So, lets pull back the curtain and take a good look.
First, a nightly news program. Any news program begins with an executive producer. This producer hands out assignments to various news teams, usually made up of a producer, a reporter or “talent,” a camera operator, and perhaps a sound technician (sometimes, depending on the funding and the prestige of the people involved, people have to double up, other times extra specialist crew like lighting and make up are involved). Some talents or producers have freedom to choose many of their own stories, or have first pick from a list of issues the executive producer wants covered.
Once assignments are handed out, sometimes with instructions like “Give me a human interest angle on that warehouse fire from this morning,” the team is dispatched to find footage and coverage for the topic. Many times this is made up of interviews, both arranged and “on the spot,” and also often includes “background” footage, things like shots of the burnt out husk of a building, or people walking in front of a courthouse, or crowds protesting. Just stuff they can put on the screen while the reporters are talking.
So the team goes out and gets their raw footage. This will also often include scripted reporting from the talent, usually written in cooperation with the producer. Once they have this, they return to headquarters (or edit in the van, if equipped to do so and needed for deadline purposes) and begin to edit.
Now, often the questions asked during an interview, or the footage shot, or the statements of a reporter, are already designed to fit in the master plan of the producer, who has been figuring out how the finished segment is going to look ever since the assignment was handed over. Editing is the chance for the producer and the talent to sit down and hash out what kind of storyline they can pull out of their raw footage.
Once the team has a story ready, they present it to the executive producer, who then decides how that segment fits in with the other pieces to be aired. Sometimes a piece is re-cut, or if it is particularly good the executive producer will ask for it to be expanded.
Once the Executive Producer has all of the pieces for an evening's broadcast ready, the broadcast itself is ready to be finalized. It is at this point that the teleprompter script for the anchors is finished and the camera cuts are prepared (some news rooms may use a more “on the fly” system of camera work, whereas others will have every cut, pan and zoom planned out before the morning coffee is cold).
And that, kids, is how your nightly newscast is made. Sounds reasonable and harmless right?
Here's the problem: humans have to eat.
An executive producer of a network nightly news cast for your local network station is chosen based on their ability to bring in ratings. Higher ratings mean a channel can charge more for the commercials sold during the newscast. This means that an executive producer has an incentive to produce programming for the lowest common denominator, while adding enough flash and production value to make people feel as if they are watching a “good, quality newscast.”
The networks are now all owned by corporations, and in this Wall-Street dominated era corporations exist for one purpose: to enhance shareholder value. The networks hire and sign the paychecks of the local executive producer, who in turn has control of the local producers, anchors, and talent. The corporation spends money on market research, all of which shows that people tend to like sensationalist stories, stories about celebrity, scandal, violence, or sex. People also do not like to have their ideas and beliefs challenged.
With this in mind, an executive producer will give the good stories to the teams with the best record of delivering the things the market research teams report people want to see. They do this to ensure ratings stay high so that they can keep their jobs and continue to eat. Producers, talent, and the rest of the crew thus have an incentive to deliver the kinds of stories that the market research says people like, told in a way that keeps people entertained and excited, so they can have more access to the good assignments, which makes it easier to produce such segments, which ensures their job security, which allows them to continue to eat.
Thus we have a system that encourages lowest common denominator stories that appeal to the Jerry Springer in all of us, stories about missing teens in Aruba that we can all get concerned about. This is also why we don't see stories about Darfur, Genocide, children being raped in Iraq, or all the other unpleasant things that are happening in your world tonight. What isn't profitable for the corporation isn't something the corporation wants to show, and those things disturb people, make them feel bad and guilty for not doing something. It makes them question their wisdom in electing their current leaders. Worst of all, in the corporate eyes, it makes them change the channel. And when that happens, people in the news room lose their jobs.
Stories of political bias in the media abound. What people need to understand is that those very stories are propagated as a form of viral advertising, devised by corporations to steal market share away from each other's network newscasts and into their cable media news-flavored television product channels. The pundits who endlessly repeat the phrase “liberal media” all draw their paychecks from major corporations, they are salespeople out to drum up business for their true masters. The people who repeat that phrase might as well also wander around saying, “Coke is it!,” or “Campbells Tomato Soup, possibilities!” They are unpaid advertisers, not for some mythical “conservative” media, but for the all pervasive Corporate Media that has ruthlessly exploited its dominant control of almost everything most Americans see or hear.
If you really want to see how far things have come, watch MSNBC for a few hours during the next run of “The Apprentice,” and watch how their reporters spend entire news segments talking about who was fired from the boardroom as if it were actually news. These newscast embedded commercials for products produced by the corporate owners have become more and more common as time has gone on, and include anything from toys to video games to movies to television shows.
What can we do about this? For one thing, stop watching corporate media. For another, push for more transparency in reporting (say, by clearly marking segments for media or products of the parent corporation or its affiliates and subsidiaries as Advertisements on the bottom of the screen). Finally, call your local news stations and ask that they make available copies of their raw footage of local events (such as local government press briefings) after 24 hours so that the public can see what really happened. The Corporate Media is going to have to work hard to rebuild our trust; and if they don't, they will see their profits continue to decay as more people get their news primarily from the Internet. Which might not be such a bad thing after all.