No matter how hard you try, it’s hard, if not downright impossible, to avoid learning about the world and the events of the day without running into one of the major cable news networks: Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.
So many of us either tune in to watch their broadcasts, hear them in the background while waiting to get our car’s oil changed, or be seen by our doctor or get updates from them to our phone.
Even those who claim to hate these news sources still find themselves getting information from them. They’ve become so pervasive in society that they are practically impossible to avoid.
However, if we turn the clock back just thirty years, only CNN exists, and people barely watch it. Not until the early 1990s, when CNN provided exclusive video coverage of the Desert Storm conflict, did cable news become a serious player on the world’s information scene. But, since then, oh how things have changed.
Today, cable news is everywhere. And as it has grown in popularity, it has had a profound impact on the world, some of the good and some of it bad. Read on to find out how cable news has gone on to shape our world, and how it will continue to do the same moving forward.
The news first came to the world of television in 1940 when NBC chose to simulcast its nightly news show with Lowell Thomas on both radio and TV. Shortly thereafter, CBS joined the party, and then by the 1950s, all major networks had either a 15- or 30-minute-long news special airing each night.
This continued through the 1970s until CNN was launched in 1980 by Atlanta-based media mogul Ted Turner. For its first decade, CNN struggled to find its footing. But by the 1990s it had burst onto the scene. Since then, cable news has become an integral part of American life. And other countries have caught on too. Networks such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, Sky News, Euronews, and more rose to prominence and continue to deliver the news until today.
To give you an idea of just how popular cable news has gotten over the years, here are some stats to consider:
Clearly, cable news is popular, particularly amongst older people. But it’s also viewed rather skeptically. Is this skepticism warranted? In general, yes. But there are some good things to come from the cable news revolution, and understanding them is important to fully grasp just how much cable news has impacted our world.
The main upsides of cable news include:
In the old days, to find out what was happening in the world, you had to wait until the evening news broadcasts. Or, if you missed that, you would have to wait until the next morning when the papers hit the stands. (Newspapers?! What are those?!).
This created a pretty significant time delay. Something could happen at nine o’clock in the morning, but most of the world might not hear about it until later that day or even the next.
In addition, because of this limited time and space to share the news, journalists and producers had to be a lot more selective about what they would share.
Cable news changed all of this. Running 24/7, these networks are much less concerned with time, and so they can cover so much more (something that can be both good and bad, as we’ll discuss in a moment).
Also, since they are on the air around the clock, you no longer need to wait until the next “cycle” to find out what’s going on in the world.
Instead, the moment something happens, it is broadcast on cable news, meaning you can instantly learn about what’s going on in the world. Again, this has both positive and negative implications. But considering how little information people had access to before, and how much they have access to today, it’s safe to say that cable news has helped make the world a bit more informed.
One of the primary functions of the media, besides keeping its citizens informed of the events of the world, is to hold governments accountable. Corruption is a tale as old as time, and if left unchecked, people in power will take advantage of their position for personal gain.
Cable news has helped make the news media more effective in fighting against corruption and governmental misdeeds by making information more readily available to the public. People can follow hearings, listen to speeches, see what’s actually happening, and all of this means that there are fewer ways for politicians to hide from the public.
This is often called the CNN effect, largely because it first became a thing when CNN was the only cable news network around.
At times, the CNN effect can be a bad thing for governments and policymakers. Sometimes, the media might misunderstand what the government is doing, and by jumping to conclusions in their broadcast, they may sour public opinion about a good thing before what’s being done has been properly explained.
However, one could make the argument that knowing more about what the government is doing is never a bad thing, even if it makes their jobs a bit harder.
One thing that cable news has done is shrink the world. Before cable news, faraway lands were just that: far away and distant; out of sight and out of mind.
If there was an earthquake in Mexico, the only way the people in the United States could learn about it was by reading about it or listening to it on the news. But with cable news, they can usually see footage of the event, which is often live, and that makes whatever is happening all that much more real.
