by Matthew Tran (’23) | October 11, 2021
We are witnessing the creation of a modern precedent in journalism: entertainment programming marketed as cable news. Flashy headlines flood social media, increasing readership yet driving integrity into the ground. The prophetic 1976 motion picture Network revolves around a ratings-hungry television network that capitalizes on the outrageous outbursts of its evening news anchorman, Howard Beale. Beale’s galvanizing, “angry-man” tirades drive producer Diana Christiansen to push for increased coverage of violent terrorism.
While released nearly forty-five years ago, the film’s essence is notable in predicting the glorification of today’s news machine. Demonstrated in their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the death of van life influencer Gabby Petito, news networks use statistics and footage of societal ills to draw interest across age demographics. News coverage of crimes and victimization has sensationalized the invasion of privacy through grotesque imagery and headlines glamorizing violence. Such graphic content becomes a winning lottery ticket in the hands of certain news networks, which are ready to prioritize shaping the public’s reactions rather than the “public’s right to know.” Because televised news is heavily visual, broadcasting shocking narratives in order to boost television ratings is a standard business practice for news outlets. Flashing images and text are sure to paint a memorable picture in consumers’ minds.
But, in doing so, the identities of the victims are belittled within the hysteria, resulting in a biased narrative report that renders the truth into bite-sized cautionary tales. The intense media exposure and consequent public interest in Gabby Petito’s death raise questions about unbalanced media coverage in missing-person cases. The relative selectivity of news networks places a premium on narratives of affluent, young white women, framing them as damsels in distress and giving rise to the term “missing white woman syndrome.” On YouTube alone, bodycam footage of an intervention between Petito and her fiance received over 14 million views in under two weeks. In contrast, victims of color or of lower socioeconomic status are likely to receive little to no media coverage at all. In churning out sensationalized narratives, news networks fog the public’s perception of what unbiased journalism looks like.