Need-to-know vs. want-to-know information in modern journalism

or, stop getting so mad at ESPN and LeBron James’ headband

I stopped watching ESPN a few years ago. That change coincided more with me watching less TV as a whole, but the relief from the constant coverage of every time Tim Tebow passed gas was tremendous. Then there was the inescapable coverage of Deflategate, and most recently, they’ve been on a bender about LeBron James wearing, then not wearing, then wearing his headband.

“You can’t find anything better to cover, [ESPN and every other media outlet]?!,” irrationally outraged Internet people write every time a new article or other type of transmission of information is released. I used to be in that boat: why do we need to know about this and hear about it 24/7/365? Don’t you have better things to talk about, media entities?

Yes, they do, and they’re talking about them as well.

Journalism in the online world is changing incredibly fast. As online consumers acclimate to an ever-faster-paced news environment, our tolerance for waiting grows thinner and thinner. We have no patience. We need some sort of sensory input constantly. This point isn’t exactly a revelation, but let’s think about it in a news context, or specifically about ESPN.

ESPN is the self-proclaimed and actual worldwide leader in sports. They reached that status because they gave the people what they wanted, so the people came to rely on them for engaging and informative content. But with our shortened attention spans, our demands have changed. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough news to fill a news cycle. It’s not like this is a new concept: it’s long been a journalistic joke that on slow days, broadcast news sends a lowly correspondent to cat fashion shows and to other non-happenings in a desperate attempt to fill air time:

The only difference is that now, news organizations have so much more time and space to fill, especially big ones like ESPN. They have TV, radio, print and online to worry about, and each one needs a regular stream of content, or else they risk losing their impatient audience. Need-to-know information used to be the only acceptable type of news because it was all there was room for, but now, with the constant nature of news, the pool of want-to-know information is being dipped into.

And that’s fine. News has evolved to the point where it can cover both need-to-know and want-to-know information and still serve its audience adequately. As long as want-to-know doesn’t disrupt the flow of need-to-know, there should be no problem.

Sure, ESPN may be guilty of this, especially in recent years, but they’re learning. The media landscape today is so fragmented that if ESPN doesn’t cover it, somebody else will, and ESPN could potentially fall behind. It’s the wild west in online journalism right now, so stop getting so mad at ESPN: they’re trying to figure out what’s going on and survive, just like everybody else — and LeBron James.

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Follow Derrick Rossignol on Twitter at @drossignol10.
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