Why Celebrities Keep Making Headlines –

As online media takes the stage and traditional print publications fall further and further behind, we are faced with a culture of information overload with fewer and fewer reliable sources for real hard-hitting news. Traditional newspapers serve a critical purpose: that of filter for readers who are familiar with the particular publication’s politics and can rely on the journalistic integrity of its articles. Without the established publication as filter, readers are left to sift through raw information. This leaves an overwhelmed readership, unsure of who to trust, alongside a melee of writers, unsure of how to get paid.

Journalistic integrity is enforced by editorial boards that are, one hopes, qualified to hire skilled reporters, to direct them to newsworthy stories and to edit their articles for quality. Professional editors and reporters are trained to sift through the day’s events and to pick and choose those stories that will enlighten and inform. The code of ethics for traditional journalism protects sources and keeps the journalist’s opinions out of the news. Without the institution and the institution’s reputation, individual reporters are set adrift to maintain (or not) their own ethics. The lines between news and opinion blur.

Online reportage certainly has its benefits. It removes the institutional barrier between the reporter and her readers. It allows reporters to scoop breaking stories and to build their own individual readerships. It also democratizes the process of reporting, opening it up to anyone with a story. On the other hand, none of this matters much if the readership can’t find the reporter’s articles, or if the reporter can’t make a living blogging the news.

The harsh reality of a capitalist country is that the people who have the money have the loudest voices. Even more insidiously, the people that have the most money are the ones willing to cow tow to the profit incentive. This leads to bottom-denominator content that appeals to the greatest number of people. Traditionally, news outlets pick and choose what is important and people who care about what’s happening in the world pay to learn. Today, this equation is backwards. The people show the news outlets what matters to them via page views, and the most popular content gets featured. This has turned our media upside down, with days and days devoted to Anna Nicole Smith, while atrocities in Darfur get a 15 second mention.

With content farms like Demand Media and Suite 101, this equation is brought to yet another height of absurdity. These content farms use search phrases to automatically generate article titles. They then pay writers extremely low wages to fill the titles. Highly-trained reporters who have lost their jobs with brick-and-mortar newspapers are resigned to write $15 articles on interior decorating just to scrape by. The less attention the media pays to actual news, the less relevant our news will be. The less Americans are willing to spend on real news, the more we inadvertently support the breakdown of respectable reporting.

There is a solution to this sad state of affairs. New online-based news organizations can act in the same way traditional publications have. They can pay full-time reporters to report. They can vet stories for content, not popularity. Unfortunately this won’t happen until we change the incentive structure. As long as news agencies are profit-driven, the news will be sensationalized. The Huffington Post will continue to post vapid slide shows to boost page views. The Daily Beast will continue to beef up its celebrity section and opinionated editorials. Until we begin to invest in high-quality news over page views, we won’t see an improvement in quality.

References and Resources:

Online Journalism Review

Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen

American Journalism Review