This was first experienced during the Vietnam War. Although before the days of cable news, this conflict was the first time in which US reporters were able to share events using video, and much of the footage that made it back to the US was disturbing and had a dramatic impact on anti-war sentiments in the country.
Shrinking the world and using video to showcase it undoubtedly brings us together. Again, it is possible to look at this as something negative. But, in general, cable news has brought the world to people’s living rooms, and that has certainly had a strong impact on our global society.
Lastly, cable news does something no other news medium can do: it shows you what’s happening.
Many people absorb information better when they see something rather than when they just hear or read it. For these individuals, the combination of video and audio that makes up cable news broadcasts is hard to beat.
This can be particularly effective when dealing with analysis. While the news should in theory be unbiased and let people make their own opinions, sometimes the events are too complicated and require further explanation. Cable news lets you do this in more ways, allowing it to go into further detail and explain things to a larger audience.
Although a lot of people distrust cable news, it’s clear there are some benefits. But those who are weary have a reason to be that way. Some of the worst things about cable news include:
Life is happening at all times, so there is always something to report. However, when it comes to the news, there really are a finite number of things that are considered “newsworthy.”
This means that, for the most part, the many cable news channels that are out there end up reporting on the same or similar things.
All by itself, this isn’t a bad thing. But since these channels are really businesses looking to make a profit, it puts them in a position where they are all essentially selling the same product.
So, to differentiate themselves and get a leg up on the competition (and grow their audiences), each channel has had to take steps to be unique and also to cater to a particular group of people.
This has made it so that the focus is no longer on presenting the news in the best way. Instead, it’s about winning viewers from one of the other networks. This has several ramifications, including:
One big impact of competition in the world of cable news is that a lot more effort is put into dressing up the news to make it more entertaining. This is called sensationalism. It’s when the line between news and entertainment blurs, and its entire purpose is to suck people in.
To give you an idea, imagine if you read this headline:
25 Dead in Train Accident Outside Columbus, Ohio.
Sounds bad, but it also just sounds like an accident. Now, consider this headline:
25 Slain in Horrific Train Accident Outside Columbus, Ohio; Authorities Searching for Who’s Responsible.
Both headlines are reporting on the same story, but which one sounds more dramatic? Which one plays more into your emotions? Which one are you more likely to tune in to watch?
Probably the second, no? For most people, that’s true, and this is why cable news has taken this approach.
In fact, it often has no other choice, especially if its competitors are using this tactic. Not doing so could cost them audience members, which in this model are customers.
Sensationalism is not new to cable news. It’s been around for almost as long as there has been a media. But it’s reached new levels in this era thanks to the visual nature of cable news, as well as the high-stakes competition that exists among the major channels.
It’s also not inherently a bad thing. However, too much sensationalism can cause a news outlet to drift from its primary purpose: to inform. When this happens, then, yes, sensationalism is bad.
In addition to dressing up the news to make it more entertaining and exciting, often at the expense of the story, another problem with the current competition model in news is that it leads to bias.
For the same reason that these channels turn to sensationalism – to attract viewers – they are also turning towards bias.
Cable news channels don’t concern themselves with presenting a balanced view, for their audience tends to already have their opinions, and they’ve found that catering to these views gives them a better chance of keeping people engaged.
This is why Fox News is known as the conservative/right-wing channel, MSNBC is known to be liberal, and CNN is considered middle-to-left-leaning, though it’s become even more left over the past few years.
Such an approach defeats the very purpose of having news media in the first place: to help citizens stay informed. Instead, cable news has become a place where people can go to hear their own beliefs confirmed or reiterated.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. But if you listen closely to what is being said on cable news broadcasts, you will see that nearly everything they report is laden with opinion. Often they call it “analysis” to hide what they are doing. In the end, though, the effect is the same: it shields people from a more balanced story and keeps them locked in their ideological spaces.
Cable news doesn’t have to be this way. Yet by following the 24/7 model and also competing with one another, these channels really don’t have much of a choice.
