Controversy sells, unfortunately

I’ve been known to gripe on occasion about news organizations – or more correctly what they aren’t doing.   It’s not that I mind competing analysis of events or exchange of opinions  at times, but I also expect it to be one of the smaller aspects of the entire package.  As I said earlier, I miss the days when I could turn on a news channel and get … news.  You know, information about what was happening around the country and the world.   These days, it’s hard to find.  I can get all sorts of opinions, and outrage about (fill in the blank) from some “host” thundering into the microphone.  Just what they’re particularly upset about usually is something that probably waved to the facts at some point in passing.

But it’s not just the news channels that have this problem.  It’s become a “feature” on many Internet sites as well.  Visit Free Republic, and you’ll find a haven of far right-wing people feeding each other the newest thing that the right wing is upset about.  Go over to FireDogLake, and you’ll find the far left-wing people doing the same thing.  What they do have in common is that they’re very angry.

Controversy, real or manufactured, sells.  It generates viewership, it generates page views, it generates ratings –  in other words, it generates money.  Presentation of facts, and thoughtful analysis often gets lost in the storm of “outrage.”  Controversy doesn’t necessarily do much to advance the national conversation, or lead to debate over solutions, but my goodness, it does get attention!

Why am I talking about this?  I’ve been doing this blog for almost a year now.  There are some posts here I put a lot of work into, looking up documentation, dredging through reams of government reports, tracking down figures, and so on.  Then I tried to put it all into context, and make suggestions.   I’m rather proud of them.  But you know what post has drawn the most hits of any post I’ve ever done on this site?   It’s not one of the ones I worked hard on.  It’s one where I got ticked off and went on a rant.  I’m serious.  That one post, out of the over 120 I’ve done here, has drawn almost 10% of the hits on this site.   It took me less than an hour to knock out,  just to get something off my chest.  It set off a major conniption fit elsewhere, and the traffic here exploded.   While gratifying to know that I’d succeeded in hitting a nerve with the people whose nerves I’d wanted to hit, it also serves as reminder that “controversy sells.”  Yes,  I was being rude, and saying things that made certain people uncomfortable, just as I meant to, and my site traffic went up.   It’s happened to me before.  When I was on Daily Kos,  the two diaries with the most comments came when I figuratively “blew a gasket” and called out certain groups.  It drew attention, all right.  When I used to write for a magazine, the article that drew the most letters  – good and bad – was the one where I called some battling groups on the carpet for their behavior.

I don’t do that very often.  I don’t regret it when I do it, and I don’t really worry about the “hit count” or the “page views” here.  I’m not making money off this site or any of my other blogging efforts, so it’s not a concern.  Even if I were, I still wouldn’t do it just to draw the traffic.  But the object lesson is that controversy works as a mechanism to draw viewership, and if you’re in the “eyeballs = money” business,  it’s an easy choice.  The problem is that it’s become the sole reason for being for many former “news” and “discussion” media and sites.  It may make money, but it’s not always a good thing.  It’s one thing to actually have a controversy, it’s another to create them to keep the outrage flowing.  It cripples the information flow,  prevents us from making informed decisions, and widens the political divide.   As Jon Stewart’s “Rally for Sanity” showed, there’s a great many people who are getting tired of it.   They want factual information, reasoned debate, and yes, that great “evil” – compromise.   Will that stop the media and web from their addiction to outrage?  Not until it stops being profitable.

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12 responses to “Controversy sells, unfortunately

  1. Dorothy Rissman

    Thank you for this thoughtful analysis of what people respond to. I too am tired of the rage. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you. A constant diet of rage doesn’t accomplish much. Everyone loses their temper now and then, and I’m no different. As I said, it was amusing to see that the people I’d called out didn’t like it, but at the same time, it’s not a regular thing. I prefer to get all reasonable on people.

  2. They want factual information, reasoned debate, and yes, that great “evil” – compromise.

    I vote – AYE!

    I thank you for all the work you put into your topics. The information and suggestions or conclusions you reach have merit and deserve thoughtful consideration. It’s the reason I read your postings, I get a potential different view I hadn’t yet considered.

  3. It’s not just controversy, although that’s clearly a huge draw. There’s also some kind of Murphy’s Law corollary at work in blogging, wherein any post you spend hours researching, documenting, and painstakingly putting together will languish in obscurity, while the frivolous trifle you tossed off in a fit of pique or silliness will rack up hits like a home run derby.

    • That seems to be quite true. During the HCR debate on DK, I put together many “serious” diaries going over the historical antecedents, legislative procedures, etc. Mostly, I got a few nice comments, a few idiots telling me I had no idea, and they sank gracefully down and disappeared. The one where I said (figuratively) “Hey, you idiots have no plan!”? Hoo boy. Top of the Rec List, 1400 comments, etc. The same for when I said “Don’t call me a progressive” and then went into why they were embarrassments to the term. Fired it off, went to bed – the next morning, top of the list, 1400 (ended up with 1800+) comments. I take a great deal of pride in getting 12 or so hide ratings on the tip jar to go along with it. I think that’s the record for a Rec List diary. 😀

  4. The hysteria crowd doesn’t want facts and figures interfering with a “good” idea or “crisis” since it will only make their position less of a possibility potentially.

    It’s done one the right by the Repubs. Lower taxes, less government, etc….but nothing detailed to show us a plan, a direction to discuss, or a possibility we might get to reach a compromise.

    Nope, instead just yell and scream. The louder you are (they think) the more right you are.

    • I saw that a lot on the left when they were upset about the lack of a “public option” in the the health care bill. They never defined what they meant by a public option, what was their “acceptable,” or how it would be implemented or paid for – just that there had to be one. I eventually came to the opinion that if Congress should have just labeled something in the bill the “public option,” just to shut them up. Wouldn’t have worked, but it would have been funny.

      I know I’ve been having a back-and-forth elsewhere here on climate change, and that’s another issue. If people are denying things exist, too much effort is spent on persuading them it does, not on solutions. There’s a new film (and book) out called “Cool It” – a review is here. The thesis is not whether climate change is happening, or whether it’s exacerbated or caused by humans. That’s accepted as “given.” What makes this film controversial is the discussion of the impact, and solutions proposed. I’m not saying he’s right, or wrong, but I’d rather have the debate on the solutions.

      • I’ve been following that back-and-forth with interest.

        One of the biggest problems with the climate change issue was the findings that the data collection methods were problematic, giving an open cponcern that the data itself was skewed due to the collection methods used. Now all we see is the “it’s a lie – no it’s not” “debate.” As I said in my comments, yes there is climate change and yes man is exacerbating things. There is not a single solution that will reverse it all, it will require many changes to our behaviors to slowly undo – or truly to help the nature to undo, a lot of the damage human cause or aggravate. Get rid of the hysterics, the chicken littles, the absolute naysayers and we can work on reasonable, realistic solutions to start implementing.

        • That’s what happens when a political or commercial agenda collides with scientific debate, and there’s not enough understanding of the process of science. A few years ago, I worked down the hall from a group that was doing research on childhood obesity. One of the researchers published a paper where she showed a correlation between the amount of apple juice consumed by infants and toddlers and the likelihood that they would be obese children. It wasn’t a “cause,” it was just an indicator of a pattern of nutrition that could lead to obese children. What the media reported as was “apple juice makes kids fat,” which drew massive fire from juice manufacturers, ridicule from various commentators (who hadn’t read the study), and a lot of unexpected media attention.

  5. P.S. please excuse my spelling and grammatical erros – still working on my first cup of coffee today. I failed to proof that last comment well.