Our sound bitten society
Since the birth of the Internet one of the things that has arguably consumed the most amount of time of users, is the need to know things (Stephens, 2007). Whether it is for your job, or just to be able to hold a conversation about current events, news is important. One platform that has allowed news publications, particularly online news, to increase traffic to their websites, as well as a creating a place for discussion, is social media (Fuchs, 2014). Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are the two most popular of their kind with more than 1.74 billion monthly users between them (About Twitter Inc.) (Statista, 2015).
News has many different definitions depending on what it means to you. I believe the most relevant definition is this one: “Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.” (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.)
Depending on how the news article is angled or written, almost anything has the potential to be news.
Thanks to a rise in popularity of the Internet, as well as the increased accessibility of it, news publications have turned to publishing a majority of news as-it-happens onto websites for ease of access. Along with general websites to host news stories, many news publications also host various social networking accounts to share articles from their websites to generate popularity (Fuchs, 2014). I’m getting too ahead of myself; lets take a step back to look at the history of news so we can understand it a bit better.
The history of news goes back as far as humankind. New York University (NYU) Journalism and Mass Communication Professor Mitchell Stephens says in an interview with the ‘Future Journalism Project’ that news is something we all partake in (Future Journalism Project, 2012).
“News… through most of human history, was not a spectator sport, it was a sport that we all participated in. We all gathered news, and we all told news… at a marketplace, at a campfire, when we met each other on passing,” He said.
“But now, we are all plugged into one giant marketplace, one giant meeting place where we can all do what human beings have always done; exchange news. Except now we are beginning to do it again as humans used to do without having professional journalists intercede.” (Future Journalism Project, 2012)
In the beginning of time, people (and possibly even animals) have been able spread news and information by word of mouth through what is arguably built into our brain. The only difference now is that instead of doing it solely face to face, a lot of us are connected to the internet and social media where we are able to broadcast our own news (Future Journalism Project, 2012).
Partly due to our growing population and our ever-competitive economy, people want to read more news, in less time. Publications and broadcasting companies understand this shift in news consumption and have trained journalists to condense as much information as they can into easily readable forms. This is what I am calling ‘sound bite news,’ a phenomenon that affects the way we read, hear or see news. Sound bite news is a very positive thing in that we can be kept up-to-date easier than ever. However, I also believe is can be harmful to some because compressing complex issues like politics or economics into short articles can sometimes not get the whole point across to the reader.
There are many intellectuals who spend a great deal of time asking the questions that we all sort of know the answer to, but they seem to always word it just right. Noam Chomsky, Jürgen Habermas, Ida Tarbell and John Stuart Mill spent their lives philosophising and theorising politics and society, and its relationship with the human condition (Novendstern, 2011). Each of these key thinkers, from very different eras all had or still have very different views on why we read news, each of which are still relevent to this day. Writers at the Harvard Political Review were able to briefly describe these views on why we read news.
According to John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher who lived from 1806 until 1872, we read news because he believed it is our duty as citizens (Novendstern, 2011). By this he meantt as voters and citizens of democratic nations, we have a say in who leads them. With that in mind, the news will usually be reporting on the things we need to know or should consider before voting – which Mr Mill says we should be taking very seriously. In a way, many people do still take it seriously, particularly in countries where it is compulsary to vote. To be able to make an informed decision on which party or group someone is going to vote for, they first must know which party is advocating for what and things like that. Where is the average citizen going to gain this information from? All odds point to, you guessed it; the news (Novendstern, 2011).
Ida Tarbell, who died in 1844 aged 86, was a school teacher, journalist and author, as well as a pioneer in progressive journalism. As someone who published news, Tarbell believed that we read news because it helps us achieve our goals by getting the facts that we need to achieve them. A modern day example of this could be, if someone was applying for a job as a public relations practitioner, they would need to read the news about their potential client or organisation they are working with or for. The PR practitioners goal might be to work through a crisis or manage an issue to do with that company. Another example might be, someone who cares about global warming would read news about what they can personally do to stop it like how to save electricity (Novendstern, 2011).
