Saturday, May 11, 2013

Pop Culture Invades the News Media

Even though I pride myself on being a “news junkie” I have a confession to make.  Until last night when I tuned into NBC’s Dateline program, I knew very little about Jodi Arias.  If you’re in the same boat I was until this week, here’s a quick summary:  She’s the woman who was convicted this week of killing her former boyfriend by stabbing him 27 times, cutting his throat and shooting him in the head.  In her defense, her attorneys she said this was done in self-defense.

The trial has gone on for the past four months and was televised.  Judges, jurors, former jurors, attorneys, witnesses and even some regular members of the gallery were made celebrities as a result of this trial. The testimony was so rich in sex, lies and intrigue that cable networks, book publishers and Hollywood will surely create a mini-industry out of the content here for those “based on a true story” productions and novels.

And that is why I didn’t pay attention to it.  When the news media began to cover the story, I sensed it was going to be a media circus around the kind of day-to-day courtroom drama that doesn’t interest me.

To be sure, the Jodi Arias story is a news story that really did happen.  Its attraction is understandable in that it is somewhat unfathomable that someone could not only do what this slight woman did, but that she could lie about it so convincingly. 

But when the media circus starts, that’s when I start to lose interest, because the coverage itself becomes a distraction.  This is also the case for just about every story featured on programs like Entertainment Tonight or on TMZ. 

What’s somewhat worrisome to me as one who has worked in and with the media for many years, however, is how the lines between reality and entertainment have been blurred in recent years. 

Charles Ramsey is the man who is said to have rescued Amanda Berry from that home-made prison in Cleveland where she and other young women were kept against their will for the past ten years.  In one colorful media interview that went viral on YouTube, Mr. Ramsey is now a media celebrity, something he certainly didn’t anticipate one week ago.

Jeff Bliss is a Texas high school student who lectured his teacher on what he believed were her lazy teaching methods while being captured by a smart phone on video. That rant went viral and now young Mr. Bliss is a celebrity.

A.J. Clemente is the right-out-of-college TV news broadcaster who in his first minutes of his first job got himself fired for dropping the F-bomb and a few other vulgarities while live on the air.  His reward was to become a YouTube sensation and a guest on the late-night comedy shows. The visibility will likely help him, not hurt him in his hunt for a new job. 

These viral celebrities are starting to make reality TV personalities like the stars of Duck Dynasty (another show I have yet to watch, and am not in a hurry) look like trained entertainment professionals.

Traditionally, when it came to the media, you had pop culture and news media, and the lines between them were very clear.  News coverage centered mostly on real happenings involving real people, whether the story was a feature or hard news.  Pop culture was relegated to the feature section of the newspaper or broadcast, where it was assumed that radio, TV, theater and other arts activities existed for entertainment purposes only and were therefore not held to the same standards of truth.

Thanks to the Internet and the evolution of the media, most notably reality TV programming, not only do you not need an achievement to become famous, but you really no longer need talent.

As a result, pop culture and entertainment media are no longer what they once were.  Pop culture has invaded the news media.

Studies have been conducted that have revealed that a large segment of the news viewing population think comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Channel’s The Daily Show, is one of the most credible “journalists” on TV. 

The irony is not lost on Mr. Stewart himself who told Fox News’s Chris Wallace in 2011, “The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict and laziness. The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does.”

Chances are as you tune in to your favorite local or network newscast, or read reports from your most respected newspapers, more and more of what used to be considered news is being squeezed out to make room for updates from pop culture.

I’m going to go out on a limb and presume that musical diva Beyonce is likely more recognizable and more respected to a larger share of the American public than U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor.

An account of how a fan stormed the stage at a recent Justin Bieber concert in Germany will more than likely move “above the fold” in your local paper or on its Web site, and to make room, that story about the federal budget or the latest news on the stock market will be cut or eliminated.

While such trends are not new to local news story selection, what is becoming the norm is that public knowledge and understanding of the substantive events affecting their lives is falling to a level best described as current events illiteracy.

This trend of pop culture dominating the American consciousness may in fact be one of the biggest challenges those of us in the PR profession face in the coming years.  To date, our work to deliver our messages to the public has been rooted in the traditional journalistic model.  In the future, to break through the pop culture clutter, however, we will no longer be able to count on the same level of news media curiosity, a demand for facts, substance and information people need. 

It’s hard for that kind of thing to compete against the spray tanning secrets of Dancing with the Stars.

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