Dumbing Down - The Implications for Viewers and Producers of News
Here's another academic essay, this time discussing 'dumbing down'. Quotes have been left fully intact and references are at the end, Harvard style. This was originally written in 2003 or 2004, but this is it's first publication.
The ‘dumbing down’ of news has been an issue within media studies for some time. For many years tabloid newspapers have remained the best selling in the market, but concerns have been raised over the spill of tabloid style journalism into ‘quality’ newspapers (i.e. broadsheets) and broadcast news in the UK. This assignment aims to identify and discuss dumbing down as a concept and the implications it may have on news as a media product.
Steven Donn (2003) describes dumbing down as a process where “complex issues are simplified to excess, with it all boiling down to an issue or event being portrayed as either wrong or right and very little in the way of analysis being offered.” It also refers to the focus on ‘soft news’ where more importance is placed on celebrities, human interest stories, entertainment news and crime than previously seen within the mass media, which Matt Nisbet (2001) describes as “the media industry’s reaction to a nearly two decade decline in its readership and viewership base.” Kristen Sparre referred to tabloidization as “a process of decline in the standards of news media.” Whether called dumbing down, trivialization or tabloidization, the terms all refer to the simplification of important issues and a new focus on issues considered by some to be of little worth culturally or socially.
News as a product
News is a commodity. Although it is seen by many as ‘the truth’, news is a carefully constructed media product, going through a series of production processes before broadcast or publication. News agencies were the first multi-national corporations, trading stories with local journalists and other agencies across the world and, as Herman and McChesney (1997) state, “acquiring significant holdings in film, music, publishing, and broadcasting.” However, until the late 20th century agencies tended to trade almost entirely in hard news; politics, international affairs, scientific breakthroughs and other ‘high brow’ topics (although sports coverage has been a constant for some time). The conglomerations of the 1990s led to a reduction of the number of media corporations, leading to a system where six corporations control almost all of the world’s media. With the rise in the global capitalism as the driving force behind media expansion, the corporations began to apply capitalist principles to the production of news products, which Jackie Harrison (2000: 186) describes as “a market orientated rush towards providing niche news products.”
In terms of the tabloidization debate, these ‘niche news products’ have already appeared in the form of magazines such as Heat and Now , and newspaper sections such as the Daily Mirror’ s ‘3am’ and the Sun ’s ‘Bizarre’, all devoted to the pursuit of celebrity gossip as their core news value. The Daily Star goes a step further, with ‘The Goss’ for general celebrities and ‘Hot’ for music celebrities. Hello , which used to report mainly on celebrities within high society, royalty and film stars, has expanded to include the likes of Big Brother contestant Jade Goody in the face of competition from other gossip magazines.
But while many in the media seek to condemn this obsession with the trivial, some choose to embrace it and find a positive way of viewing it. Obviously many people enjoy this form of news, as Now ’s sales figures will attest to: 570,279 copies on average per week in August 2002 (Byrne, C., 2002). Madeleine Bunting called the entire trivialisation debate “bankrupt”, claiming that it is nothing more than “snobbish elitism” against a “feminisation” of news. She argues:
“The purpose of culture and the dominant mode of communication have been feminised. Its overriding preoccupation is establishing personal connection – a task which historically has mainly fallen to women. Contemporary culture is dominated by the ethos of over-the-backfence-gossip writ large. The Hello! Style fascination with the lives of celebrities, addiction to soap opera and football has been the nationalisation of gossip.” (Bunting, M., 2000)
She adds that “rationality has been downgraded, emotion rules.” Jamie Doward, writing for the Observer about these trends, noted “We may not know much about the Holy Roman Empire, but, boy, do we know how to accessorise and get the best mortgage.” But this only serves to devalue areas of interest such as history, and as the cliché goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Postmodernist ideas such as ‘history is dead’ only serve to further reinforce impressions, especially among youth, that anything that isn’t happening now isn’t worth knowing. But as American historian Frederick Jackson Turner said "The aim of the historian, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past, for the present is simply the developing past. . . . The goal of the historian is the living present" (date unknown). The study of history tells us how we got to where we are and what the implications are for the future, while the study of celebrity culture tells us what hairstyle David Beckham has this week and what the implications are for his scalp and bank balance.
