On October 23rd, Dr. Craig Spencer became the latest victim of Ebola in the United States. Spencer, a NYC resident, recently returned from a Doctors Without Borders “Mercy Mission” in Guinea, when he alerted health officials of his exposure to the disease. The story of Dr. Spencer and other US cases has dominated the news cycle for the past three weeks. From Dallas to Brooklyn, major news outlets have reported on the “threat” of Ebola from all angles, including policies and regulations, international aid, and social ramifications. We even know which bowling alleys to avoid in New York City.
The constant barrage of information regarding Ebola is a symptom of the 24-hour news cycle. This concept is one that perpetuates the myth that all stories have breaking information; more specifically, breaking information we need to know. While the 24-hour news cycle was once exclusive to cable channels such as CNN and Fox News, it is now the domain of online media outlets. Traditional papers are now publishing information through online articles and tweets throughout the day. Generally speaking, a constant flow of information has the potential to keep citizens informed and engaged with pertinent issues. However, recent coverage of Ebola has morphed into dramatized stories about quarantined citizens and the imminent demise of heroic doctors. The 24-hour news cycle has helped facilitate increased levels of anxiety (or what some might call hysteria) around the threat of this disease.
The role of the journalist in the 21st century is a contested subject. The traditional model of the occupation stresses objectivity, facts, and relevant information. Today, that model has been complicated and obscured by a bottom line: Revenue. Stories that provide no new information continue to dominate the headlines because of an increased interest from the general public. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that the largest percentage (almost ¾) of revenue is accumulated from advertising and audience subscriptions (Holcomb et. al 2014).
In an increasingly fragmented media environment, audiences are more apt to visit and subscribe to sites that suit their interests, rather than their needs. In an essay for the Brookings Institute regarding the future of traditional news, writer Robert Kaiser surmised that, “Audience taste seems to be changing, with the result that among young people particularly there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided…For those who continue to want access to that kind of product, there is no right to reliable, intelligent, comprehensive journalism. We only get it when someone provides it. And if it doesn’t pay someone a profit, it’s not likely to be produced.”
The 24-hour news model only exacerbates this problem. The concept, originally rooted in up-to-date coverage on international and global conflict, has morphed into a news environment that is consumed with site visits and clicks rather than quality content (Robinson 2005). As events gain popularity and prominence, news outlets began to churn out more and more stories. But this is not always to the benefit of the public. When news outlets are no longer able to provide new information about a story or issue, they begin to fall into the dangerous territory of sensationalized news. It’s a vicious cycle: As people seek out the news to assuage their anxieties, they find stories that exploit them, turning mountains into molehills.
Integrity, both that of the reporter and the news site, is at stake. In a blatant contradiction, both the Washington Post and the New York Times published stories scolding the American public for their reaction to the Ebola outbreak. But a quick glance at these sites reveals a different story. The homepage of the New York Times reads like a timeline of Ebola hysteria, feeding the public’s fears and neurosis. Each article is targeted at a different audience: the story that focuses on the quarantines on JFK and Newark Airports, the tale of the heroic doctor and his altruistic fiancé; the analysis of the new aggressive drugs prescribed to Dr. Spencer, and of course, de Blasio’s trip to the Meatball Shop, a West Village eatery visited by Spencer earlier in the week. It’s a contradiction of epic proportions. News outlets feed the beast, providing all the necessary tools for national wide panic, yet criticize the behavior of citizens, citing “hysterical panic and ignorance”.
More troubling, while news sites continue to poke the bear, proverbially speaking, other stories are left by the wayside. During the hysteria surrounding Dr. Spencer, these events occurred:
- Senate and Congressional debates in the states of Alaska, Illinois, New Hampshire, & New Jersey.
- Boko Haram abducted another dozen girls in the Adamawa state.
- A Hamas member carried out a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, striking a group of pedestrians in a train station that killed a 3-month-old baby.
There is nothing wrong with keeping the public abreast of important problems. However, a number of reports on the subject, from reputable papers no less, are harmful rather than helpful. News sites continue to dish out non-news. As of Sunday morning, I don’t know the specifics of Dr. Spencer’s diagnosis, but thanks to The New York Times, I do know that he and his fiancé met during a Chinese language immersion class. As the 24-hour news cycle continues to thrive and revenue dollars slowly increase, audiences are left with news that does not educate or inform, but exacerbates conflicts and panic.
Robinson, Piers. The CNN effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. Routledge, 2005.
Holcomb, J & Mitchell, A. “The Revenue Picture for American Journalism and How It Is Changing”. Pew Research Journalism Project. Pew 2014. Accessed from http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/the-revenue-picture-for-american-journalism-and-how-it-is-changing/