While earlier we discussed how cable news has helped shrink the world and make people more informed, there is another side to this: information overload.
As human beings, we are only equipped to handle a certain amount of information about the world at a time. This is because for most of human existence our knowledge has been limited to what is going on in our immediate surroundings.
Now, all of a sudden, we can find out about what’s happening on the other side of the globe without having to leave our house. In fact, thanks to smartphones, we can get this information without even having to leave the couch.
All of this information, while inherently neutral, can quickly become overwhelming, which can produce not only skewed perspectives on the world but also anxiety and panic. And this is especially true when you consider that very little of the news that gets reported on is “positive” in nature. In fact, most of it is quite dreadful, focusing on deaths, tragedies, wars, illnesses, and anything else that shocks and awes, because this is what sells.
Of course, this isn’t cable news’ “fault.”
In the end, people have a choice as to whether or not they are going to tune in to consume the news. But because it exists, and because all news media outlets have adopted this 24/7, constant-information approach to the news, it means we are surrounded by information at all times, and this does have consequences.
Based on what we’ve identified as the “good” and “bad” parts of cable news, you can probably infer on your own some of the ways in which it has shaped the world. But let’s dig a little deeper. Here are six key ways cable news has changed how we live and what our future might look like:
One of the potential benefits of cable news is that it helps people become more informed about the events of the world than they ever were before.
However, as we mentioned, this can also lead to “information overload.”
What happens, though, when people become overloaded with information? Well, in most cases, they just tune out. Not wanting to deal with all the anxiety and panic that might come from knowing so much about the world, they shut down and disengage from the news altogether.
Or, if they don’t stop paying attention to the news, they start to avoid outlets that might present information that conflicts with their worldview.
When this happens, the public becomes less engaged with what’s going on in the world. People begin to focus less on the collective whole of society and instead focus on what’s most relevant to them. One could argue this is a healthy thing to do. But it also puts the very fabric of democracy in question. For such a mode of government to work, it’s imperative that people have at least a general understanding of what’s going on.
So, in this sense, cable news has helped contribute to a general breakdown in democracy by pushing people away from the news.
Of course, there are many factors – economic inequality, racial oppression, religion, etc. – that are also standing in the way of democracy; we can’t pin this whole thing on cable news. But it’s part of it, and something we must consider.
One somewhat paradoxical impact cable news has had on the world is that it has made people trust the news less than before. As mentioned earlier, two-thirds of Americans are concerned that what they see on cable news isn’t true.
Where does this sentiment come from? Why are people so distrustful of cable news?
It goes back to the competition model we discussed earlier. Because these networks are competing against one another for audience members, using relatively similar events, the only method they have of differentiating themselves from the competition is how they present the news, i.e. the opinions they have and the approach they take to sensationalism.
This drive to win over viewers has led cable news networks – all of them – to report stories that simply weren’t true, or that were embellished for effect. Then, when it’s discovered that this happened, people trust that network just a little bit less.
Interestingly, in some areas of the population, this distrust in the media has extended to experts, those who often appear on news shows to explain events and provide analysis. Some have come to think that these individuals are simply paid puppets of whatever network they are presenting on, touting mistruths as part of some hidden agenda.
This may be happening in isolated areas, but this attack against experts is...concerning. It makes it hard for society to agree on objective facts, and this makes it hard to move forward with productive policymaking and other governmental functions.
Again, cable news isn’t the only thing driving this. But it has played an important role that must be acknowledged.
It doesn’t take a degree in political science to recognize that we live in incredibly polarized times. There is very little room in the middle of the political spectrum: you’re either one thing or the other.
This is incredibly unproductive when it comes to engaging in healthy debate and making progress. Compromise is necessary, but it’s almost impossible in the current political climate.
Cable news has played a role in creating this environment. Again, it’s not the only culprit. Larger societal forces are at play, such as the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the dramatically different opinions as to how to deal with that. But because cable news bombards people with information that is usually in line with their audience’s existing views and beliefs, they are creating echo chambers.
