There was a time where people used to get their news from the local paper. On their walk to work they would pick up the newspaper at the corner news stand and read about the world’s events on their bus to work. If a headline grabbed their attention, they would read the story. If it was of no interest they would skip over it and move on. Some people pulled out the business section, because that’s all they cared about. Others would jump right to sports, or world news. But the newspaper was their only option to receive current events, so the few dozen pages between the front page and the back cover of the local newspaper had a monopoly on reader’s attention.
In the 1950s, televisions became more popular in households. They were mostly black and white, small screens with a handful of channel selections that covered a broad selection of entertainment choices intended to appeal to the entire family. There were kids shows, variety shows, news shows, etc. With the limited channel choices and the headache of having to adjust the antennae to tune the image to something that was visible, most families took in the content that was fed to them.
By the 80’s, cable television expanded the number of channels people could chose from. It also added niche stations. If you wanted to listen to music all day, you had MTV. If you wanted News, there was CNN. No longer was content limited to the finite amount of printed pages between covers of a newspaper, now there was all-news, all-the time. With that, news outlets had to come up with more content to fill the hours. Not only would they need to jazz up the content to keep viewers engaged, but they had to target the content to an audience because there were now other channels competing for the viewership.
Then came the internet and everything exploded! The billions of pages of the world wide web became the world’s newspaper and anyone with an internet connection and a social media account became a journalist. No longer could you pull out the section that interests you or watch the channel you preferred. Now artificial intelligence fed your stories to you and directed your preferences.
A couple of weeks ago, a former employee of Facebook, turned whistleblower, called into question the Company’s ethics, saying that the social network put profits over safety, It remains to see how significant the societal impact will be, but this is hardly a revelation.
in 1912, the Titanic became one of the worlds biggest stories and one of the first times in history that news outlets competed for attention. As an archive of Titanic headlines states, “Newspapers fed the public interest in the Titanic disaster by publishing sensational banner headlines, reports, stories, special sections, photographs, and editorials. This collection shows the result of different efforts to balance the need to sell newspapers and the reporting of accurate information.” The disparity between the reports are incredible. One British paper even reported that there were no casualties!
Since that time, the balance has shifted even further from the responsibility to report accurate information towards the need to sell advertising space.The internet has made things so much worse, but has not been the origin of skewed messaging. Depending on which cable network you watched, the last presidential administration was an entirely different experience. Local news stations air scary teasers, such as “Could your drinking water be poisoning you, story at 11” to induce viewers to tune into their channel. And newspaper headlines needed to be more sensational to sell papers about the Titanic. Why is the Facebook whistleblower even relevant?
As we often ask ourselves in the reform/abolition movement, “what will be the tipping point”? What can we point to in a chronology of events where the registry shifted from “remedial” to “punitive”? Here too, will the Facebook whistleblower become a tipping point in the public’s demand for responsible reporting? Will it cause everyone to question the validity of everything they read? Will there be a shift back towards truth and integrity, or have things gotten too far gone and it’ll just continue getting worse?
We are currently in Halloween month. The season where Patch runs their series of scare stories naming and shaming people on the registry and local news stations will be rehashing the same myths they recycle every year. The stories are unquestionably intended to scare parents into tuning in or clicking on the headlines. As we’ve repeatedly reported, year over year, these stories are not grounded in fact.
While we won’t be able to control what is fed to the audience, what if we used these click-bait stories to our advantage? What if we filled the comments section of each article with facts? What if we pointed out how inaccurate the reported information is and instead, posted pages and pages of anti-registry information? We always talk about educating the public and getting out message in front of the right audience? Maybe this season is our opportunity to turn this attention in our favor?
Something to think about.