Noam Chomsky, 86, is an American philosopher, cognotive scientist and political commentator just to name a few of his various job titles. He has written many essays and books regarding his views, and the power that the (particularly American) mass media has on citizens. In one of his more famous books ‘Maufacturing Consent’, co-written with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky writes a harsh, but fair account of the American media. He writes that we read news because mainstream news media exposes things that we should know as citizens of democracy such as, lying politicians, national and international issues that could affect us (Novendstern, 2011).
Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist whose main focuses include social and political theory probably has the most relatable reason as to why we read news. He basically says that we read news because it gives us something to talk about. If you think about all the things you talk to others about, how much of that is in the news? And how much of the stance that you have comes from how those news pieces are presented (Novendstern, 2011)?
We read news because it gives us something to talk about; we need to know who or what is running the country; because we care about what we are reading or viewing; and because it is our duty as citizens and voters to keep abreast of our nations goings-on. According to the ‘Worldometer’ every day the global population increases by upwards of 200,000 people every day (Worldometer, n.d.). With this constant population increase, logic would tell you that this means more people are going to be wanting more news. Logic would also tell you that as the population increases so too will our need to know more. People are going to want to know more, faster, in larger quantities, in a more condensed and easy to read form. With a growing population, comes a growing need for news in sound bite form.
There used to be a time where students would go to a library, look through seemingly endless shelves to find the book they needed before they could finally turn to the information they wanted. But that time is coming to any end, largely thanks to the globalisation of the internet. A similar phenomenon is happening with news. It used to be that you would have to wait for the newspaper to be published, or the radio broadcast to begin. These days, news is basically unavoidable (Future Journalism Project, 2012).
Thanks to modern technology, you do not have to wait for most things, let alone news. There are even separate channels or publications for those who only want to know about certain things. If you can think of it, there is probably a magazine, website, TV, or online video channel about it that is pumping out information and current affairs about that topic. The Coca-Cola Company even has its own ‘Press Center’ which hosts something known as ‘Brand Journalism.’ (Coca-Cola press center, n.d.)
‘Brand Journalism’ is created by organisations, for organisations’ stakeholders. Brand journalists are the people who publish news for and about a companies and organisations like Coca-Cola, Apple, Nike, or McDonald’s just to name a few. This fairly new marketing technique dates back to 2004 when Chief Marketing Officer for McDonald’s Larry Light said, “… no single ad tells the whole story.” He also said in 2004 that traditional mass marketing was not as effective as it once was (University of Alaska, n.d.).
With this sort of specific journalism becoming increasingly popular, it is now left up to the major mainstream news publications to report on the important stuff. This ‘important stuff’ can be found at the top of any credible news website, or broken down into sections of any major newspaper. Usually these are the things that are affecting readers the most, politics; who is running your country, economics; money matters that will involve you such as taxes, imports and exports, cost of living (Daigle, n.d.). Another news topic that is very popular is crime. For local news especially, it is important to know where crime is happening and what kind of crime it is, because this allows the reader to prepare or prevent that crime from happening to them. Health and medical journalism usually takes up a fairly small section of a newspaper even though health is something that affects every single person on earth. Sport, entertainment and lifestyle are also in there for human-interest reading (Daigle, n.d.).
As you can see, news is something that is important for everyone, no matter who you are, where you live, how old you are, or your employment situation. Because of our current population surge, news is only going to become more popular. And due to this added pressure, major news publications are going to become more popular, and the demand for news will be greater. These high demands then cause a push for the need for sound-bite news, which drives our sound-bite society. It is a society that forms its opinions, creates discussion and elects government representatives based on a large amount of information, condensed into an easily digestible form.
Social media is just one of the many places that we read news these days and is also one of the most harmful places where sound bite news takes place. It is evident on most social media platforms, but I am going to take examples from Facebook and Twitter. As we probably all know, news publications are becoming increasingly Internet orientated because that is where there is a growing audience (Fuchs, 2014). As newspaper sales go down, online news is slowly taking centre stage at the forefront of news publication (The Economist, 2006).
In addition to this new age of news consumption, the rise in popularity of technologies such as smart phones and tablets that can connect to the internet almost anywhere, is making accessing the news easier than ever. That being said, as Ted Hart, the president of the ePhilathropy Foundation said, “Just as television failed to kill radio, yet it changed it significantly, so, too, will the Internet change traditional (news)” (Hart, Greenfield & Johnston, 2005, p. 9).
