How to know if you’re watching news (f)or entertainment

I didn’t realize that I might have been doing it until I started writing for a wire service.

I was in Cambodia, and had naively written my first story, with all its balance and nuance, only to be surprised by the competition’s fiery headline about the same event. How was that “lashing out?” Was that really the size of the crowd? 

I understood the next day why he had taken creative liberties when I saw all of his “media hits” in the daily report that scored our performance: he was just giving readers and viewers what he, and the media, thought they wanted – a good story.

Of course there’s no strict line between news and entertainment. People have been finding ways to make truths more digestible since the dawn of storytelling. At the same time, the concoction can sometimes cause confusion, as highlighted in part one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast series – and create unintended consequences.

This can be seen in the unexpected success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which has revealed more than ever the pitfalls of the “increasingly happy marriage between the news and entertainment sides of the media business,” as the The New York Times put it.

In an article on Sunday, the Times called Mr. Trump “a textbook candidate for the modern infotainment era of which he was already a product,” and blamed the failure of his former competitor, Jeb Bush, on not recognizing this blend. “He approached his campaign as if it would be operating in a normal political news environment, where at least some of the focus would be on economic and educational proposals, foreign policy plans and those words that were once so revered in Republican politics, ‘values’ and ‘character.'”

The Christian Science Monitor, where I interned after journalism school, was founded back in 1908 to counter the media’s pull towards sensationalism. Is it possible for readers to change this century-old media trend?   How are we fueling the ”infotainment” industry with our daily clicks?

One way is to learn whether we are watching news or entertainment – or news for entertainment. For this purpose, I often ask myself a few questions when scanning headlines every morning:

  • Will the source promote more understanding?
  • Why am I’m going  to read the article?
  • If for entertainment, what’s its value right now?
  • If for news, how will this inform or change my actions?  

The challenge, of course, is that we don’t always know how something we read or view will change us. When I first started really reading the paper in college, I gravitated towards the international section. At the time, I was probably getting sucked into its drama-packed stories of far-away places for a certain degree of entertainment.

Five years later though, I would be writing that first story for the wires in Cambodia – the location of the first international news story I remember really following, with its story about a Prince (Prince Ranariddh) being overthrown in a coup by his co-premier (strongman Hun Sen).

We will see next month if the perceived strongman Donald Trump will be able to do the same, and if so, whether he will have similarly disastrous consequences.

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