junk journalism does to our brain what junk food does to our body
On 1st February 2011 the Australian independent online media newmatilda.com relaunched after a successful fundraising campaign, which enabled them to overcome the withdrawal of their main sponsor in 2010.
It was a small but important victory in the on-going epic Pulitzerian battle of independent quality media against the expansion of junk journalism favoured by a 24 hour news-cycle increasingly demanding of sensationalised sound bites.
A way to appreciate the sense of urgency required to defend high quality journalism is to compare our consumption of daily news to our brain’s dietary intake.
One of my high school teachers used to swear by the Latin adage: “Mens sana in corpore sano – A sound mind in a sound body” to warn us of her expectations that we should get our regular supply of quality reading, as well as stay clear of junk food. Her teachings might have had an impact as two of the daily activities I now undertake to fulfill this adage are to be mindful of the food and media content I consume.
In Australia, if 21m people eat 3 main meals a day, the question “what food do I put in my body” gets asked roughly 441 million times a week. Morgan Spurlock, an American independent filmmaker, subjected himself to a 30-day McDonald’s diet in 2003. Super Size Me showed how he gained 11 kg, a 13 per cent body mass increase, and damaged his liver. The film was a hit and people got the message: junk food is bad for your body.
The question “what media do I consume to know the news” gets asked as frequently and regularly. Every week Australians buy around 15 million metropolitan newspapers (1) . 17 million Aussies are also connected to the internet (2) , which means that in reading this on line, you are likely to be among the 80 per cent of the population who has regular access to online content. With this multiplication of available channels, come the good and the bad.
Still, despite a growing frustration among the audience, commentators and even journalists that critical investigative journalism is under assault from commercial TV channels, sensationalist talkback radios stations and trash tabloids, we seem to be lacking the equivalent of the Super Size Me experiment to clearly prosecute the case against the rise of cheap junk media and the effect it has on us.
And the problem is, junk journalism actually does to our brain what junk food does to our body.
What is junk journalism?
Bob Franklin from the University of Sheffield, UK explored the link between the McDonaldization of Society and the Tabloidisation of News . His work expands the thesis of American Sociologist George Ritzer who coined the term McDonaldization in his book The McDonaldization of Society .
The broad social process of McDonaldization was first identified by Max Weber in his seminal analyses of modernisation under the concept of rationalisation, which he argued typified “modern, industrial, capitalist societies and required the application of rational decision making in increasing areas of social life”. “The overall effect was to construct a complex ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic rules and regulations geared to calculable economic efficiency.” Ritzer’s view is that the fast-food restaurant has now supplanted the bureaucracy as the model for the rationalization process (relabeled McDonaldization to demonstrate that change).
This Mac-mindset has spread to become a template for “management best practices”. The McDonalds way serves as a model or benchmark for companies seeking the nirvana of “Business Performance”.
The McModel is all about efficiency, not inspiration. Bread buns and burgers are shipped to the restaurants where staff prepare them according to a script while servicing machines calibrated to produce pre-programmed “combo-menus”. Needless to say that improvised gastronomy is not on the menu.
Media companies are not immune. The emergence of a highly standardised, packaged journalism — especially journalism focused on politics and current affairs — is further evidence of McDonaldization.
Those pre-packaged combo news menus are served fresh from the wires by a handful of agencies, which deliver the same messages, at the expense of a plurality of views.
The McCombo analogy can even go further: “Would you like to super-size to a picture with your story-nugget?”. Agencies also provide a photojournalism service with the same images of events syndicated around the globe stamping the dull hand of uniformity on the presentation of news. Tabloid front pages too frequently share the same image to accompany their stories.
This model appeals to media executives because it eliminates the variations inherent to good journalism, which is costly and uncertain. Running a business requires predictability. So by contrast, lifestyle pieces, consumer journalism, interviews with celebrities and columnists’ endless speculations provide cheap, guaranteed readable “hits” and indeed, circulation which has come to replace any judgment of quality.
There is also an ulterior motive here: if you run a commercial enterprise your goal is to keep your sponsors who in turn rely on you to disseminate their marketing. The last thing you want is a bunch of investigation journos breaking stories and threatening corporate agendas, which should happen if they do their job properly.
