The Dumbing Down of mainstream media

By | 16 August 2015

Recently I have found mainstream anglo-saxon media much harder to tolerate. A few years ago I went to see 90 films in 9 months. I had no TV and the World Wide Web wasn’t quite as accessible then as it is today. For years I could watch BBC World from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. I also read articles and blog posts.

I can’t stand the hollywood film output anymore. They are so comfortable with their formulas that within ten minutes I knew the plot line.

I used to read dozens of newspapers a day and dozens of blog posts a day. I noticed that blog posts started to become formulaic and so stopped reading blog after blog. The quality of content went down at the same time as output went up. Every blog post was a Top Ten article.

Newspaper headlines used to provide the audience with information about what the article was about. You’d read the headline, skim the first paragraph and decide what to read next. As Social media became socially acceptable for growing portions of society so we see the decline in headline usefulness. Headlines should answer the who, what where, when, why how questions and engage you as a reader. The Guardian, the BBC, The Independent and other news sources rather than writing headlines about the content of articles write sensationalist headlines that are designed to blackmail you in to clicking a link. Usually the articles hidden behind these headlines are a waste of time. They provide little of value and they assume ignorance of current affairs.

We live in the information age. Within 15 seconds whether you’re sitting at the top of a via ferrata or in a library you can get information on any topic that interests you. Remember that the web is the hypertext markup language. When you write today you can add links to help contextualise the story, you can provide videos and pictures. You can also write in as much depth as you would like.

In the information age I would have liked, and I would have expected that writing would become more demanding. Knowledge would be assumed and context would be easy to provide. When background information is a search engine result away it would be logical to assume that experts and writers could write as if we, the lay reader, were also experts.

Look at the way the refugee crisis is covered. We see terms like “thousands drown in sea” “Fortress Europe should let in more refugees” and many more phrases. These phrases do nothing to inform and educate the audience. They are only entertaining us. They are encouraging prejudice and stereotypes rather than discourse. With unlimited bandwidth, time and space the topic of refugees and migrants could be covered in great depth. Documentaries could be produced to provide context as to why people are pushed from where they lived. Xenophobia is a result of over-simplification. Imagine that tomorrow when you wake up you see François Hollande or David Cameron in Calais speaking with refugees. What effect would that have on the national debates of migration? We see ourselves as liberals and we see ourselves as citizens of the world. Why, as citizens of the world do we never see our leaders visit refugees? Let’s forget the status quo and let’s go for a contextualised actuality. (Actuality, Actualité, french for news. I chose not to use the stigmatised word Reality).

Another example of the dumbing down is the TWIT network. I used to love listening to those podcasts. I would listen to at least five or six of their programs a week. TWIT, Macbreak weekly and others. I started to lose interest when they switched to video and my interest decayed completely by the time it was more chit chat than news. Editing gave their shows value. Without editing you’re wasting an hour and a half of listening time.

Media production and advertising revenue is based on the “Lowest Common Denominator” theory. The simpler content is to understand the more views it will get. The more views it gets the more valuable it is. When media assets are owned by the financial sector and when giving dividends to share holders is more important than value to costumers so you get the erosion of quality. This erosion in quality means chasing a greater number of eyeballs with an ever decreasing quality of content. The Guardian, the BBC and other “mainstream media” companies have fallen in to the trap. They don’t need the money, they’re subsidised, but they need the eyeballs to justify their funding nonetheless.

If the mainstream media want to destroy themselves then that’s fine. In theory. In practice this leaches in to the social media landscape. As an early adopter I join social networks and social media distribution platforms in their early days, when the intellectual, entrepreneurial and curious people are around. Conversations and friendships make empty social networks look and feel lively. As users engage stickiness grows. As stickiness increases so value increases. Look at Twitter and Facebook as prime examples. Twitter was a fantastic conversation tool in it’s early days, so fantastic that for the first time in a social network I would meet with users every week at it’s peak. Facebook was a uni friend network. We had all partied together and as we knew each other well we could be open and social in a closed network. When advertisers, social media gremlins and PR professionals came in to these landscapes so the conversation chased the rabbit down the hole of the lowest common denominator. Conversations diluted and friendships decayed to the point where trolling became standard.

The dumbing down of the mainstream media led to the decline in sociability and friendliness on social networks at a time when social media became mainstream. As a positive last thought everything is cyclical. We will see mainstream media smarten up again. We will go back to long form articles, and we will go back to interesting film plots.

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