Yellow Journalism of the 21st Century

From the courtroom to the campaign trail, media sensationalism is disguised as non-biased reporting.
By Justin Schuster

The Casey Anthony Complex

Fox News’ slogan – “We report. You decide.” – pays ironic homage to a style of reporting from days long past – or perhaps that never were.  The amorous courtship of media and pundits is hardly a new phenomenon; it conjures memories of the media’s notorious influence just before the 1898 Spanish-American War.  Today the USS Maine conjures images not of the war but of yellow journalism – offshoots of which can be seen today. Perfected by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalism sensationalized stories, exhausted scandals, and captured the public with attention-grabbing headlines and pictures. One apocryphal story claims that Hearst remarked, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

With its head-turning appeal, yellow journalism, like ancient Helen of Troy, launched a thousand ships – to the Cuban harbor that is.  Since the days of Pulitzer and Hearst, journalists and intellectuals have debated the role of reporting. Walter Lippmann and John Dewey encapsulate the two schools of thought surrounding early modern journalism in the twentieth century.  A writer unparalleled and a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Lippmann represented the camp of elitism journalism. Positing that “the public is not smart enough to understand complicated, political issues,” he defended a model of journalism that distilled news and interpreted it for the masses.  For Lippmann, the journalist was the voice and the mind of the news.

In contrast, the philosopher and American intellectual John Dewey advocated for an unbiased media.  Unlike Lippmann, Dewey demonstrated a fundamental confidence in the ability of the masses to interpret news.  Discussion among the populace would form a marketplace of ideas that would highlight the best ideas.  Today’s journalism is Lippmann’s vision taken to a devastating extreme.  Though Lippmann defended journalism with significant interpretive license, even he would be slightly repulsed by the status quo. Enlightened journalists have been replaced with a constant inundation of opinions. What accounts for this neo-Lippmanism?

There are three factors: the 24-hour news cycle, twenty-first century technologies, and intense economic pressure on the media.  CNN introduced the world to 24-hour television news coverage upon its launch in 1980.  Shortly before this moment, Ted Turner presented his station by famously saying, “We won’t be signing off until the world ends.  We’ll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event.”  24-hour news coverage has radically reshaped how people view the world.  Its impact was first felt in the first Gulf War, and later on with the failed Ranger Task Force in Mogadishu and the atrocities in the Balkans. 24-hour news has made it such that no event goes uncovered.  Moreover, the CNN effect suggests that 24-hour news significantly influences a country’s foreign policy.  As discussed by Steven Livingston in his book Clarifying the CNN Effect, 24-hour news has the power to shape, impede and accelerate a country’s foreign policy via public opinion.

Whereas 24-hour news has revolutionized the viewer’s access with respect to time, new technology has transformed news in terms of space.  Internet, and more specifically social media, has redefined a generation by creating unprecedented levels of interconnectivity.  The uprisings in the Arab World demonstrate how Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can galvanize the youth, but these new technologies are also instrumental for a new era of reporting.  CNN’s iReport has resulted in a new trend of citizen journalism.  This initiative, which solicits pictures, videos and reports from people around the world of breaking news events, is made possible largely due to social media.  At the benefit of instant, first-hand news, it comes at the cost of trained and professional reporting.

Finally, the news outlets are beginning to encounter financial challenges as they compete with free online sources and struggle through a recession.  Pressed to sell, the medium has become electronic and the content has become streamlined.  In this rapid digital age, patrons of the news have moved toward digestible information: news that is concisely presented, the significance explained and rife with opinion.  As a consequence of increased competition in the digital battleground, journalism has shifted towards provocative and controversial thought pieces.  In order to combat a hemorrhaging audience, mainstream media has turned towards opinion journalism as the new frontier.

We see the confluence of these forces playing out in the Casey Anthony case this past year. In May of 2011, 22-year-old mother Casey Anthony was tried for the first-degree murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony.  For six weeks, the prosecution tore through the defendant’s troubled past, her salacious activities immediately after her child’s disappearance, the gruesome details of young Caylee’s death and every dimension of her family history.  After a trial where CNN’s Headline News (HLN) achieved its most watched hour in network history with 5.205 million viewers when the verdict was read, Casey Anthony, dubbed the “Tot Mom,” was acquitted of all felony charges.

