Last summer, USA Today's Peter Johnson reported in his column about the media that a half-million-dollar payment may have been paid for rights to the Jennifer Wilbanks "runaway bride" story.
Wilbanks disappeared from her Duluth, Georgia, home on April 26, 2005 and was initially feared kidnapped and murdered. Her disappearance occurred in the wake of the highly publicized cases of Laci Peterson and Lori Hacking, young women killed by their husbands.
But Wilbanks turned up in Albuquerque, N.M., claiming she had been abducted and assaulted by a Hispanic man and white woman. In reality, her disappearance was a hoax to avoid her scheduled April 30 wedding to John Mason.
Her escapade would dominate the news for days.
The day after Wilbanks was reported missing The Washington Post reported that the number of serious terrorist attacks rose from a previous record of 175 in 2003 to 655 in 2004. The newspaper reported that terrorist "incidents in Iraq also dramatically increased, from 22 attacks to 198, or nine times the previous year's total."1 The article also disclosed that the State Department had begun withholding statistics on terrorist attacks from its Congressionally-mandated annual report.
Rather than learn about the complexities of a deadly school seizure in Russia or violence in Kashmir, most of us learned the important news of the day: that missing Jennifer Wilbanks had planned a wedding day with a 600-person guest list and 14 bridesmaids and groomsmen.
Wilbanks reportedly did not receive any money for appearances on such news shows as NBC's Dateline and Today. "But in this age of media conglomerates, with news and entertainment divisions increasingly intertwined," Johnson wrote in his column, "media experts worry that any implication of impropriety hurts an already poor image that many people have of the news media."2
The so-called "age of conglomerates" not only blurs news and entertainment but also media and technology-so much so, that the terms can be defined generically: Media means the channels through which messages are delivered. Technology means the mechanism delivering those messages.
As such, technology not only provides the mechanisms for popular media-iPods, computers, high-definition television, cell phones and more-but also exacerbates the blurring of entertainment and news, mainly because our gadgets deliver both in an ever-expanding digital environment.
In other words, what was once "media overkill"-nauseatingly repetitious reports, such as the "runaway bride" story-builds in intensity through the technology that increasingly surrounds us.
In the past we received the same sort of sensationalized news a few times per day for weeks on end in the local newspaper or on network television. That's media overkill. Tech overkill adds dozens of variations of that same story through a variety of work, home and personal devices in every physical location at any hour.
So, for a week in late April 2005 we learned about runaway brides on the evening network news and got Google alerts on our laptops or text bulletins on our cell phones. We read about Jennifer Wilbanks in online newspapers and heard about her on podcasts and radio and cable talk shows. If we chose, we could even post her doe-eyed jpegs on blogs, share hyperlinks about her in E-mail, and see her image on magazine pop-up promotions.
Finally, for those fearful that another story might "bump" Jennifer Wilbanks from both the media and the tech environment, entertainment (infotainment?) news informed us that we would soon read about her in "instant" books and learn more about her in a movie.
Tech overkill multiplies media overkill, and that has an impact on what we let into our psyches and what we filter out. It's an ethical matter because highly publicized stories-especially about missing white women-dominate and drown out legitimate news.
Technology promised us news from a variety of sources and viewpoints. Accessing them requires some effort because the gadgets that deliver them promote the most sensational news in a converged media world that elevates entertainment over information.
Because of technology "the world's media have become more powerful," according to the late Hugh Sidey, former White House correspondent for Time. In a speech at Iowa State University in April 2005, a few days before the Wilbanks hoax would saturate us with tech overkill, Sidey noted that the industry's influence has grown tremendously in recent years, including "people who not only report the news, in direct practice, but also ones who do journalism on campus, the pollsters, the handlers and others."
Sidey saw an upside to this phenomenon. Proliferation now makes it impossible to have a Hitler or a Stalin, he said. "With today's technology, including cell phones, we will know about every leader who tries to subjugate the people. We'll get the terrorists, of course, but we won't get genocide or slavery as we saw it in other eras."
Admittedly, tech overkill ensures that we will be able to hear about crimes against humanity. The moral question is, will we care?
Conrad Fink, former vice president for The Associated Press and journalism professor at the University of Georgia, cautions everyone to be specific when analyzing "media" in today's high-tech world.
After all, "media" is a plural word and concept.
"We've become something quite other than a single cohesive instrument," Fink says. "If we are talking about the news media, a further refinement is required. Network television has gone so heavily into entertainment and circus journalism that I am almost inclined to dismiss many of the shows as 'non-news' shows."
But even in traditional outlets, Fink notes, "newspapers or those electronic services that still emphasize news, apart from entertainment," we still have overkill.
Much of what journalism does, says Fink, is provide people with what they want to read. "The more serious newspapers treated the Michael Jackson story in a subdued and appropriate fashion. Newspapers like The New York Post and The Daily News beat the hell out of the story because it made a great subway read."
