Book Review - How to Watch TV News by Neil Postman

My grandparents were religious about watching the evening news. On the occasions that we visited them I recall the family gathering in the living room after dinner to watch the local half-hour news show, followed by the weather. All activity in the house ceased for those precious minutes, and all eyes were glued to the cathode ray tube’s mesmerizing colors.

Now, as an adult, I take for granted the never-ending stream of news available to me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year – even holidays. Where my grandparents had a brief window to the wider world, I live outside the house entirely, to the point where I do not find it odd to worry about affairs in foreign countries that will never, ever affect my daily life. But for some reason I know about them, because they are news, and news – we are told – is important.

In 1992, cultural critic Neil Postman and journalist Steve Powers published a book called How to Watch TV News. I can’t say what reception the book received, but it was at least significant enough for an updated edition to appear in 2008. That a mere sixteen year gap warranted an updated edition is a testament to the speed with which technology has transformed the delivery and consumption of news itself. The first publication, however, deals with news as Postman and Powers – and myself, as a child – experienced it in the 80s and early 90s, largely delivered to homes in regular time slots from well-known networks.

“What is news?” Postman asks. (I shall refer to both Postman and Powers as “Postman” in the remainder of this review, only because I am more familiar with his work.) Most people would answer that news is the most important events that occur during the day. But many important events occur during the day, and the news only occupies a limited time slot on network television in a 24 hour period. (Even with modern technology, more significant events occur daily than could possibly be covered in 24 hours, even if the manpower and network bandwidth were available.) News, then, is a curated selection of events on which someone reports. And the person reporting is likely not the person who decides what events are covered, though they are the person responsible for interpreting events, and relaying that interpretation to viewers.

What criteria are used to determine which daily events are most newsworthy? To answer this question, Postman looks at how news networks make money. Advertisers spend dollars to place commercials on networks that attract eyes, so to be profitable – that is, to court advertisers – news programs need eyes. News stories, according to Postman, are selected based on which stories will get the most eyes to remain on the screen for the duration of the program. Compared to regular entertainment programs, news programs are relatively inexpensive to produce, but tend to attract significant viewership, so their profit margins are higher. Since audiences who watch news programs tend to be more educated, attentive, and have more money, they are more susceptible to clever advertising.

News networks employ a number of interesting strategies to keep audiences hooked during programs. Popular entertainment shows are often lead-in programs that already draw a significant audience, and which are likely to leave eyes lingering on the couch after they conclude. “Teasers” for upcoming news are peppered within these programs – “Stay tuned for a story of murder and mayhem, coming up at 5!” – the visual equivalent of “clickbait” designed to entice audiences to stay. Anchors and their supporting staff that cover weather, sports, etc. are all chosen with a view to their aesthetic in mind. Better looking people are paid more to fill a part – to be an actor – in the drama that is TV news. Together this ensemble forms a “family” metaphor: two co-anchors (of the opposite sex) that are “husband and wife”, and their subordinates who play the children. Viewers are brought into their happy home as guests. Everyone in the family has a role to play, and more importantly, everyone is happy to play that role. It surpasses Ward and June Cleaver’s family as the ideal.

These actors are paid large sums to deliver news to audiences, but reporters write and frame the stories anchors deliver according to their own mental points of origin. When covering events, reporters employ three types of language: description (what actually happened), judgement (how they feel, morally, about what happened), and inference (drawing conclusions about related ideas based on judgement). The very language with which reporters communicate news has connotative meaning that goes beyond the visuals that “show” the story to a viewer. In fact, pictures only speak to the concretes, the particulars, of reality. They do not deal in abstractions at all. Language is the means by which humans unify the infinite variety of particulars in the universe, enabling us to deal with it in meaningful (and sane) ways. So while viewers might think that the images or video being displayed on a nightly news program is “news”, it is in fact not – “news” is the reporter’s connotations about those images, laced, as they are, by a context that is often not conveyed. Remember, Postman tells us, that different people experience events in different (often contradictory ways). Eye witness testimony is of dubious reliability at best; and what is news, except the eyewitness testimony of a single reporter?

A news program’s time limitations place temporal restrictions on the quantity of information that can be squeezed into the program.

