In short – why do we care about the news?
As a journalist, this question defines my day in the newsroom. Knowing our audience, anticipating their needs and desires, is one of the first things they taught me at the BBC.
Usually it’s considered more of an art than a science, but a recent Freakonomics podcast, Why Do We Really Follow the News?, tried to get to the bottom of the facts here – and it was super interesting.
In the episode, Freakonomist Stephen J Dubner speaks to economists, academics and a journalist about their theories about what lies behind our audience’s need for news:
- to be diverted and entertained
- to make sense of our own lives
- to get essential survival information
- to increase our personal utility
Let’s begin with entertainment…and elections.
But it’s nothing compared to this year’s British election, when the media became obsessed with analysing the way Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband ate food at campaigning events. Who would have thought eating a hot dog with a knife and fork would turn out to be an election issue?
Speaking as a product of the BBC and CBC, this kind of childish approach to election coverage flies in the face of the very idea of a public service broadcaster, that sees its role as facilitating the democratic process, informing the electorate of party policies and empowering them to vote.
But I can’t deny, this was pure entertainment – and it got readers talking about the election. Voter turnout was the highest it’s been since 1997. Now, correlation is not proof, but if approaching elections from an entertainment perspective results in our audience being more engaged in politics, is that such a bad thing?
Of course, on the flip side of news as entertainment, the thought of readers seeing, for example, a report on the conflict in Syria as an enjoyable diversion is pretty disturbing. I certainly wouldn’t be reading it for that reason.
But in the end, does it matter why our audience reads the story in the first place, if it means they become more informed about what we consider an important issue? Who are we to condemn our readers’ motivations? Aren’t we just trying to get our pieces read and our message across?
Sex, violence and news you can use
Let’s consider the podcast’s next theory – that our audience uses news to make sense of their own lives.
Newsrooms love this idea, especially in the digital age, when “news you can use” or “explainers” are often shared widely on social media. Stories like this one about why the B.C. storm did so much damage may seem superfluous, but they get read – a lot. Readers want answers, even to questions they never asked, it seems.
Like the storm story, sometimes these answers also fall into the category of essential survival information. Other hugely popular stories include anything to do with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or just plain old weather.
The podcast proposes an unusual theory for our audience’s obsession with survival information. Simply, it’s a result of evolution. Our ancestors stayed well informed, and thus prospered, because they had crucial information their less interested rivals didn’t have.
Whilst Dubner gave short shrift to this theory, it would further explain why “news you can use” constantly does so well.
Incidentally, the podcast mused, for our ancestors news would largely have been about sex and violence; knowing your potential friends from your potential enemies could make the difference between life and death.
It’s fascinating we are still so drawn to that type of sensationalist news – we really don’t need it in the same way. I mean, knowing whether Kim Kardashian is having sex with Kanye West isn’t a matter of life or death. I hope.
What do I get out of this?
And so finally to the theory that our audience follows news to boost their personal utility, or how useful they perceive themselves to be to other people.
From the audience’s perspective, choosing whether to read a story or not, I interpret this to mean, “Is reading this story going to make me seem smarter and more switched on than my peers? Will I seem more valuable to them?”
I guess this is where Kim and Kanye come into their own. The worship – and mocking – of celebrity is a huge part of our culture and we seem to absorb celebrity news, even when intellectually we think we couldn’t care less. On some level, perhaps we know this stuff will help us fit in, seem clued in and increase the “personal utility” we’re always seeking.
In fact, writing this, I realize the argument for following news to increase personal utility can be applied to almost any subject, depending on who your friends are. And if your social circle snubs Kim and Kanye, maybe you’ll be more drawn to news mocking them.
The point is, our audience are hoping to seem more knowledgeable to their friends by reading this story, which in turn will boost their perceived self-worth.
Noticeably, if the story so happens to express exactly what they were thinking anyway, then there is even more potential for boosting self-worth there.
Perhaps that explains why Buzzfeed’s lists do so damn well. This one, 24 Pictures That Perfectly Capture How Insane The Snow In New England Is, itself perfectly captured what everyone was thinking at the time. Or as Buzzfeed puts it so eloquently, “!!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!!!!!”
— Eric Fisher (@ericfisher) February 9, 2015
A storm in a penis
So where does that leave us as journalists?
Let’s take the example of Vancity Buzz, a very successful local Vancouver news blog, which this week reported on a coming storm with a story littered with penis innuendos.
Needless to say, it was the story everyone read and at the time of writing, had been shared more than 37,000 times.
But it was also noted with a sigh of frustration by other media, whose reporters had spent time researching their own hard news versions, but whose efforts were usurped by the success of the Vancity Buzz article.
Whatever your opinion of the content, according to the theories laid out above, I think Vancity Buzz perfectly anticipated their readers’ motivations – and that’s why the story did so well.
Puerile or not, the story entertained readers all over Vancouver. It also helped them make sense of their world. Why the hell is the weather like this? Here’s why.
It gave readers essential survival information – there’s a big storm coming, hunker down – and increased readers’ perceived personal utility. By reading the story, they knew a storm was coming, and could appear knowledgeable by warning their friends.
But what really compounded the story’s success was that it said exactly what readers’ were all thinking once they saw the graphic and gave them a funny way to share that thought on Facebook and Twitter. By sharing the story, readers gained even more personal utility, showing they were in on the joke.
If anything makes a story go viral, it’s an inside joke.
What does serving the public mean?
For the sake of argument, let’s consider the Freakonomics theories as fact. For public service broadcasters and more traditional news outlets, this is a nightmare.
As a general rule, we strongly believe journalism is a serious business, and is necessary to hold power to account. Public service broadcasters also have a mandate to inform our audience and give a considered, balanced point of view.
On an intellectual level, the audience expects this of us. But underneath it all, that same audience, which we need to justify our existence, may well be interested in none of that, instead simply seeking passing entertainment and a self-esteem boost.
In the age of online news, in which readers seek out the news THEY want on Google or Facebook or Twitter, rather than coming to our website or TV channel or radio station, and in an era in which clicks and shares mean everything to revenue streams, public service broadcasters are left walking a tightrope.
And if they go too far one way…it’s sharp drop off a long cliff.
Personally, having written this blogpost, I now think our need for news boils to down to our sense of being insignificant, insecure individuals, adrift in a universe we don’t understand.
We simultaneously seek distraction from this universal truth through entertainment – ignorance is bliss after all – and scavenge for anything that might briefly help us understand our predicament in this crazy world.
But a list of 23 Pictures That Guys Will Just Never Ever Understand should cover that, right?
Other opinions are available. Any thoughts, reaction, advice… Let me know in the comments below!