Some of the blame for this shift can be put on journalists. Traditional news subjects, such as politics, are harder to report on in an interesting or controversial way than they once were. As John Wilson states:
“If journalism is to make society face its ills wherever they are, it will have no friends. In particular, it will be disliked by people in power because it expects them to answer issues decided by the media, not solely those agreed on the political agenda.” (Wilson, 1996: 28)
Now politicians are fully equipped to deal with the press with soundbites, and keep their scandals somewhat quieter, journalists go for the easy targets, those who want publicity more. Celebrity news is easy to find, as PR agents will send press releases detailing any story which might be newsworthy. Photographers can earn big money for a photograph of a celebrity without make-up on, they need not be doing anything controversial other than ‘looking a bit rough’.
Slowly more and more celebrity stories are appearing on broadcast news bulletins in the UK. David Beckham was a regular fixture on the news during summer 2003 as he changed his haircut, football club and image a number of times. At the same time the situation in Iraq continued to escalate, but broadcasters still found time for the most trivial detail of Beckham’s life, and even a search of the Guardian Unlimited website reveals much about Beckham in addition to the war.
If the trivialisation of news is about commerce over information, are more people actually watching the news? Matt Nisbet found “that infotainment has actually accelerated the decline in news audiences, while serving to impair the public’s interest in and knowledge of public affairs” (2001). Perhaps the purchasing of other media firms by news agencies, discussed earlier, means that multinational corporations are using even the news-based parts of their empires to promote products above all else. Even ITV is guilty of promoting programmes through its news programmes, such as highlighting the Coronation Street bigamy storyline through Tonight with Trevor McDonald .
It is a combination of factors which has led to the perception of ‘dumbing down’ in print and broadcast media. Lazy journalism, global free market capitalism, growing celebrity culture and simple public disinterest have all created an image of the consumer as fashion victim, a passive space to fill with dreams of showbiz parties and sponsorship deals. Active audience theory suggests that this is wrong, that “people around the world adapt global media fare to their own environment and use it creatively” (Herman and McChesney, 1997: 194), and the global market economy which allows us to understand this has caused “an expansion of formal democracy, but a weakening of it’s substance and growing sense of political powerlessness” (ibid.). Maybe the feeling of powerlessness is the cause of the shift away from politics as the main focus of the news media.
But if the media really is dumbing down, the backlash has begun. As Doward (2003) informs us, “visits to museums soared by 70% between 2001 and 2002” in reaction to the “horror of being seen to be like Jade Goody”, a woman famed for her lack of intellect [note: now deceased, and celebrated as a national hero during her cancer]. Perhaps reality TV and the exposure of celebrity failings have woken some people up to the lack of culture in their lives. And perhaps this is just as well, because, as Neil Postman writes in his ‘Huxleyan Warning’:
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” (Postman, 1985: 161)
- Harrison, J. (2000) Terrestrial TV News in Britain: The Culture of Production, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Herman, E. S. and McChesney, R. W. (1997) The Global Media: the New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism, London: Continuum.
- Postman, N. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness, London: Methuen.
- Wilson, J. (1996) Understanding Journalism: A Guide To Issues, London: Routledge.
- Doward, J. (2003) ‘Is Britain Dumbing Down? Hardly: we’re really smartening up’, The Observer, London, 1 June.
- Bunting, M. (2000) ‘Rewiring our brains’, Guardian Unlimited (online) (cited 10/11/03). Available from <URL:http://www.guardian.co.uk/dumb/story/0,7369,396716,00.html>
- Byrne, C. (2002) ‘Now tops celerity mag sales’, Media Guardian (online) (cited 8/12/03). Available from <URL:http://media.guardian.co.uk/presspublishing/story/0,7495,775839,00.html>
- Donn, S. (2003) ‘Dumbing Down’, Counterpoint: The cultural relations think-tank of the British Council (online) (cited 10/11/03). Available from <URL:http://www.counterpoint-online.org/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=318>
- Nisbet, M. (2001) ‘That’s Infotainment! Soft journalism undermines credibility’, CSICOP (online) (cited 10/11/03). Available from <URL:http://www.csicop.org/genx/infotainment/>
- Turner, F. J. (1861-1932) quoted in ‘History Quotes’, CCCNJ (online) (cited 9/12/03). Available from <URL:http://www.cccnj.net/>
- Sparre, K. (2001) ‘Celebrity and Tabloidization: Differences in importance of celebrity as news value’, CFJE (online) (cited 8/12/03). Available from <URL:http://www.cfje.dk/cfje/VidBase.nsf/ID/CB00215674>