Fink, who also served as executive vice president of Park Communications, a newspaper and broadcast company, understands why media companies rely increasingly on "the entertainment convention." It ties back to two factors, he says: "an element of panic among editors, and we don't know what to do about it...There's a disconnect between the American public and the news media," he adds. "We know what is critical to our future and the public can't relate to that on pain of death.There seems to be a circuit breaker [about the news] that says, enough is enough, and it has snapped off."
Tech overkill has played a role in that digital disconnect, according to Marilyn Greenwald, former newspaper reporter and current professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. "Wilbanks is the classic example of someone who is famous for being famous-someone who was literally created by the media. She is not really a newsmaker. Her story fits few if any classic definitions of 'news.'"
Tech overkill triggered an expanded "media feeding frenzy" around the runaway bride, making Wilbanks a celebrity, Greenwald says. "So we [media] wanted her 'celebrity' memoirs" in a variety of formats and platforms. At least Michael Jackson is a "genuine celebrity," she observes. Wilbanks's celebrity transformed her into a digital caricature cashing in on her 15 minutes of fame. "Few people will remember who she is."
We remember the infamous. But increased access to information about them does not necessarily ensure a safer society, Fink warns.
"I remember in the 1930s and '40s," he observes, "when everyone was talking about impending war. The idea was, if nations became educated and culturally sophisticated, that would prevent war and that would prevent dictators from rising to power. What we forgot was that an educated society can ask for a Hitler."
Hugh Sidey's point, Fink observes, is that dictators will not be able stage coups in secret. But coups also can succeed in an open, informed environment. "I'm not convinced that the growing global network and rapid transmission of information are guarantees against this thing happening."
Part of the problem, according to Fink, concerns the proliferation of electronic media and the easy access of technology. They reinforce the perception that a person can painlessly stay informed.
This is yet another aspect of "tech overkill."
Fink reported for The Associated Press when television became the most popular family medium, "And back then people said, 'I'm now informed. I watch Walter Cronkite for 15 minutes each evening.' The perception now is, I go to Yahoo!, and pick up the headlines and can say, 'I am informed.'"
That also concerns Marilyn Greenwald. "I agree with Sidey that the technology would allow us to report on mass murderers like those of a Stalin or Hitler. They may not go unnoticed. But the question is: Would news con
Greenwald believes that sensationalized stories about runaway brides and missing people are drowning out legitimate news-"for instance, stories about the economy, Iraq and mass murders in places like Rwanda-reserved for the end (if at all) of broadcasts." Consumers have become so used to a diet of hype and amusement that "many have grown to ignore or not care about news that seriously affects their lives or the lives of others," she says.
To be sure, ethical arguments can be made against traditional outlets, such as newspapers, being out of touch with their audience. Perhaps that accounts for the popularity of new formats and platforms like blogs and podcasts.
But that does not address why society is turning away from hard news.
"It's pretty tough out there making people read what they don't want to read," Fink observes. "This runaway bride story is an example. We have editors sitting in newsrooms who want strong journalism, but circulation is falling off and they ask, 'What can I do to turn this thing around?' I've been there. I've done it. It's a tough, tough equation."
But a reversal is still possible, Fink believes. News interest goes up and down. "I have seen this happen before," he says. "In the 1960s, when I reported for the AP in Saigon, I was in papers all over the country. For some reason we (reporter and audience) were connected to those stories, but today we are not. If that turns around, if the public for some reason becomes re-engaged again with real news, we're home free."
Otherwise, say both Fink and Greenwald, the social consequences will be dire, especially since tech overkill is built into interfaces, databases, hardware, software, browsers, search engines and digital libraries.
The challenge, then, not only entails exposure to valid, reliable and accurate information but also the need to whet our appetite for it and engage each other through it. However, that engagement cannot take place as effectively as it might unless we become more discerning about where to find reliable news and what technology to rely on when accessing it.
Discernment is an ethical value. We have to ask ourselves such questions as:
- What devices will I use to access the news and what type of news do I need to stay informed as a citizen?
- Where and when is it appropriate to access that information in our mobile, on-demand, digital environment?
- How does the interface of each medium filter the news and how will I control those filters and interfaces?
- Who is the target market for the device, from cell phone to iPod, and how does that influence what I access?
- Why did I purchase the device in question and how am I using it?
If we don't ask and answer those questions, marketing will. In response we might want to turn off some of our gadgets to decrease tech overkill that distracts and amuses us around the clock.
ow else will we recognize the next despot on our desktops?
* Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State, is author of INTERPERSONAL DIVIDE: THE SEARCH FOR COMMUNITY IN A TECHNOLOGICAL AGE (Oxford, 2005).
1. Susan B. Glasser, "U. S. Figures Show Sharp Global Rise in Terrorism, State Dept. Will Not Put Data in Report," Washington Post, April 27, 2005, p. A01.
2. Peter Johnson, "Debate is off and running," USA Today, June 19, 2005; retrieved August 3, 2005 from http:www.usatoday.comlifecolumnistmediamix2005-06-19-media-mix_x.htm.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp.7,17-18.