Described by Time magazine as “the social media trial of the century,” this trial gave HLN its best ratings month in the channel’s 29-year-old history.  However, in a case where the defendant was guilty until proven innocent, a national outrage exploded in the wake of the verdict, fueled by the ratings-hungry media. Standing at the vanguard of this media inquisition was HLN’s Nancy Grace.  Glenn Calvin of the Vancouver Sun argued that Grace “almost single-handedly inflated the Anthony case from a routine local murder into a national obsession.”  With daily attacks against the “Tot Mom,” a term she coined, Grace rivaled Anthony for national attention, affirmed by her appearance on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars just three months after the verdict.

While entertainment encroaching into news is disturbing, journalists rivaling their stories for media attention can be flat-out dangerous. In an era of opinion journalism, journalists have a vested interest in being right and being unique.  A journalist or pundit’s voice has sway, and when the news breaks the proverbial fourth wall; real people are affected by ratings-driven stations.  One thing differs greatly between Lippmann’s vision of the news and that of today, which is that Lippmann’s premise hinged upon a fundamentally enlightened reporter. Far too frequently today intellectualism loses out in the war of ratings.  The media’s exploitation of the Anthony trial is inherently troubling; however, what is more disturbing is the potential it has to pervert the judicial system.

Regarding Anthony’s acquittal, UCLA forensic psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman, said, “The main reason that people are reacting so strongly is that the media convicted Casey before the jury decided on the verdict.  The public has been whipped up into this frenzy wanting revenge for this poor little adorable child.  And because of the desire for revenge, they’ve been whipped up into a lynch mob.”  Opinions have no place outside of their courtroom lest their influence be felt in the jury room.

Although the national media can be blamed for elevating the Anthony trial to the degree that it did, partial onus of this media circus must be placed on the American public.  The story featured every element that resonated with the macabre chords of a drama-fixated society: young, pretty girl, dysfunctional family, murder and mystery.  Dick Wald, professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former ABC News president said, “we are a society of people who look for novels in our general appreciation of life.”  Saying that we look for novels is putting it kindly.  One woman when interviewed about the Casey Anthony verdict by Geraldo Rivera enthusiastically remarked, “This is better than ‘Jersey Shore!’”  Lament the day the American judicial system was compared to reality television.

It would be one thing if the Anthony trial generated a groundswell of attention to missing children or troubled relationships.  Granted, in some states “Caylee’s Law” has gained momentum.  This law would impose stricter requirements on missing persons reports.  However, such efforts have been local and neglected by a disinterested media and a fickle populace. In the period following the verdict, the fixation with Casey Anthony has become unabashedly shallow, following her wardrobe, book deals and pornography offers.

This Casey Anthony Complex reveals worrying patterns of American behavior and also distorts the public understanding of the reality of the criminal justice system.  Over the past decade and a half, more than sixty people have been executed per year.  Though by no means should one belittle the terrible tragedy that befell Caylee Anthony, the trial of Casey Anthony is far from an accurate vignette of the American judicial system.  The media attention devoted to this case is horribly misrepresentative and an affront on the American judicial system.  TMZ should not be the face of criminal reporting.

“A pretty blond girl dies somewhere in a resort island in the Caribbean, and the whole world gets fascinated,” notes Professor Wald, but “you have to be blonde and pretty.”  It is tragic, but it sells, and the bottom line has all but consumed the media.  The public is fixated with these human-interest stories to the extent that they have become a predictable mold, and the media has been capitalizing.  The media will continue to tug on the heartstrings of Americans through these human-interest stories until the cows come home.  To an extent, an element of human-interest is necessary in the media to remind the viewership of the consequences of events.  However, what has greatly risen in frequency in recent years has veered away from human-interest; it is the blurring of the line between entertainment and American jurisprudence.

The United States is caught in a nasty positive feedback loop: Americans crave glitzy stories, and the media is all too eager to provide what the people want.  Through the 24-hour news cycle, twenty-first century technologies and economic hardship for the media, the resurgence of opinion-based journalism has perpetuated this cycle.  By capitulating to public interest, the media has skewed the judicial process and jeopardized its integrity through its opinion-based sensationalism.  The media has shown that it can determine elections, most clear during this campaign season in the era of the Super-PAC, and for decades politicians have had to work the media in order to win the election.

However, the courtroom is no game, so leave the opinions to those twelve in the box.

 

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3 Responses to “Yellow Journalism of the 21st Century” Subscribe

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