Here is the deepest and, to many serious journalists, most disturbing truth about the future of news: The audience will control it. They will get the kind of news they choose to get. Not the kind they say they want, but the kind they actually choose.

To the extent that news needs to produce profits, the demand ultimately will shape the supply. But even if unlimited nonprofit funding for serious journalism were suddenly to appear, demand would still control. That is because, no matter what its business model might be, journalism will fail to deliver to the broad public the civic education our society requires unless it can persuade large numbers of people to pay attention to it. So the choice is not between giving people what they want or what they need. The challenge is to induce people to want what they need.

How to do that with everything in constant motion? New technologies, new services, new competitors seem to arise every day. All this activity can mask a more important trend—the audience itself is changing rapidly. As a consequence, the disciplined, professional presentation of news perfected over the 20th century no longer commands the widespread respect it once did. The influence of undisciplined news voices grows.

Journalists know all about responding to the next new thing. We leap like dalmatians at the sound of the fire bell. But to understand what is happening to the news audience today we need to get beyond the clang of the alarm. We have to get past the immediacy of each hot new idea and begin with something deeper and more durable. We need to understand what the transformation of our information environment has done at the most fundamental level to the way people take in news.

Emotional Heat

My struggle with this question led me to the science of how the brain processes information, especially the way emotion directs attention. Of course, it did not take the rise of modern neuroscience to prove that emotion holds an audience. Sophocles knew that when he wrote his drama of incest and violence, “Oedipus Rex.” So do the editors of supermarket tabloids. Count on fear and sex to attract the eye.

Evolution provides the reason: Our ancestors became our ancestors by being able to spot danger and the opportunity to mate. So it was inevitable that as competition for attention exploded with the revolutionary information technologies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, message senders raised the emotional volume. Serious journalists tended to decry this as infotainment or worse. Perhaps they never themselves quite lived up to the professional ideal of utter disinterest and detachment, but they did learn to draw back from raw emotional appeals.

The audience did not. This baffled many of us. How could people be taken in by screaming commentators (on everything from health care to basketball), by celebrity gossip, by reports characterized at best by truthiness rather than the rigors of verification?

Here is where the implications of the rapidly developing science of the mind help. It turns out that certain kinds of cognitive challenges (challenges to our thinking) produce emotional arousal. And an emotionally aroused brain is drawn to things that are emotionally charged.

Give normal humans a tricky anagram or a long division problem involving two numbers out to six decimal points, and they will begin to show emotional arousal—think of it as stress. Give them a strict time limit, and their level of arousal will rise. Throw new information at them (some of it useful, some irrelevant, some just wrong) while they are working on the problem, and their emotional temperature will go up even more. Then distract them (say by calling their names or having their smartphones signal that somebody is trying to reach them), and their arousal level will soar.

If that sounds familiar, it is. All too familiar. Information overload, time pressure, and distraction characterize our era. The very nature of the information environment in which we all live creates emotional arousal. We are available every moment to everyone we know, and an enormous number of people we do not know. We continuously receive messages: messages of a particular sort—the kind that are directed specifically to us. They come from people who know us personally or from people or institutions that have learned something about what interests us.

In effect, these ubiquitous messages call out our names. Consequently we live in a continuous state of interruption and distraction. Time pressure is enormous. Even after leaving the Tribune Company to write books, I discovered that people expected me to respond to e-mails within a couple of hours, if not a couple of minutes, and were offended if I did not.

So not only has the explosion of competition among suppliers of information—news, advertising and entertainment—caused producers to increase the emotional temperature, the recipients of information have become more attracted to emotional heat. This helps explain why heavy news seekers turn to the intensity of Fox News or MSNBC and away from CNN. (It also explains why the once rather restrained National Geographic channel has so many shows about predator species that prey on humans—species that include Homo sapiens themselves.)

Where Journalism Fits

Chapter Six, “The Two Searchlights,” in Jack Fuller’s book describes neuroscience research about emotion and attention and how it is relevant to the way journalists present their stories. Read it online »
This rise in emotional intensity poses a real problem for serious journalists, as I describe in my book “What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism.” We have been trained for many good reasons to shy away from it in the presentation of news. But we see our audience drawn to it. And we do not even have a way of discussing which uses of emotion are misleading or manipulative and which actually can help people understand their world.

The sciences of the mind offer a lot of help if we are willing to learn from them. They explain, for example, why the immediate crowds out the important. Why bad news attracts attention more than good news does. They can show us how emotion interacts with the human brain’s inherent mental shortcuts to lead us systematically to erroneous conclusions. They can point us to the ways in which search algorithms interact with emotions and these mental shortcuts to mislead people about the relative importance of various pieces of information. They can even help us understand the way our ability and impulse to read other people’s minds draws us to a story and light up other secrets of how and why narrative works.

It should be clear by now that the challenge for journalists from here forward is not only the steadfast adherence to the values of accuracy and independence and the social responsibility to provide a civic education but also the development of new ways of thinking and talking about how to advance the social mission of journalism in a radically and rapidly evolving environment. The answer is not to figure out how to transport 20th century news presentation into 21st century delivery mechanisms but rather to create a new rhetoric of news that can get through to the changed and changing news audience.

To conclude where I began, the audience will determine the future of news. Serious journalists must understand to the very essence the minds that make up this audience in order to know how to persuade people to assimilate the significant and demand the accurate. Anything less is the neglect of our most important social responsibility.

Jack Fuller, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, was editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and president of Tribune Publishing Company. His book, “What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism,” is published by the University of Chicago Press.

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