Truth is only one dimension of entertainment

With my attention fixed on Twitter during the Boston Manhunt, even with CNN blaring on the television, I wondered, "At what point will it stop feeling natural to turn to broadcast media during major news events?"

April 19, 2013
Jonathan Libov

Much as the OJ Simpson car chase is remembered for the manner in which it was covered by television news helicopters, the manhunt for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon will likely be remembered, in part, for the manner in which it was covered and consumed. A few key coverage events stand out:

I don't have a terrible amount to add to a conversation that will dissected over and over again across the web, after which those dissections will be further dissected. I merely had a thought today which helped crystallize how social media fits in the equation of live news coverage as an entertainment medium (and it is entertainment as along as its main revenue stream is advertising). My thought looks like this:

To explain, I'll start with the item that seems to least belong: Showtime's romantic terrorist thriller, Homeland. You might ask, why does a fictional show even belong on a chart with other real news outlets? To answer that, consider that to the bottom right are supermarket tabloids, which give the appearance of news outlets but don't bind themselves whatsoever to reality. While crash-landed UFO coverups and Sasquatch sightings are very compelling, they're not only untruthful but defy logic. At least Homeland is topical and bases itself in reality.

I used two somewhat extreme examples in order to extricate what it means to be "true" from what it means to be "compelling". Now we have two dimensions, and we can plot items on this graph to determine what certain types of people might find most entertaining:

  • People with no regard for what's true and what's not. Since you've taken "truth" out of the equation, you might as well opt for the most compelling story (in this scenario, UFO landings are more interesting than whatever is on the front page of the newspaper).
  • People entering a willing state of disbelief. This is the very nature of why people consume fiction. Importantly, though, a very compelling story becomes even more entertaining when it is grounded in reality (this is why movies advertise being "based on a true story"); likewise, a movie that bears no likeness to reality better be very compelling (this is why sci-fi stories are typically epic, not mundane).
  • People who only care about the truth. Here we've taken "compellingness" out of the equation, so you might as well seek out whatever is the most truthful. Your best bet is to wait for tomorrow's printed newspaper, because at least you know the writer had part of the day to digest the news and distill what's true from what's not.
  • People who want something compelling with a high degree of truth. Broadcast media like CNN will serve you well here. I'm including "currentness" as part of "compellingness", and indeed what you'll find on CNN should be current. The legacy of journalistic standards also gives you additional confidence that what you're hearing from TV reports is true.
  • People willing to trade some degree of truth for additional "compellingness". Social media, Twitter in particular, are your best bet here. It's veritably a real-time (fast = compelling) feed of what people are saying around the world, or around a particular topic, but the standards for publishing only the truth, rather than hearsay, rumor, or straight-up fiction, are substantially more lax.

I don't think anyone would argue at this point with the idea that social media is having a major impact on traditional journalism, primarily because news spreads on Twitter light years faster than it does in the newspaper, and noticeably faster than it does even on television:

If you think back to the Bush v. Gore election in 2000, broadcast media were competing only with one another to call states for either candidate and predict a winner. In their haste to be first, they badly erred.

In following the Boston manhunt, I can't help but imagine how much pressure the broadcast media now feel from Twitter. It's not exactly a zero-sum game because you can look at Twitter on your phone while watching CNN, but it sure is a competition between the two. John King's blunder certainly wasn't the first news item to be misreported on television, but it's all the more glaring when, within five minutes of one's gaffe, Twitter is already mocking it.

As I sat there, CNN blaring on the TV, Twitter literally in hand, I asked myself why I even bothered to keep CNN on. Because I'm holding on to some legacy that traditional media are more adept at reporting "the truth"? Because it's just natural to keep the TV on during major news events?

I don't think it will be long before it will feel fairly unnatural to keep CNN on when the news is urgent. That's not to say that the gap in truthfulness between CNN and Twitter will be nil, but it will probably shrink as broadcast media is forced to compete. And considering that I can share news on Twitter in a single click, while the best plain ol' CNN viewers can do to share news is make a phone call or send an email, I think it's clear which one will be the more compelling entertainment medium moving forward.