In the United States, it has been widely reported that 80% of people who find themselves reading news online will only ever read the headline and rarely will they read the first paragraph. In fact, the remaining 20% will venture below the headline, and then a smaller fraction of those people will ever actually read the full story (Melfetta, 2014).
Lead researchers Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini and their organization, Nielsen Norman Group (NNg) are the people who discovered the F-shaped pattern for reading online content. Through their eye tracking study, they were able to find out how 232 people read thousands of different web pages. They discovered that people move their eyes in an F-shaped pattern, particularly when the article or website they are reading appears to be long at first glance (Nielsen, 2006).
Figure 1 (Nielsen, 2006)
As illustrated in the image above, the red sections are the areas that have concentrated levels of viewing. Assuming that this study is an indication of what is happening globally, the ‘F’ shape reading pattern can carry a number of different implications, according to NNg (Nielsen, 2006).
According to NNg, the first implication of the ‘F’ Pattern is that the readers will not be able to read your text thoroughly enough to gain a proper understanding (Nielsen, 2006). This can be particularly worrying for readers of articles or websites that present a particularly intricate subject. Someone reading an article about weight-loss, a subject that has many different facets, is an example. If you are reading an article like this, you are probably there for one reason, to find out how to lose weight. It is fair to assume that once you have found the answer to the question you have been searching for (how to lose weight), you will probably stop reading. Speaking from my journalistic experience, the first paragraph (or even the headline) will hold the answer, “take this pill… do this exercise… eat this food.” People will subconsciously use the ‘F’ reading pattern to find the information they want, or until they find something interesting to read (Nielsen, 2006).
The second implication is that, ‘the first two paragraphs must state the most important information.’ In traditional journalism, it goes without saying that having the most relevant and attention-grabbing information first is arguably the most important part (Errington & Miragliotta, 2011). This writing technique is commonly known as ‘the inverted pyramid,’ where at the top writers will write the most important things, and then as you go down, the information becomes less vital. It is used so Editors can cut paragraphs from the bottom of a story and it will still be relevant (Errington & Miragliotta). However, the ‘F’ Pattern study did not only concentrate on online journalism; the people participating in the study were looking at all sorts of websites (Nielsen, 2006). In a style of writing that doesn’t traditionally require the
This style of reading is just one example of the dangers that are associated with our sound bite society. People use the ‘F’ reading pattern because they do not have time to read things properly anymore. As stated previously, society uses news and news media to form the basis of conversation, to find out which party or leader we want to vote for, and in some cases, to find out who or what we like and dislike. When people are using reading techniques like the ‘F’ shaped reading pattern, they are potentially missing out on the important information. Basing opinions and decisions on something you have only skimmed over can be dangerous, particularly in the case of political journalism (Herman & Chomsky, 2008)
Politics is what drives the world; it is at the base of everything (Herman & Chomsky, 2008). There is nothing on this earth that isn’t directly or indirectly affected by politics. In democratic nations where we elect the people who we thing will run our nation effectively, it is important that we know everything that we need to before we vote for a particular party. It must be acknowledged that there are some people who will always vote for a particular party no matter what the proposed policies. The real danger here is the overwhelming amount of voters who are undecided when it comes to polling day. These are the people who will ultimately base their voting decisions on what people have told them, or what they have read in the news.
In some democratic nations where political figure heads have close ties with news corporations, oil companies and billion dollar industry leaders, democracy has turned into Corporatocracy; but that is a whole different article (Dimin, 2011). What I am trying to say is that sometimes there have and are going to be news publications that have some sort of political sway, which is evident in the way some matters are reported (Errington & Miragliotta, 2011).
In the US, the most obvious one is Fox News. On day one of Intro to Journalism, Fox is used as an example of how not to be a journalist. In fact, FOX News has even been named by Fair.org as one of the most ‘biased names in news’. With FOX’s well-known reputation for negative political commentary towards anything that goes against the Republican Party in the US, coupled with its massive audience reach, it has the potential to hinder a true democracy (Herman & Chomsky, 2008). An example of this happening comes again from social media.
Figure 2 (Fox News Facebook, n.d.)
