Cable news channels were a significant destination for viewers interested in getting the latest on the shootings in Colorado on Friday, according to Nielsen ratings from that day.
In the documentary Kumaré, Vikram Gandhi assumes the title “guru” and sets out to amass a following. He succeeds in convincing gullible customers that he is, in fact, the guru Kumaré, a man of wisdom, spiritual enlightenment, and serenity. Kumaré has a lot to teach us about advertising, marketing, and public relations; but if it has one “actionable” point for media professionals, it is this: gurus always sell themselves. That is, the product of any guru is first, the guru, and second, the philosophy underwriting his or her—but, let’s be honest, usually his—guru-ism.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that social media gurus claim that social media is our most important news source. Despite the relentless social media boosting that pervades conventional, old media, ironically, traditional media outlets remain an equally important source of breaking news analysis. Contrary to the high visibility of social media platforms, atavistic news sources like television continue to keep huge numbers of consumers informed. News coverage of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado demonstrates how conventional media gets underestimated. For example, cable news stations experienced an influx of viewers as news of the tragedy broke. TVNEWSER® reports that from 6 to 9 a.m. on the Friday morning of the attack, Fox News Channel averaged 1.34 million viewers, CNN 466,000, and MSNBC 450,000, all significantly higher than normal. As TVNEWSER® concludes, “it is safe to say that cable news was a primary news source for 10s of millions of Americans Friday.”
A failure to recognize the importance of old media derives from a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic. When people follow an availability heuristic, they evaluate the probability or magnitude of an event based on how easily they can recall examples of the event. Thus, the assumed primacy of “new media” results from reports that social media is both independently important and more important than conventional media.
Even when consumers watch cable news, they are inundated with the message that new media supersedes old media. One subplot of the Aurora story concerned the role of Reddit in breaking the news. The New York Times’s Bits Blog published a post called, “How Reddit Scooped the Press on the Aurora Shootings.” TL;DR: Morgan Jones, an 18-year-old who was monitoring a police scanner at the time of the shooting, started a timeline of the events on Reddit. And Poynter’s piece, “How news spread of the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ shooting at Colorado movie theater” emphasized Tweets coming in from the scene as a key source of new information. But there is an important distinction between new media as a source of raw news data and new media as a source of packaged news programming, vetted and information rich. While those packaged news programs assert the importance of new media as a news source, consumers are still receiving news from the package, not the source. The flow of information from an event to major media outlets is much faster and higher volume than pre-new media. The news source for news media has shifted. But the news source for the public is still old media, along with the online presences of old media, such as website video streams and blog posts. The wild, wild west of news—Reddit, Twitter, etc.—is not where most Americans look for reliable breaking news coverage.
The value of new media as a journalistic tool should not be discounted. Nevertheless, both enthusiasm and fear-mongering should be tempered: new media is not exacting a swift hit on old media. If there is a displacement effect, wherein tech-savvy viewers shift loyalty from old media to new, old media remains a consistent and predictable source of information. Social media is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believing in the ascendency of, for example, Reddit, does not make it true. Rather, a misplaced faith in the fundamental dominance of new media does not make millions of Americans just disappear. They’re still out there, plopped in front of the TV set, consuming what new media uncovered through a conventional source.