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How to Watch TV News is a revised edition of a classic book originally published in 1992. Neil Postman, a well-regarded media theorist, and Steve Powers, a longtime broadcast journalist, wrote the first edition to convince people that anyone relying exclusively on TV news was getting a “vastly distorted picture of the world.” Now Powers has updated the book to provide a wealth of new details, including a discussion of “new media” and the role of television in the current media market.
An Inside Look at the News
How to Watch TV News brings readers behind the scenes of news broadcasts and news stations, exploring how television news is produced and what the underlying motivations are. Central to this discussion is the fact that television news is immensely profitable for networks and local TV stations. The authors compare the price of news programming to producing original television programs, showing that it is considerably cheaper to produce news programs. Moreover, the authors look at the demographics of who watches the news, arguing that the news audience is a highly sought after demographic for advertisers. The book also explores the relationship between commercials and the news, arguing that news is in many ways simply a platform for delivering an audience to advertisers.
Beyond the discussion of news, the authors present a comprehensive picture of how news programs are made. They go through the common jobs in news rooms, looking at reporters, anchors, camera people, assignment editors, and news directors (who get a whole chapter) and explain the process of how something becomes news. The authors also place considerable emphasis on the “show” aspect by discussing the importance of visuals and language in television news. They also look at the content of news programs, showing that they tend to include a lot of feel good stories and weather reports rather than detailed reporting.
What is to be Done?
Postman and Powers argue that we must all critically engage the media and that we not simply be passive consumers of media, which is what the television stations want. To that end, they suggest eight things that we must keep in mind when watching TV news:
- In encountering a news show, you must come with a firm idea of what is important.
- In preparing to watch a TV news show, keep in mind that it is called a “show.”
- Never underestimate the power of commercials.
- Learn something about the economic and political interests of those who run TV stations
- Pay special attention to the language of newscasts.
- Reduce by at least one third the amount of TV news you watch.
- Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have.
- Do whatever you can to get schools interested in teaching children how to watch a TV news show.
The book also argues that while the emergence of new news sources and technologies is rapidly changing television news, we will need to remain just as vigilant in evaluating those sources.
An Essential Read
How to Watch TV News is an absolutely essential read for anyone that either relies on or has ever relied on television news to make sense of the world. It’s simultaneously eye-opening and outraging, and it is packed with valuable insights into how a news room works and how commercial media decides what is “news.” Moreover, the authors ask larger questions about what that means for our society.
Neil Postman and Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News, (Penguin Books, 2008).