Blame it on Fox News. Since their rise a few years ago, they have handily beaten CNN & MSNBC in ratings. There are a few reasons for this but I’d like to focus on the one that deals with the display and presentation of information on these news channels.
Fox News knew full well that news, above all else, had to compete with and captivate viewers to compete. Is there enough news to show 24 hours a day? Probably. Is it all exciting and entertaining? Probably not. Issues like the political wranglings in some far off nation or global warming don’t exactly make for captivating entertainment and Fox knew it.
They also knew their audience very well. They knew that in this age of the Internet, and bite-sized pieces of information, our threshold for attention has gone way down. As we flip through the 300 channels cable offers us, you’ve got about a fifth of a second to stop us in our tracks.
And so, the perpetual state “Breaking News” was born. Everything is either a “Developing Story” or “Breaking News” or “This Just In…” Stop reading this blog right now and flip to either MSNBC, Fox News or CNN. There’s a very high probability that something is “breaking” right before your eyes.
Now of course, CNN & MSNBC had no choice but to join the party. Fox was eating them for lunch with this slimey little tactic. And so they soon adopted the practice. Today, we’re not really sure where or when real breaking news happens. These stations have cried wolf too many times already. It’s not clear what’s important or what really matters at any given moment.
Without getting into the moral or ethical aspects of this, as an information designer I can’t help but think that this is an abuse of design. Good information design both conveys information and provides good context for what we’re taking in. What’s more important than what? How does this bit of information relate to all the other bits?
Fox, CNN & NBC have replaced this goal with another: grab the viewers attention, however way you can, and try to keep them around as long as possible. It’s like walking down the path of a carnival as the various booths try to entice you with prizes, bright colors and a deceptively easy game to play. The major news networks have resorted to billboard advertising tactics to get their ratings.
This all of course raises larger issues of ethics in journalism. Good design – and Fox has proven that this in fact is good, effective design – is a means to an end. The end here, disappointingly, is ratings. The motive isn’t a more “usable” design. It’s just marketing and advertising tactics applied to news. Unfortunately, news isn’t often good. In fact, news is often bad, and sometimes scary. I’m not sure if enough is given towards how delivering information in this manner not only affects what people know but how they feel. In a post 9/11 world, how information is conveyed can shape sentiment as much as the content of the information.
Which raises a question I was pretty sure I would never ask of information designers: do we have a responsibility to not only present the right information but to also present it in an un-biased manner? I suppose it would depend on the business context. If you’re designing an ad, then bias is welcome and obvious. But if you’re presenting what is supposedly news information, how far should we go to captivate viewers or readers?