Why Gorging Ourselves on Junk News Matters

March 4, 2013

As is often the case, TV’s satirists — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers — do a better job of getting to the truth of things that those of us actually practicing journalism. A few weeks ago, it was Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein who managed this with their satirical sketch about the Portland Tribune being sold to an internet outfit called Link PDX. Armisen and Brownstein storm the newsroom, quickly explain the art of Gawker-like breeziness and get the Tribune editor, played by George Wendt, to think more of himself as a “linkalist” than a “journalist.” In the end, the editor sheepishly accepts his new publisher’s praise for writing the most popular post in Link PDX’s history, garnering 70 million hits: “Charlize Theron NSFW” (Watch that sketch here.)

Exaggeration of the state of journalism in America today? Perhaps, but not by much. Photos of a scary-looking lamprey eel found by a fisherman on the Raritan River garnered 1.2 million views on Reddit last week, and the story got picked up by the Houston Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor. We at the NJ News Commons weren’t immune to the story either.

Meanwhile a report issued by New Jersey Watchdog about 45 New Jersey superintendent “double dippers” who get pension pay along with their salaries got a mere handful of pickups in the press.

Stories like Jennifer Aniston’s upcoming nuptials, Justin Bieber’s disappointing 19th birthday, and Obama’s metaphor mixing Star Wars and Star Trek terminology are a main staple of the US news diet these days. And these aren’t just being served up by lowest-common-denominator news portals, but — in the case of the Star Wars/Star Trek story — esteemed news sources like NPR.

As it happens, I recently read the very good piece of journalism in The New York Times Magazine about the science of addicting people to junk food. For those of us who have berated ourselves for eating a whole bag of chips, the story offers a bit of solace. It turns out that we’re not just weak of will power, we’re addicts. And our addiction has been created by science. Selling junk food is profitable, and if the cost is a nation full of fatties, that’s not the food industry’s problem, is it?

So how about a news diet filled with lamprey eels, Justin Bieber and Jennifer Aniston? Is it simply that such morsels are irresistible, or is a junk news diet equally engineered? As it turns out, yes it is. It’s called Search Engine Optimization. AOL famously came under attack two years ago when a document, “The AOL Way,” a treatise on SEO-driven “content creation,” leaked out to Business Insider. And it’s hardly just AOL that practices SEO journalism; it’s just AOL that got busted. A few years ago I was handed a secret SEO tract that came from another big online publisher, with instructions to read it and never, ever reveal the source. I’m sure such manuals circulate constantly. And if nobody slips you one, you can just go to Amazon and buy a book on it.

To some extent, it’s smart to know what Google likes. It’s when the tail wags the dog that we’re all in trouble. And a smart sketch like the one on Portlandia is a cheeky reminder that there’s a bunch of dog wagging going on.

“So if the cost of junk food is a national obesity epidemic,” I asked my husband right before starting this essay. “What’s the cost of junk journalism?”

He didn’t hesitate.

“The Iraq war.”

It’s not like if we buy any story a Kardashian is selling, we’ll spend a trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives on a search for fake weapons. It’s that our attention is precious, and when we’re this engaged in watching the sideshow, we’re not watching the store.

I like salty, fatty and sugary foods as much as the next person, and admit to looking at pictures of the lamprey eel. But junk news, like junk food, isn’t harmless. Sometimes you just have to get on the scale.

Debbie Galant is director of the NJ News Commons, a project of the School of the Communication and Media at Montclair State University. It resides within the Center for Cooperative Media and is funded, in part, by contributions of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.