Source : Toronto Star
If the media want to engage young people in the political and democratic process, they must present news and politics in a format that young people can relate to: Entertainment, says Myles Leslie
I didn't vote in the last federal election. I have an excuse, but that's beside the point; most people my age didn't vote. If you look at the electoral turnout rates, we 25- to 35-year-olds are apparently an apolitical lot. We watch more comedy than politics.
The general consensus is that we are amusing ourselves, if not to death, at least out of the democratic process.
In fact, the ratings for political satire shows suggest we are as engaged in the issues as any other generation. We just don't like watching the news.
If the Canadian media want to bring my cohort back into full democratic participation, they need to lighten up.
Things need not be as dark as Neil Postman claims.
This is not yet another call for snappier graphics and streetwise quips from the national news anchors. No, the proposal is much more radical, and, unlike attempts to get Peter Mansbridge to tell jokes, it might just work.
Rather than renovating the newscast yet again, Canadian journalism needs to build alternative production models, entirely new formats.
The good news is that the formats aren't new at all, they're just new to the journalism business. The bad news is journalists aren't going to like it.
They are not going to like the idea of popular drama, satire, and satirical interview shows becoming the new outlet for their work.
The craft has thrived on format innovations in the past, including the development of wire services and the inverted pyramid style, or the first easy to hold and easy to read tabloid papers.
None of these innovations spelled the end of print journalism; in fact, they increased circulation. They made the stuffiest papers more appealing as they expanded the market for democracy's core product: Information.
Delivering the information that people need to be part of their government should be the journalistic craft's first goal. How that delivery is accomplished is of very little consequence.
The Canadian media continue to be fascinated with why viewers bolted from the barn, rather than where they went.
In my cohort's case, we're watching This Hour Has 22 Minutes instead of the evening news.
We have forsaken the national anchors, spending our days hooked up to Internet news tickers and our evenings to political satire shows.
We're suspicious of attempts at relevance made by anyone other than those waving a badge of loyalty to our cause — whatever brand of conservative or liberal ideology that might be. We want none of the possibly tainted content on the news sites, none of the inherently subjective stories on the broadcast. Whether it is out of sloth, mistrust, or information overload, we prefer our facts so boiled down they're nearly boiled away.
When we get home in the evening the TV ratings reveal we are happy to engage the substance of the major stories of the day — the catch being, we get our content from news satires or dramas.
On the one hand we abhor, and snore through, the Ottawa-dominated grind. On the other, we make TV appointments to watch The Rick Mercer Show poke fun at the Ottawa-dominated grind. Where an older generation's content and analysis came from The Journal with Barbara Frum, we prefer The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The ratings have skewed so radically that the news is no longer feeding viewers to the evening dramas.
Instead, savvy network executives are commissioning docudramas to feed viewers into the nightly broadcast. The ratings support this kind of decision, with something like three times the number of people who watch the news tuning in to the evening dramas.
Looked at from this perspective, this is not a generation amusing itself to death. Instead, it is a group with a very different formatting preference for its political discussion. Packaged as news or The West Wing, we are dealing with the same issues. Ironically, the writers and the producers of the dramas and satire shows get all their stories from journalistic accounts, reading the papers the day before.
The politicians have figured all this out. Call it opportunism or simply smart, it's worth queuing up to get onto one of these shows. A pie in the face on This Hour Has 22 Minutes or a good grilling on The Daily Show is the new way to get to the electorate. Or is it?
As I admitted off the top, very few of my much-cherished demographic are voting. Certainly not while Canada's journalists continue to debate why it is the young have forsaken the facts and the news for guffaws and satire. The longer we spend getting huffy about this apparent abandonment, the longer people will stay away from the polls in droves.
The journalism community has backed itself into a corner over this formatting issue. Rather than remember we come from the humble but fiery stock of Joseph Pulitzer, we've taken to feeling like a profession. We're not the media, we're journalists. This is a distinction no one outside the craft makes.
Journalism is the medium through which our society's stories pass, and TV excels at telling stories in pictures. As a medium it is inherently entertaining.
The reporters and producers who work in TV know this as they gather their clips and background tape. The search for a personal face to put on a policy story, and the most "representative" interview location are already part of the job. These are entertainment format decisions. The key here is to remember that entertaining does not necessarily mean content-free.
Given that a large segment of the population has simply stopped engaging the existing news format, we have a number of options. On the one hand, Canadian journalism can insist it is separate from the entertainment media, and continue to discuss why the viewers ran away.
Marshall McLuhan cautions that this is a tenuous position at best. More importantly, the ongoing debate about the next renovation of the news doesn't seem to be getting the viewers to come back, or vote. On the other hand, journalists can start working on variety and entertainment units.
For the media to serve Canada's democracy, we need to realize that Northrop Frye may have been on to something when he argued that drama is the most compelling genre.
Canadian journalism's considerable talents, resources, and unique skills can make shows that people are already watching, shows that politicians are already appearing on, shows that are already dealing with democracy's issues, even more compelling.
Perhaps even compelling enough to get people voting again.
Myles Leslie is freelance journalist in Vancouver. This article was one of three winning essays in the FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting 2004 Dalton Camp Award.
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