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Cable Takes the Crown

It’s election season, and while November looms as the finish line for an unpredictable race to the White House, another competition is heating up: the cable news ratings war.

Unsurprisingly, 2016 election coverage continues to break cable news ratings records. Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN all benefitted from the presidential primary campaign, seeing substantial ratings spikes as viewers clamored for more Hillary Clinton and more Donald Trump.

How did we reach this era of cable news domination? It’s a question that Tony Nadler, an assistant professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, seeks to answer in his new book, Making the News Popular: Mobilizing U.S. News Audiences (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

“The story of the election as told through cable news has largely been this competition of images and campaign strategies, gaffes and people reacting to gaffes,” Nadler says. “In this election, as well as in more recent elections, cable news has really shaped the tone and really pioneered how the election is covered.”

“Fox and CNN and MSNBC are faced with how you make news interesting in a 24-hour format,” he notes. “They could have gone more in depth with context or exploratory reporting, but they ended up staging emotional clashes. They are really good at staging these visual, emotional battles.”

In his book, Nadler illustrates the shift in how the news is presented from editorial expertise to consumer preference, and how print and broadcast institutions are shaped by consumer demand. The new defining ideal is that consumers decide what counts as news, rather than journalists acting as the “gatekeepers,” Nadler says.

“Historians have looked at the rise of professional journalism up to its peak in the 1950s and 1960s — the era of high modern journalism,” Nadler says. “A lot of what we still think of as professional journalism was richly interwoven in newsrooms during that time period.” 

However, Nadler says as profits waned and political pressure mounted, different segments of the news industry started to question the traditional model.

“What I argue really won out was this turn toward a more consumer driven model,” Nadler says. “Professional journalists were no longer viewed as the best people to make the decision on what counts as news. News consumers were the ones that decided what counts as news.”

Enter cable news. The Ursinus scholar says it created a way of telling a story driven by what consumers want and what they are interested in rather than objective journalism. Additionally, partisan opinion began to feed consumer demand.

“I think the biggest trend is segmentation,” Nadler says. “News outlets start covering stories to satisfy a specific audience and they go after that audience. News networks know how to cater to the audiences who are invested and don’t care about the audiences who aren’t invested.”

“In part, partisan news helped breed populist ways of thinking,” he says. “Emotional displays help amplify and spread a message — particularly outrage or anger. But we’re seeing a failure of the market to produce a credible, strong democratic media.” –by Ed Moorhouse

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