Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who cares what you THINK?

Via Romenesko, a new PressThink post by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen offers suggestions for CNN's primetime programming in light of news that the network is in a sustained ratings funk. I'm not super crazy about Rosen's suggestions, because despite his likely aim of generating more interesting discussion, he's still advocating for more of the same "talking heads" formula that has ruined television news. I prefer the first couple of comments on his post, which call for less opinion and more news from the 24-hour cable network, which I stopped watching a couple of years ago because it regularly set me off into a life-shortening, sputtering rage.

The problem with so much CNN programming is not just the contrived "balance" that leads to ridiculous hyping of false and trivial assertions that distract from meaningful issues, it's the relentless quest for opinion to the near exclusion of the quest for facts. Worse still, CNN doesn't seek opinion from independent-thinking experts on the issues of the day; it returns again and again to partisan hacks who are clearly pushing specific political agendas and dispensing talking points issued from central authorities. The "debates" among these people are about as authentic as professional wrestling, and I suspect people have stopped watching because they know that none of these pundits has the public interest at heart during these all-but-scripted bloviating sessions.

As one Rosen commenter said, in so many words, it's time we stop listening to what people THINK and concentrate on finding out what they KNOW. Maybe then we can actually learn something from watching the news, instead of leaving CNN and other cable news networks dumber than when we came to them.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More on the challenge of mythbusting

A belated nod to my University of Georgia colleague Barry Hollander, who recently published a paper on public perceptions that's gotten some attention.

Hollander uses a study of persistent misperceptions about Barack Obama's religion -- he's a Christian, not a Muslim -- to illustrate how people tend to hang on to incorrect beliefs even after the false perceptions have been corrected in the media.

I've posted before about both the importance and the difficulty of mythbusting. It's growing increasingly clear that people are wired to cling to their beliefs, even in the face of contradicting evidence, and also that repeating a myth for the purposes of debunking it tends to reinforce it.

I've also noted that the greatest challenge for journalists today might be finding ways to re-aggregate a perhaps hopelessly fragmented nation so that we can all pay attention long enough to have a constructive conversation. Everyone doesn't need to agree on everything, but it would be helpful to keep the more fantastical stuff off to the margins instead of having it dominate the discussion.