If you’ve lived on this planet more than 20 years you’ve experienced constant changes. We constantly hear that the only thing that remains the same is change and nowhere is that change more evident than in the world of media.
We reaffirmed the changing face of media when the Publisher of Raleigh’s News and Observer recently retired, reminiscing that when he first took over, the N&O had more than 1200 employees. Today there are about 350. We counted on our newspapers to inform us but with the declines in readership and reporting staff they have neither the circulation nor authority they once enjoyed.
Radio began eating into newspaper dominance in the 1930s and 40s with its ability of immediacy and reception into every farm home and hamlet. The 1950s and 60s saw the explosion of television, adding both the immediacy and pictures. Can you remember when the local newscast was only fifteen minutes? So were national newscasts, featuring John Cameron Swayze, Douglas Edwards, Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. As viewership increased television quickly expanded their coverage and size of their news staffs.
Two big game-changers exacerbated the media changes. People laughed in 1980 when a brash Ted Turner announced to the world the inception of the Cable News Network. Now viewers could get news 24 hours a day, but had to subscribe to cable and we so did in large numbers. Over the air television viewership declined as cable subscribers exploded.
Turner’s CNN spawned imitators. To fill 24-hour news cycles they covered news events exhaustively, also adding talk shows. Viewers can now self-select the spin they want by choosing between the major networks, CNN, MSNBC or Fox News. The race for ratings resulted in talk shows becoming more partisan and bombastic. Moderators have become celebrities, sometimes blurring the lines between being the news and reporting it.
When the Internet came along the media pie became even more divided and news content changed just as dramatically. When I first started writing and commenting on public policy events news articles focused on the “who, what, when, where, and how” of a story. Opinions were confined to the editorial page. Now the Internet and social media provide anyone with a laptop or smartphone the opportunity to comment about anything and anyone, whether factual or not.
CBS Newsman Bob Schieffer often says that when you watch or read something on accredited media sources it has been vetted by more than one source. On the Internet that’s not the case and it is difficult to separate fact from opinion.
Watergate was a major turning point in the coverage of news as journalists and editors recognized they had not been diligent enough in pursuit of misconduct by public officials, corporations and charities. They shifted from just from factual reporting to an intentional and intensive effort for investigative reporting. Simultaneously, in order to win the war of readers and viewers the media moved to humanize stories and started delivering more personal, touchy-feely news reporting.
All these changes aren’t necessarily good or bad, but in this new media world our responsibility is to be more deliberate, evaluating and discerning the difference between factual reporting and opinion. We can only imagine the changes we will observe in the next decade.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.