This is a phenomenon in communication where people’s views about a particular subject get stronger as they are exposed to more and more information that confirms what they already believe.
So, if you are already a right-leaning conservative, it’s likely CNN and MSNBC will make you mad. You then turn to Fox News to hear the news that’s more in line with your views (an incredibly problematic statement that we won’t analyze at this moment). And when you do this and start hearing things that make sense to you, your opinions get stronger and you become even less open to new ideas, especially if they contradict what you already think.
Everyone is guilty of doing this, on both sides of the political spectrum. And all it does is make it impossible to debate, for every member of the conversation enters it with hardened beliefs that are unlikely to change.
Social media, along with cable news, is a huge driver of this. So it’s not all the television networks’ fault. But they are part of this. Meaning that one of the impacts of cable news has been to divide people up and make it harder for them to talk with one another.
Journalists have traditionally been trained, and judged, using high standards. They are expected to report on the truth, or something as close to it as possible. This means presenting all sides of the story in a fair and balanced way, one that allows readers or viewers to formulate their own opinions and understandings.
However, under the current cable news model, which has put competition at the center of the news media, these standards are breaking down. Since these companies are most concerned with profit, they have become less interested in maintaining journalistic standards. Stories get posted or presented even without all the proper research, or sides of the story are neglected in favor of presenting a specific viewpoint.
It’s become more important to just “get the story out” and “make it look good” rather than “get it right,” which used to be the mantra spoken in newsrooms all around the country.
To help illustrate this, take a look at this graph that compares profit growth as compared to newsroom spending growth among the three major cable news channels over the past four years:
As you can see, all three channels have experienced growing profits. But they’ve managed this without having to spend all that much more money on journalism. Instead, they are spending money to bring in pundits and other “experts,” and also to dress up their existing coverage to look more exciting and attract more people.
All of this is the result of the fact that the cable news channels are competing with one another selling a similar product to a relatively limited group of people.
The last major impact that cable news has had on the world is that it has contributed to a reduction in the number of news sources we have access to. Once again, competition is at play.
One way to gain more audience members is to cater to their interests and beliefs, creating an echo chamber where they feel safe and to which they will return regularly. But another way is to simply buy another publication and make it your own, a tactic news companies have been using often over the past few decades.
The result: around 90 percent of news media outlets in the United States are currently owned by five (5) companies: COMCAST NBC Universal, Disney, ViacomCBS, News Corporation, and AT&T.
This is bad news for the average person. It means that nearly all the news we consume is part of some larger business strategy. It’s likely promoting an agenda, even when we don’t know that it is.
Less diversity in terms of news sources is a bad state of affairs for democracy. It turns these organizations into true gatekeepers: they get to decide what information we learn, and, increasingly, the opinions we might form about what we consume.
Cable news sort of launched this process, though it had been taking place during the previous decades.
This is because cable news proved to the world that news could be more profitable than previously imagined. And once the Rupert Murdoch’s (Australian media mogul that owns Britain’s Sky News as well as Fox News and many more) of the world figured this out, they began gobbling up smaller stations and publications, making themselves rich and degrading the quality of the news the average person can access.
In just forty years (if we go back to the birth of CNN), but really just 25, cable news has had a significant impact on the world in which we live. It’s changed how we consume news, how much news we consume, and what we think about the news we hear and see.
However, many argue that cable news is actually on its way out. Currently, the internet is people’s top choice for news, and this trend is expected to continue.
On the one hand, this could help reverse some of the negative impacts of cable news. The internet is an open platform (to an extent, also a conversation for another time), and so it provides space for more voices. But it is even more instantaneous than cable news, and can just as easily produce information overload, disengagement, echo chambers, and polarization.
No matter what happens, the news will continue to be an important aspect of a healthy, free society. And now that we know the impacts of cable news, both positive and negative, it will be important to monitor how internet news changes the world as it becomes increasingly important to our lives.