The chase for ratings, and its impact on the classroom

As part of my Foundations in Educational Technology course at UBC with Prof. Matiul Alam, we read Bourdieu’s article “On Television”. One of the themes that particularly stood out for me was the theme about “sensationalization” of the news on television. As Bourdieu points out, many people today rely on the TV for their only source of news, and the focus of networks is to attract as my eyeballs as possible to their channel. Because producers know that they have very little time to draw an audience in and keep them, they dial up the dramatization of news.

Weather reporting is a good and easy example of news that is ‘hyped’. I recall back in January 2016, I was in New York City for a training course, and the forecast called for a large snowstorm to roll into the city. This storm was reported on 24-7 while I was there. Grocery stores were literally cleaned out of all of their stock! Although it was a record snowfall, if you were to listen to the news reports at that time, you would have thought the city was going into a state of emergency. (Meanwhile in Ottawa, the same storm rolled in a few days later and people were out snowplowing their backyards to get to work on their outdoor hockey rinks! 😉 I digress…!). But this isn’t the only storm to receive such hype and hysteria. Winter storms are given grandiose names, and covered in minute detail for days on end. Catesby Holmes wrote a great article lamenting the sensationalized weather forecast, and indeed pinpointed the turning point when weather started having tabloid headlines: it was in 2008, when the Weather Channel was sold to NBC-Bain Capital-Blackstone Group, when “good forecasting [took] a backseat to high ratings”(Holmes, 2015).

In our course, we also looked at how people interact online through YouTube. The Anthropological Introduction to YouTube was really interesting, and I think relates back to Bourdieu’s article. Michael Wesch also talks about the allure of chasing ratings on YouTube. He described his own personal experience of having a video climb to the top of the viewing ranks during the SuperBowl weekend. He also described how videos are ‘liked’ and ‘ranked’ through various sites such as ‘digg’, ‘delicious’ and ‘technorati’. Although the producers are individuals, vs. broadcasters, and the medium is online vs. television – the underlying premise is the same. The message and delivery need to be ‘sensational’ – they need to stand out in a world of time-strapped people, with limited attention spans. Towards the end of the video, Wesch describes how people become actors, personifying others, making up stories and “gaming the system to get more views” (41:50).

Given the state of our media today, it is no wonder that Tufte is saying that PowerPoint is evil and dead(Tufte, 2003)! No wonder students find bullet point after bullet point on an endless series of slides to be dull and monotonous. Ratings have driven media producers to develop more compelling headlines, attention grabbing photography, and succinct messaging. Sensationalized messaging is how communication/news is delivered to people, repeatedly, day after day. Do teachers and professors need to “compete” for eyeballs and attention as well?  And if YouTube has put the camera in the hands and home of the user – with individuals as authors today, can the teacher be anything but a facilitator anymore?

 

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