Extra, extra! Broadcast news is failing … and here’s why

Linda Ong

Linda Ong

By Linda Ong, TruthCo CEO

Once the definitive source of breaking news and the day’s most important headlines, there was a time when news broadcasters held absolute sway as the most trusted voices in the country. But thanks to the multiplatform explosion, today’s consumers get their news from untraditional sources like Twitter, The Daily Show and outlets like BuzzFeed.

Despite the Pew Research Center’s Key Indicators in Media & News March report that network news is doing its best viewership numbers since 2009 (a 2.3 percent increase over 2012), our findings indicate that the cultural perception of credibility is shifting to these newer, outsider voices.

So what is the role of television news, particularly broadcast news, in the Internet age? I asked my team of cultural analysts to dive into the world of TV news to learn what “The Next News Industry” looks like. By conducting a semiotic analysis of consumer conversations across mass media – digital and social media, advertising, TV, film, books and magazines – they have decoded consumer expectations of TV news, and what the industry needs to do to meet them.

Being in the business of cultural change, we weren’t surprised by most of the findings. But what did catch our attention was that many senior executives in the TV news business are still attempting to navigate the new world of TV news using a mindset that was formed in the last century, and is dated by the digital and generational paradigm shift.

Here’s some of what we learned:

  • Definitions of credibility in TV news have changed. Viewers no longer blindly respect or trust news reporters and anchors as the voice of authority, seeing them as tools of ratings-driven machines that unite political and corporate agendas.
  • Bedrock industry standards regarding neutrality, professionalism and objectivity now translate into a sameness that reads as generic to contemporary audiences, who often refer to big news organization as the “mainstream news” in a condescending tone.
  • Even as Millennials reject the staid objectivity of old-fashioned news reporting, TV news’ obsession with partisan politics is causing Gen X and Y to turn off – which means nearly everyone under 60 is alienated from news sources.

TV news has always been in a state of evolution – from 1940s novelty to a sexy investigative industry in the 1970s and finally into the ratings-obsessed corporate commodity of the 1990s. But now, nearly 15 years into the new century, that evolution seems to have reached a dead end.

Credibility issues are among the key factors that are leading to audiences’ turning off traditional news sources, and seeking information out elsewhere. Across the board and irrespective of political leanings, TV news is reported by primarily older white men, who bring with them a point of view that was once valued as unbiased but today fails to reflect the changes in the country’s demographics and cultural perspective.

In addition, minus those anchors and network logos most news broadcasts look, sound and feel identical: It’s the same wash of red, white, blue and silver and shouting, urgent headlines no matter what the topic – all scored with thundering drums, horns and swooshing sound effects. The news has traded evolution of substance into an evolution of style – every broadcast is like a mini-action film.

But if traditional “mainstream media” won’t feed the younger generation, those audiences will seek information out elsewhere. The rise of citizen journalists and rogue truth-seekers like Julian Assange has fueled an appetite for the return of investigative journalism that had fallen by the wayside in recent decades. First-person, fact-based stories that no one is telling (think VICE and NPR’s Serial) and comedic voices with a self-aware, critical eye (The Daily Show and its offspring) are truth-tellers for the rising Millennial and Generation X audiences. Passionate advocates for social issues, they are highly suspicious of entrenched institutions whose success is measured by how well they line shareholder pockets. Contrary to popular belief, these “unBoomers,” who care deeply about news and social commentary, aren’t anti-TV. They just want news reporting that shares their values.

To succeed in this new world, the TV news industry – including everything from morning shows to national and local newscasts to weather to sports to entertainment news – must understand and embrace this cultural changing of the guard. To once again become trusted and relevant, television news must disrupt long-held notions and dare to return to the fundamental ideas of journalism that their audiences are begging for.

Can they do it? It all depends on whether they’re listening to the news that they – so far – aren’t reporting.

Linda Ong is the CEO of cultural branding agency TruthCo., which recently released a syndicated study, The Next News Industry, analyzing the changing consumer expectations of television news.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at RDawn (@) cynopsis.com

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