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April 15, 2004 | by  | in News |
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Keep ‘Em Happy, Keep ‘Em Buying

Ads. Who wants them? Not many (if any). However, the commercial news media beg for them. This is because what we pay to buy a newspaper, or to watch TV news, barely covers the cost of producing and distribution. So who pays for stories to be written, the salaries of the staff and the equipment? Advertisers. This means that advertisers, with their ability to make-or-break a publication, wield huge power. John McManus points out that 70 percent of the average newspaper is advertising (this includes reviews and entertainment articles aimed at making people spend). This reliance on advertising means that the commercial news media must please their financiers.

So to ensure that stories are written, staff are paid, and equipment is useable, what must a media product offer to advertisers? An audience. Or, to be more precise, an audience with money to spend. And so the audience must be canvassed, cajoled, and constantly caressed into reading and/or watching the news media. This has resulted in the commercial news media offering more and more infotainment, with the aim of attracting and keeping an audience.

Chomsky and Herman comment that as well as attracting viewers, infotainment creates a (to use Bagdikan’s term) ‘buying mood’ with viewers. They stress that advertisers “seek programmes that will lightly entertain and thus fit in with… the dissemination of a selling message.”

So, in order for this ‘buying mood’ to last, the audience must be kept feeling good. This isn’t easy with earthquakes, murders, suicide bombings, and U.S. state-sponsored terrorism being beamed at viewers constantly. To remedy this, the news sprinkles happy stories with hideous ones, reassuring the audience that everything is okay in their world. The Dominion Post is particularly good at highlighting positive stories amongst the negative. I noticed a pattern as I was gazing over the pages at with my long black at Midnight Espresso the other day: almost all of the images in the paper were positive ones, illustrating happy people. For instance, on page A3 there was a photo of a woman surrounded by three smiling children, with the headline ‘Schools ordered to help gifted pupils’, whereas ‘Robber accused of plot to kill 10 witnesses’, and ‘PM reveals Afghan mission for SAS’, had no pictures.

It was the same on A5 with a wonderful image of a (smiling) researcher with a drill with the headline “Kiwi scientist gets a core job in searching for life on Mars”, yet no images for the articles “Sex gear found in playground”, or “Second Burglary has victim ‘beyond tears’”. The same occurred on A4, A6, and A7. The pattern continued on Wednesday and Thursday. My theory is that readers are attracted to the large, bubbly photographs over the gritty imageless ‘hard’ stories. These images serve to remind them that wonderful events do occur, and so recreate the ‘buying mood’ for the reader.

As well as highlighting positive stories, the news media progress from hard to soft-as-a-fairy-kiss stories so that viewers leave the news or newspaper feeling good. For instance, TV One news on the 9th March started with a story about Brash calling for an early election and then progressed through sport entertainment), to the weather (brings viewers back to their own lives), to a cotton-soft story about Hayley Westenra’s role in promoting classical music in Britain. The DomPost (09.03.04) also followed this format, going from politics to the arts to travel. TV3 news finished with a pretty little story about the poetry of Clive James. This hard to soft structure encourages viewers to leave with a warm feeling in their hearts, all ready to see more and spend more.

The news media celebrates its high entertainment content. That content keeps audiences feeling good, which keeps advertisers happy, which keeps the news media alive. Well, have a great day, I’m off to the Carly Harris sale – I saw it advertised in the fashion section of the DomPost of course.

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