W. Joseph Campbell

24/7 news cycle no new phenomenon

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on January 25, 2011 at 8:31 am

A recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal about the 24/7 news cycle offered a telling point that the Internet “has made real-time reporting more prevalent, but it certainly didn’t invent it.”

The commentary’s author, Peter Funt, also noted that “the notion that nonstop news coverage is something new, some recent innovation developed as a product of the Internet and utilities such as Twitter, is bogus.”

Bogus, indeed.

The 24/7 news cycle is no phenomenon exclusive to the digital century. It is hardly novel, and it’s tiresome to hear journalists cite the nonstop news cycle as if it were — and as if it were a cause and excuse for error and superficial reporting.

I grow impatient with claims such as this:

“There was a time that the people we watched on T.V. for informative news were trustworthy and generally provided a pretty good snapshot of the days’ activities, breaking in when there truly was ‘breaking news.’ … With the advent of  cable T.V.  and the eventual cable-based ‘News’ networks, and then the Internet, we have become a nation addicted to a 24 hour news cycle.”

Not only does such a claim smack of indulgence in the “golden age” fallacy, it offers no evidence of a national addiction to nonstop news.

Adult Americans on average spent 70 minutes a day, getting the news, according a study last year by the Pew Research Center. While that figure is up from an average of 67 minutes in 2008, it is down from an average of 74 minutes in 1994–before the emergence of social media, and even before the popular advent of the Internet’s World Wide Web.

Pew also reported last year that 17 percent of adult Americans go “newsless” on a typical day. That is, they avoid getting the news despite the variety of options and platforms offered by media technologies.

That a significant percentage of the populates chooses to go newsless is, I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, among the reasons to question whether the news media exert broad influence in American life.

“Large numbers of Americans are beyond media influence,” I note in Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Choosing to go newsless may signal that a segment of the adult population has little trust or faith in the U.S. news media and their content. It’s also an effective response, too, to nonstop news: They ignore it. Turn it off.

In any event, it’s quite clear the 24/7 news cycle goes back decades.

As I’ve noted from time to time at Media Myth Alert, large-city newspapers of the late 19th century were known would produce many “extra” editions to report fresh elements of important, breaking news.

Extras not uncommon in 1898

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, for example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal published as many as 40 extra editions a day. On such occasions, deadline pressures had to have been intense.

Wire service journalism long has been acquainted with immediate deadlines. Indeed, beating the competition and being first with the news are priorities that define — and have defined — news agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters.

Deadlines arrive every second in the fast-paced wire service world. And so it was, long before the Internet’s emergence.

(As Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of the Associated Press, noted in a letter to the Wall Street Journal about Funt’s piece, a book published in 1957 about the old United Press news agency was titled A Deadline Every Minute.)

There are plenty of other examples of news outlets built around speed and immediacy.

CNN launched a headline news channel in 1982. As Funt noted, “All-news radio began in the early 1960s at stations like WAVA in Washington, D.C., and WINS in New York, where it was refined to become the nonstop reporting format that remains popular today.”

I remember listening as a kid to Philadelphia’s KYW news radio in the mid-1960s. KYW’s history says that it was “the second all-news station in the country.”

Then as now, KYW emphasizes news all the time, even though content does become repetitive.

So, no, the 24-hour-a-day news cycle is not new. Speed and time pressures are traditional elements of daily journalism.

They are, as Funt correctly noted, “integral to the very definition of news.”

WJC

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