Shootings: Will Media World Tilt on its Axis?

For unexplained reasons, every once in a while the position of magnetic north (or true north) shifts. Pilots landing at some airport runways that are aligned with the recent concept of “north” may no longer use zero (0) degrees on the compass to line up the approach.

And every now and then a dramatic event occurs that prompts the media to adapt to new approaches in news coverage. Is the tragedy of the January 8 shootings in Tucson and its aftermath a game changer?

In terms of a cultural change, probably not. Consider the comments of one of politics keenest observers.

“We have allowed a culture of violence to grow up in this country: too much hate, too many guns, too many killings,” former presidential advisor David Gergan said in his CNN reaction to President Barack Obama’s speech last Wednesday. “My hope is that he [Obama] will create a broader, nonpartisan effort to change the culture. Without follow-up, the effect of Wednesday night's speech will fade rapidly as the politicians return to the wars in Washington.”

And will we observe immediate, perceptible differences in how the news covers such “moments?” Will we hear a different tone from talk shows and news channels identified with one ideological bias or another? Will we see innovation in how such events are covered?

Again, the answer is probably not. Call me a cynic, if you will. The reality is technology development, when combined with a rapid series of events, is more likely to bring immediate perceptible change in the news product rather than cultural influences. The key phrase here is “immediately perceptible.” Such moments may include:

The invention of photojournalism when the bloody battlefield images of Mathew Brady and others first appeared in newspapers.

Television news reports of the 1960s making Vietnam the “living room war.”

The rise of CNN and cable news as a competitive force in the 1980s during the Falklands War.

Battlefield coverage from the Mideast becoming real time because of the emergence of videophones and satellite communications.

The rapid rise of Twitter as a powerful news source during the recent post-election protests in Iran.

Understandably, major events such as wars do change the media environment. But do cultural trends and events affect the media in the same way? They do, but a slower pace.

The public is getting exactly what it wants and the media is glad to give it to them, Eric, Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times told NPR’s Scott Simon last Saturday. It’s called heated rhetoric format.

“It's a format that earns millions of dollars for several people, particularly in cable news, and particularly on talk radio,” Deggans said. “Contentious political debate is what fuels ratings and what earns big profits.“

New technologies and focus groups are helping to bring heated rhetoric into the home. Adds Deggans: “You know, we have all these different platforms, and I think people have increasingly surrounded themselves, particularly people who are interested in this stuff, in a silo of media that reflects their opinions back to them.” So as Tucson and Congress hold our attention for the time being, I don’t expect immediate changes in how the media conducts its business. But perhaps the roots of civility may find fertile ground in the weeks ahead.

Link: Eric Deggans on NPR