If it bleeds, it reads: are our news cycles ethical?

GRAPHIC BY CLARA SNOYER/FOGHORN

At the Foghorn, we believe it is important to not only write about evocative topics as they become societally relevant, but strive to inform the public about matters of all importance. We have all heard the journalistic mantra that “if it bleeds, it reads,” but a journalist’s responsibility is ultimately to educate people and bring forward new and important information, not to pursue stories with the goal of generating the most clicks. The media is a powerful outlet, so it is essential for journalists to keep ethics in the forefront of their minds.

The time-sensitive topics of our day are more challenging than ever — political protests, school shootings, the opioid crisis, the refugee crisis, climate change, or, of course, life in an ongoing pandemic. However, when these topics are quickly cycled through in the media and then dropped, they take part in what is known as a news cycle. The media chases the rise and fall of a story, but once its subjective prime and relevance have passed, it is dumped for the next important event that presents itself. How would our world be different if we talked about an ongoing issue all the time — not just when its largest disasters affect us?

News cycles are inextricably linked to the rise of the 24-hour breaking news trend. Thus, if we don’t want to end up in an Orwellian novel, we have to question whether this convention is ethical and one that should be widely-accepted as the general practice. The upside of breaking news is that it keeps the public informed as new updates become immediately available, but the drawback is that speed is often at the expense of accuracy and context, so a lot of false, unverified, or shallow information can infiltrate the beginning of news cycles.

We believe it is not always ethical for the media to pursue this pattern. Some discarded topics are still incredibly important and persistent, even when media outlets decide to put them on the backburner to cover something new. Fast-paced news contributes to our society’s shortened attention span for anything not immediately relevant. Because the media holds sway over the public’s perception of what is relevant, we must hold reporters accountable for covering topics of all levels of immediacy, no matter the pressure to appeal to time-sensitive or audience marketability.

It is not inherently bad to want to capture people’s attention, but when we do so, we run the risk of limiting our understanding of our world if we only focus on what everybody is talking about. The breaking news cycle is beneficial for those who want a snapshot of the world, but we as a populous cannot base our entire views on what is televised. 

This issue is further complicated by most news organizations in the U.S. being for-profit. To generate the revenue they need to survive, they have to give prime coverage to hot-button issues because that’s what a majority of an audience wants to read or watch. However, ethical news cycles are possible when the need for profit does not outweigh the desire to produce good, responsible journalism. We believe that if a news organization can find balance between “fast” and “slow” journalism in their news cycle, they can both be ethical and pursue their need for money — but just like any other industry in a capitalistic society, we must hold them to this expectation.

Regardless of whether or not we are journalists, we should always question what we see in the media. Are these organizations interested in actually informing us, or are they just trying to up their ratings, clicks, and reads? We don’t need to let news cycles determine what stories grab our attention. We urge you to think critically about how the news is reported in different mediums and outlets, and why that might be. (Media literacy is incredibly underrated.)

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