In Figure 2 (above), we can see that the aim of posting this article, or even writing it, is seemingly to direct the blame of Iraqi Army’s willingness to fight ISIS on US President Barrack Obama’s fault. For the average ‘F’ shape reader, there is enough information here to form an opinion – the opinion Fox News writers want you to have. This opinion is; ‘the Iraqi army is weak, it was Obama’s idea to train them, it failed, so Obama is to blame.’
Since statistics show that up to 80% of people don’t venture past the headline and first line of a news article, this could is very effective biased against the Obama administration. The Fox News Facebook page that this screenshot was taken from, has over 10.3 million followers, or ‘likes’. If 80% of those people were to not venture past the headline and caption, that is potentially 8 million people who blame President Barrack Obama for the Iraqi Army’s lack of ability to defeat ISIS, ultimately blaming Obama for ISIS still being a threat. That is conservative America for you I guess. Evidence of this type of reaction can be seen in the comment section of this Facebook post (Figure 3).
Figure 3 (Fox News Facebook, n.d.)
As you can see in Figure 3, people don’t really seem to be reading much further into the article, or the issue at hand. Is this planned by FOX; a famously Republican favouring news corporation? I suppose we’re on our own with figuring that one out, but the evidence suggests it may be (Herman & Chomsky, 2008). In fact, scrolling through the Fox News Facebook page, I came across a number of posts that put the Obama Administration in a negative light.
Another example of sound bite news damaging the reputation of political representatives can be seen below in Figure 4.
Figure 4 (Ninemsn Facebook, n.d.)
The man in the image in Figure 4 is Colin Barnett, the Liberal Premier of Western Australia (WA). Once again, the producers of this news story have seemingly crafted this news story in order to embarrass Mr. Barnett. With further investigation into what the story says, it is true that the MH370 plane disappearance is in fact good for science; however, the way this is being portrayed by this Ninemsn Facebook post makes him look like a bad guy, which he may or may not be, but that is not up to a journalist to decide.
Upon further investigation (actually reading the story), Barnett said this in a speech he was making at a WA Marine Science conference, after acknowledging that this was, “a great human tragedy…” He went on to explain that previously unknown volcanoes had been discovered in the search for the plane, so too have fresh water lakes and water falls, “many did not believe was likely to exist.” So it is true; in a way, the disappearance of the plane has been good for science, not only just for the discovery of new environmental wonders, but also for the
I believe that without fully reading the rest of the article, it is hard to see what Mr. Barnett is saying. The way that he is portrayed in this article is unfair and goes against the very definition of journalism –fair and balanced reporting, which is ironically Fox News’ motto (Fox News Facebook, n.d.). The same principles apply with this article as with the Fox News article. Taking a look at the comment section in Figure 5, we can see that, again, not many people have actually read the full story, to gain an understanding of what is being said.
Figure 5 (Ninemsn Facebook, n.d.)
By not reading the full story, people are jumping to conclusions, because from what they have read, they think Mr. Barnett is glad the MH370 plane went missing, because it is “good for science.”
Both of those publications have extremely high audience reaches, as they are both national news publications. Fox News is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group, which is arguably one of the most well known TV, radio, film and even book producers, worldwide (Fox News Facebook, n.d.). Ninemsn is owned by Mi9, which is a subsidiary of Nine Entertainment; Australia’s most watched news channel (TV Tonight, n.d.). That being said, the evidence shows that both Fox and Ninemsn are using their massive audience reach to almost defame Barrack Obama and Colin Barnett. Looking in the comment section, we can see that it is working.
The sound bite news phenomenon can be damaging to a free democracy because negative press, coupled with a large audience reach, can ultimately affect voting polls because undecided voters will make their decision based on what they hear, see and read.
What good is a free democracy if the media forms opinions for you? It is arguable that the days of fair reporting that is equal and fair, that offers two sides to every story are gone. With our ever-increasing population and competitive economy, the world is going through a change in the way media is being delivered, and the way we view it. The only thing we can do, and media publications can do is assimilate; go with the flow, stay updated and get with the times. Sure, newspaper sales are going down, but look on the bright side; the Internet is becoming more accessible and is becoming the preferred place to read the news (The Economist, 2006). It doesn’t cost as much to produce online news as it does to print thousands of newspapers.
Growing need for news also means further distortion of news or further creation of sound bite news for our sound bite news society.
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