Breaking News: Our Daily Soap Opera

The News cycle is designed to keep us tuned in for the next installment. It’s purpose is to make us believe that if we don’t check in every hour we will miss out on something important. The article quoted below was written some time ago, however most people still don’t know the real history of news reporting and how it has changed over time.

If you understand the purpose of our modern day news cycle, then it can help to put the little information we get into context and hopefully remove some of the anxiety it produces in us. We do not have to live in a continuous crisis mode.

What has emerged, Weaver argues, is a culture of lying. “The culture of lying,” he writes, “is the discourse and behavior of officials seeking to enlist the powers of journalism in support of their goals, and of journalists seeking to co-opt public and private officials into their efforts to find and cover stories of crisis and emergency response. It is the medium through which we Americans conduct most of our public business (and a lot of our private business) these days.” The result, he says, is a distortion of the constitutional role of government into an institution that must continually resolve or appear to resolve crises; it functions in “a new and powerful permanent emergency mode of operation.”

The architect of the transformation was not a political leader or a constitutional convention but Joseph Pulitzer, who in 1883 bought the sleepy New York World and in 20 years made it the country’s largest newspaper. Pulitzer accomplished that by bringing drama to news—by turning news articles into stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and colorful details. In the late nineteenth century, most newspaper accounts of government actions were couched in institutional formats, much like the minutes of a board meeting and about as interesting. Pulitzer turned them into stories with a sharp dramatic focus that both implied and aroused intense public interest. Most newspapers of the time looked like the front page of the Wall Street Journal still does. Pulitzer made stories dramatic by adding blaring headlines, big pictures, and eye-catching graphics. His journalism took events out of their dry, institutional contexts and made them emotional rather than rational, immediate rather than considered, and sensational rather than informative. The press became a stage on which the actions of government were a series of dramas.

Why the News Is Not the Truth by Peter Vanderwicken, Harvard Business Review (May-June 1995)