarded customer?

In the U.S., there is a growing group of bloggers who are taking matters into their own hands beyond most. They are the group known as "mommy bloggers," and they're connected, growing in numbers, and looking to themselves for answers because they feel institutions have failed them. This group represents a key demographic that Madison Avenue wants, and they know it.

Mindy RobertsIn California, mommy blogger Mindy Roberts is involved in a new web business Trusted Opinion logocalled "Trusted Opinion." The site allows networks of friends to post their thoughts about commerce. The opening target is a long-standing franchise of the traditional press, movie reviews, but Mindy says the plan is to turn Trusted Opinion into a universal rating platform for all manner of goods and services. It doesn't take a genius to see where this is headed, and the principal issue for the sellers of those goods and services will be the degree to which they're prepared to accept the customer's perspective on their wares.

You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.

Are the writings of mommy bloggers journalism? Does it really matter? It's certainly not the voyeuristic information that currently defines the professional crowd, but woven between the anecdotes, the life slices, the live-blogging of events—including birthing—and the tragedies (all of which some would argue qualify as journalism) are found gems that would challenge anything the world of professional journalism could create in terms of quality, depth and the vetting of information. It is the blend, however, that pulls these people together, and that includes plenty of argument to support their views.

Is this an aberration or the leading edge of something significant? What will politicians do, for example, when confronted with this kind of organized force?

This essay should not be construed as a blanket approbation of the blogosphere, for there is plenty of mischief here in addition to some pretty darned good journalism. Then there is the matter of bloggers who secretly wish they were the mainstream and who sacrifice their passion for a place at the advertising feeding trough. These are the bloggers that get most of the attention from the mainstream, for they are its direct competitors. The perceived competition, therefore, isn't really over journalism; it's all about the money.

But there are, in fact, bloggers who are giving the world significant journalism, biased though it may be, and in so doing, returning argument to the public square or as Lasch calls it, "expanding the public forum."

The traditional press has no choice but to continue its quest for a mass audience and serve the harsh taskmaster that ad revenue has become. This will not change, nor should it. Business is business, and it's vital that traditional media companies stay alive and financially healthy. A sudden collapse of the Media 1.0 hegemony would destroy our economy, so the mainstream MUST live on.

This means that the changes necessary to evolve won't—in fact, can't—come from the legacy brand, for it has no choice but to play in the world of Anna Nicole Smith. If they don't, they run the significant risk of alienating what's left of their audience, for people have come to expect — whether they'll admit it or not — that one of the roles of contemporary media is to satisfy their voyeuristic information needs.

But this shouldn't stop traditional media companies from entering the Media 2.0 world and playing by its rules instead of their own. The opportunity exists to grow new brands, built on different guiding principles and unafraid of connecting with the people we're trying to serve. The experience can be humbling, but there is much the mainstream can do to actually advance the cause of expanding the public forum in the cyber world. By encouraging and supporting the effort, it won't matter how much its core efforts pander to voyeuristic information, because the higher calling of journalism—with argument—will be served elsewhere.

We might actually behave our way into something significant.

© Terry Heaton