“Time works against understanding, coherence, even meaning.”

The more instantaneous information is delivered, the less historical context and analysis can be delivered with it. Shorter news segments mean that context is necessarily dropped in favor of more visually scintillating content. Reporters or anchors may make contextual comments, but they are usually passed off as errata to an otherwise complete visual work. The increasing number of retractions, updates, and corrections in more modern news stories proves Postman’s point. To competently watch the news, then, a viewer must be armed with context already – from books, articles, and other sources of information. The viewer must not be a passive vessel to be filled with news, but must be an active participant and critic of the news.

Postman’s final chapter contains eight recommendations for people who watch TV news. These recommendations stand the test of time, and they may be applied to news one receives from any visual medium, including the Internet (YouTube and Facebook, especially).

1 - “In encountering a news show, you must come with a firm idea of what is important.” A viewer must understand that news is delivered to the public based on the financial interests of the network. To paraphrase Postman, reporters are not as powerful as accountants. Viewers will only be as competent in their consumption of news as they have been diligent in the development of their own knowledge.

2 - “In preparing to watch a TV news show, keep in mind that it is called a ‘show’.” Teasers, soundtracks, fancy visuals, photogenic anchors – these are the things of entertainment, and they are calculated to affect viewers emotionally. TV news is drama larping as education.

3 - “Never underestimate the power of commercials.” Commercials, Postman writes, are “a new, albeit degraded means of religious expression in that most of them take the form of parables, teaching people what the good life consists of… that, in fact, is one of the reasons commercials are so effective. People do not usually analyze them. Neither, we might say, do people analyze biblical parables, which are often ambiguous…”

4 - “Learn something about the economic and political interests of those who run TV stations.” Since all news is chosen and delivered through a filter of values, to judge it competently a viewer must know something about those from whom it is delivered. In the 80s and 90s this may have been a more difficult task; in the twenty-first century it seems that all reporters wear political affiliations on their sleeves.

5 - “Pay special attention to the language of newscasts.” Language frames reality, and also betrays the biases and assumptions of the people using it. Since the purview of television news is to arrest the viewer for ratings (and hence, lure advertisers), it can be assumed that the language chosen to convey news will be calculated to provoke maximum emotional response, whether warranted or not. Perhaps this is why, Postman writes, “people who are heavy television viewers, including viewers of television news shows, believe their communities are much more dangerous than do light television viewers. Television news, in other words, tends to frighten people.” The more hysteria that can be packed into every sentence a reporter writes, the better. People love watching train wrecks.

6 - “Reduce by at least one-third the amount of TV news you watch.” The reasons, by now, should be obvious. Spend your freed time reading.

“…each day’s TV news consists, for the most part, of fifteen or so examples of one or the other of the Seven Deadly Sins… It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from acquaintance with thirty or forty of these examples… TV news does not reflect normal, everyday life.”

7 - “Reduce by one-third the number of opinions you feel obliged to have.” One interesting side-effect of TV news is that it compels people to feel like they ought to parrot what has been reported, and that they are morally or intellectually inferior if they reserve judgement or admit to ignorance on a reported subject. But this is nonsense; insanity, even. No well informed insights can come from sound bytes and contextless reporting.

8 - “Do whatever you can to get schools interested in teaching children how to watch TV news shows.” Perhaps “critical viewing” could be taught alongside critical thinking in school classrooms. Students are certainly exposed to far more news than is appropriate for their happiness and well-being. We should consider it morally obligatory to equip them to deal with the deluge sooner rather than later.

Though dated, How to Watch TV News has a tremendous amount of insights for the consumption of any sort of visual media. The Internet has, by and large, taken the place of television in the twenty-first century, and the media establishment – of which the term “fake news” sticks like spaghetti to a wall – looses its collective shit daily. Information comes to us at a tremendously unhealthy rate, overwhelming the sense and clouding the mind, yet our intellectual and moral standings, our very identities, in fact, are judged according to which news source gains our allegiances. Perhaps news is not as important as we think it is. Perhaps it is more important to step back and ask what we should know, and why it’s important, before becoming a passive receptacle for someone else’s answers to those questions. Postman thinks so, and I agree.