Dear news media: Hate the Kardashians? Then don’t act like them

Say “no” to coverage that sucks us in but has little substance.

I am worried about you, news media, but also excited about your role in the years to come. You have shown resilience in the face of constant political degradation and have put more resources toward in-depth investigations that have enlightened and informed the American people. You have made me proud to be a consumer and a journalist in this respect.

Unfortunately, a few bad eggs in your field have cracked the trust between news producers and the American people. Consumers, especially those in my age group, struggle with falling victim to the fake news plague. Moreover, these consumers question whether what they read, view and listen to is comprehensive and unbiased. And as a result of an election cycle laced with sensationalism and punditry, hard news in many respects has given way to what I call the Kardashian Effect. Allow me to elaborate.

I often sit down to watch television news like any good broadcast journalist. For me, it’s with a cup of oatmeal and a bottle of kombucha, trying to detox from a stressful day. Unfortunately, the cleansing effects of consuming organic food so often aren’t enough to combat the queasy feeling from questionable news practices I see throughout dozens of segments. Post-inauguration coverage comes to mind.

News outlets were preoccupied with inauguration crowd stories, and rightfully so, after President Donald Trump disputed actual facts and compared the size of his ceremony to President Barack Obama’s. But once a point is made, it’s made, right? Wrong, at least in the eyes of most broadcast outlets during this time. CNN, for instance, drilled the subject further by inviting a panel of political analysts on the show “Reliable Sources” to comment on Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” remark. And this was only the first time the outlet did the story that week. Why was that necessary? It was obvious to me from the first report that Conway’s story didn’t add up.

Here’s what got me: Even though future segments just seemed redundant and unnecessary, I still watched! Something didn’t seem right.

I decided to ask my three roommates what made them at times get frustrated with or lose faith in the news industry. Two of them are, like me, broadcast journalism majors at USC, and one is a grad student in music. Both journalism roommates were mostly annoyed by the repetition of “old news.” One saw the sensationalism as a way of retaining audiences. The other thought it was overkill, but maybe just for practicing journalists familiar with these issues.

But it wasn’t. My music roommate thought it was overkill too, adding, “I’m kinda over watching the news all together. I mean, how do I know what was important and what was said just to get ratings? But it’s humorous to see what some of the people say, so that’s kind of fun.”

His comment perfectly captures the Kardashian Effect. That is, we as consumers know that what we are watching is overdone, perhaps at times not fair and occasionally tabloid-esque, but we still watch, week in and week out. We have been programmed to indulge with this kind of content, despite our hearts — and slowly our minds — telling us otherwise. And if the American public is losing faith in media, but still tuning in, why would the outlets change their models without a consensus to do so?

I think there is a solution: In order for journalists to reestablish trust with the American people, the media as a whole should band together and take steps to create a universal standard of what should and should not be covered. This is easier said than done, of course, but it could start with a couple competitors such as MSNBC and CNN. This (hopefully) will help retrain viewers’ minds to engage with quality, accurate coverage while maintaining ratings across the board. Coupled with news organizations hiring more media critics, this pact will keep outlets on their feet for fear of public and social media ridicule.

This model might have worked during the widely discussed refusal by President Trump to answer a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta at a press conference. Some argued that other reporters should have asked the same question until Trump answered, weakening his ability to manipulate the press. I agree. After all, this would have been a great display of community among professionals and a departure from the old stereotype of “every outlet for themselves.”

Also take the coverage of “fake news” accusations by President Trump. In a recent interview with Kellyanne Conway, CNN’s Jake Tapper said he would much rather cover policy changes than the constant trolling of the media. So, if the media banded together and decided not to cover Twitter attacks from Trump (or outlined what was worthy of coverage), it could alleviate much of the pressure to do so. The common excuse of, “everyone’s doing it, so we have to” would become irrelevant, and in the end, consumers would be better informed.

Some courageous news organization needs to act and light the fire for others to follow. Otherwise, the Kardashian Effect will continue and so will the complaints that the media cares only about their ratings. It’s a two-way street, media, and you have to pave one side.

This post is part of a series by USC students looking at how product affects trust in news. Learn more.

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