In summary McJournalism offers a fairly standard diet based on sport, celebrity, soap news, stories about reality television and its participants, crime and, interestingly, some gossip political coverage akin to reporting politics as a sport. Instead of critically examining policies, journalists prefer to focus on the juicier political strategies, personalities and machinations: the whole mix is sensational enough to attract the audience but non controversial, ensuring that vested interests are not hurt.
Still, why is all this bad for our brains?
If the denunciation of the rationalisation of a profession by nature dedicated to free thinking and impertinence into a standardised corporate template was not strong enough, realising the effect of junk journalism on the audience’s brain should ring alarm bells in the same way Super Size me did for junk food.
It insidiously develops addiction, it diminishes our ability to think critically and it ultimately impoverishes the media environment.
Firstly, locking the target audience into an addiction is a key attribute of the ‘junk’ paradigm. Fast-food restaurants achieve this by saturating their food with salt and sugar. Junk media do it by developing subterfuges to hook the audience. Whether it is through a form of illusory intimacy such as displayed on breakfast TV or the promise of a regular juicy reward flattering or lowest voyeur instincts on Current Affairs programs, the negative effect of the addiction is to draw the audience back in at the expense of any other source of information. The comfort of this addiction to easy-to-digest media makes it difficult for the audience to seek more demanding alternatives. The consequence being the potential misinformation coming from a single source. “I saw it on the Current Affair show, therefore it has to be true”.
This leads to the second negative effect of junk journalism, which is the erosion of the audience’s critical thinking. This is the equivalent of the impact of processed food on the body metabolism. In media terms, moving away from difficult issues deprives readers of the regular intellectual stimulus needed to encourage conceptual and inquisitive thinking. Quality media can be demanding. An article from The Economist can be hard to crack, essays in The Monthly are quite lengthy, so are Matt Taibbi’s economics pieces in Rolling Stone. But what a reward and a pleasure when you ‘get it’ and put the piece down, making the insight your own for future conversations.
On the other hand, the consequence of failing to make the effort to regularly access quality content can only lead to the development of a social divide between those who have developed the ability to exercise judgment on complex issues, and those who don’t. Social studies keep demonstrating it time after time: people enjoying access to quality media are more likely to progress socially and professionally. This is a key point, even if you are rolling your eyes at some perceived moral high cultural standards, you paradoxically owe it to yourself on a pure ‘interested’ basis.
Thirdly and most importantly, the spread of junk journalism impoverishes the media environment as a whole, therefore perpetuating the problem in the long term.
The importance of a rich, diverse high quality media environment cannot be underestimated, Pick-up an history book and see for yourself how great pieces of journalism have shaped our collective memory: Emile Zola’s open letter “J’accuse” to the President of the French Republic during the Dreyfus Affair, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate investigation, or Australian Wilfred Burchett’s extraordinary scoop, reporting on the impact of the bomb at Hiroshima.
These pieces have been written by journalists who day after day have been reporting and curating the story of our society. This could not be possible in an environment dominated by tabloids and commercial channels. How many story would never get published in a world dominated by Breakfast TV shows and free papers distributed on the city train platforms?
It is not hard to understand that the ‘publishing space’ available is in the end limited. Sure, you can argue that there are hundreds of TV channels and potentially enough space for print media on the newsagent’s shelves, however we know very well that only a few media outlets can survive in what is a limited market. So any space occupied by a piece of junk is a missed opportunity for quality content, which can never be fully compensated.. The junk food analogy would be the disappearance of local restaurants and fresh markets, replaced by fast-food chains and food courts. Whilst it hurts the independent shops first, the final losers are the consumers ultimately deprived of access to quality fresh food.
In conclusion it is important that we realize that criticisms against the expansion of junk journalism are not just obsessions coming from a hypothetic media elite dreaming of some sort of cultural utopia. They are incredibly grounded pragmatic considerations for the good of the broader community, for if access to choice and quality disappears we will all lose in the long run.
This is why the relaunch of New Matilda operating along side other independent media such as a healthy and vigorous ABC, is a serious step in supporting a new year’s resolution to contain the super sizing of the junk and its adverse effect on our collective brain.