The Incredible News Cycle

By Shepard, Alicia C. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Incredible News Cycle


Shepard, Alicia C., The World and I


Long ago, before there was an Internet and even before there were 24-hour cable news networks, most journalists lived the easy life. They didn't think so then. But they de now.

Back in those not-so-distant days, a White House correspondent needed only to report what happened that day and write it as a news story for the next day's paper or that night's television news broadcast. It was all so straightforward: "Yesterday, the president of the United States said such and such about taxes or foreign policy or the state of the economy."

Then in 1980, an upstart cable news channel, known among the wags as Chicken Noodle Network but better known as Cable News Network, or CNN, came along and revolutionized journalism with its regular diet of news around the clock.

Anyone old enough to watch television in January 1991 remembers when CNN skyrocketed to fame with its 17-hour, uninterrupted broadcast from Baghdad as war broke out between Iraq and the allied forces. No other major U.S. television network provided the same coverage, and it paid off: For the first time in its history, CNN beat all the other networks in ratings for a 24-hour period. CNN became a contender.

In the last three year's, there's another new player: the Internet, which now provides an avalanche of information. Just dial into the Internet and at one's fingertips are World Wide Web sites hosted by 500 major daily newspapers, three major television networks, and three 24-hour cable networks, plus hundreds more sites feeding news junkies tantalizing news tidbits.

Journalism's new dimension

News is no longer reported once in the evening, on television, and again, in the morning, in newspapers. CNN and its around-the-clock cable successors, MSNBC and Fox News Channel, along with the Internet are dramatically recasting how journalists do their jobs by shortening news cycles down from daily to hourly to sometimes 10minute cycles.

Gone forever are the days of reflection, when a journalist could spend a whole day thoroughly reporting a story. Now, in the midst of news gathering, journalists are challenged with making sense of hourly updates from cable channels and Web sites.

The remarkable ability of personal computers to provide news instantaneously via the Internet, combined with the influence of nonstop cable news networks, has jacked up the pressure on all journalists to get it first and fast--not so much first and right. The unfortunate casualties in this new and highly competitive marketplace are sometimes accuracy, fairness, and balance.

Indisputably, the proliferation of means of getting information is a boon to the general public. No longer must citizens rely solely on local newspapers and television stations for news. They now have the ability to go as deep into a story as they want.

No longer must Joe or Josephine Q. Public depend on a White House reporter to learn what President Clinton said in a speech to cattle ranchers. They can tap into the Internet and get the speech and read it themselves. They can peruse original sources.

Those living in Idaho or Iowa, who might never have easy access to Washington newspapers, can now read the latest over the Net. They can even glean every bit of gossip, innuendo, and rumor out there in cyberspace.

Nowhere did this relatively new pressure created by the Internet and all-news television stations play out better than in the Monica Lewinsky story, which grabbed the nation by the throat and refused to let go for much of the first three months of 1998.

It wasn't just major television networks and newspapers driving the story. For the first time during a major political crisis, the Internet and 24-hour news channels also pushed the story.

"You feel like you're swatting away gnats in the swamp sometimes," said CNN bureau chief Frank Sesno at a National Press Club forum on the media in April, describing the pressure he feels from all the information flooding off the Internet. …

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