News as Public Drama:
The Era of the Endless News Cycle
Members of the mainstream media audience have been witness to and, as news consumers, partially complicit in, an important shift in the media landscape over the last two decades: the increasing trend toward news that is fashioned into dramatic and emotional stories. This form of news, what I refer to as public drama, is now regularly found in the foreground of the media landscape, taking up residence in some of the most valued news real estate, such as lead stories on the morning news programs, discussion points for prime-time news programs, front-page or section leads in newspapers, and the covers of news and entertainment magazines. How did this happen? And how does this affect ways that members of the media audience process and use the news?
This chapter explores how public drama came to hold such a prominent place in today’s mainstream news cycles. The emergence of public drama as a vehicle for organizing and delivering news is located in the context of broader shifts in the economic, technological, and cultural foundations of the news industry, shifts that affect what news producers and their audiences believe the news should look like and how it should be made. As media officials, news workers, and media audiences have adjusted to the complexities and constraints brought about by these shifts, public drama has emerged as an increasingly viable framework for organizing, presenting, and receiving news.
The prominence and pervasiveness of public drama in mainstream news cycles, coupled with its characteristic emphasis on news items that can be molded into a compelling and sustainable story populated with interesting and identifiable characters, renders public drama a potent creator and conveyor of meanings. News fashioned as public drama provides a stylized window into contemporary social life and, in many instances, holds tremendous sway over how news consumers come to understand the world around them.