News Sensationalism

An interesting piece in the Boston Globe got me thinking about some of those “most popular” story listings on sites like CNN.com and the dangers of social news sites. The Globe’s article looks at the oversaturation of John Mark Karr coverage on television news:

“`It’s an embarrassment,” says Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University’s School of Communication. “This case is totally irrelevant to the life of the nation… Not only that, but there actually are serious events taking place in the world — events that should be explored more regularly and thoroughly by news organizations with international reach.”

“Network news executives surely know this story doesn’t deserve to lead a serious newscast, or even occupy a prominent place in one… It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their bottom-line judgment amounts to this: Many of our viewers can’t separate the important from the trivial — and they will change the channel if we do that for them.”

In a similar regard, when you look at which stories are ‘voted’ to the most viewed list on some prominent websites, it makes you wonder about the future of online news. On CNN’s homepage, “Labrador Saves Woman’s Life” is the most popular story right now. On Netscape, it’s “Why Bush Can’t Talk: It’s not the drugs, and it’s not senility.” As more sites allow users to submit news and vote for stories, will news sites be overtaken by sensationalism and feel good yarns?

In a similar regard, when the New York Times allows users to begin customizing their news experience, will the market share of important world news dwindle? And what about smaller niche sites – will they grow more competitive to drive traffic by coming up with lopsided news stories that are sure to get some traction on sites like Digg? There is no better way for a small site to grab some quick huge traffic then start a flame war by making some outrageous claim about a new video game system, a top 10 list of sorts, or link to a funny but innocuous video.

On the flip side, am I really worried? No. The amount of news online has grown exponentially in the past few years, and smaller players now have the chance to really get noticed. Likewise, smaller but important news stories now have a chance to be heard much more easily, in an almost grassroots fashion on popular sites.