When most media outlets present news, they make it easy for you to forget that you’re watching life unfold in real time. That’s because they package news stories — with logos, graphics, and signature music — the same way they package entertainment.
Once a news organization decides to commit to ongoing coverage of a story (a decision often based more on ratings than news value, but that’s another discussion) it doesn’t take long for that story to be packaged and branded.
This approach makes sense for important long-term events like an election season, or historic ceremonies like an inauguration. But is it appropriate for coverage of a crime or a disaster to have its own instrumental theme?
The marketing department will tell you that packaging helps create a recognizable touch point for its intended audience. Maybe so, but it also creates a couple of problems.
First, in a social media culture of 140-characters-or-less, when a complex news story is packaged and becomes a “Story”, in quotes, the details take a back seat to a clever catchphrase. This increases the likelihood of the audience never looking beyond a superficial level, which in turn creates a climate where misinformation and “fake news” grow.
Second, a glossy package softens the impact and the real-world consequences of the event being covered. When news is regularly presented as a commodity, it becomes no different than an ad for beer or breakfast cereal: it may be eye-catching, even interesting, but it’s just selling another disposable item. Packaging creates an artificial distance that allows the audience to avoid emotional investment in the story.
When media outlets decide that news should be presented like scripted drama, all the rough edges sanded off in an edit suite, their goal is no longer to inform in the public interest. It’s just to create “good TV”, a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the news business as justification for any number of flashpoints or train wrecks.
But if the goal of reporting is to demand accountability and inspire action, then news organizations should be unafraid of presenting the unvarnished, unpackaged truth.
If the world outside is ugly, it’s not the media’s job to make it pretty for us.