We've certainly seen that the past few weeks.
The Casey Anthony trial, like the O.J. Simpson trial, gathered fever pitch to the point where people stopped what they were doing when the verdict came down. A friend tells me she was at the Magic Kingdom outside Orlando, and even at Disney World things ground to a halt as workers and visitors alike were glued to cellphones.
In the aftermath, it's providing a thought-provoking picture of the state of the news media.
It wasn't too long ago when "capital J" journalism newsrooms would have steered clear of stories with such public obsession. But on the day Casey Anthony is sentenced, NPR online's most-commented story is "Casey Anthony Found Not Guilty of Killing Her Daughter." The New York Times featured a full-color photo , at left, of Anthony in the courtroom as the verdict was read, front and center, just below the masthead.
Can Bill Moyers Journal be far behind?
This isn't a seismic shift among the media on how to use social media, or whether the newsroom web wunderkind got the bulletin on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. etc. etc. It's a fascinating look at the continuing evolution of what's news, the diminishing power editors have in determining what's on the front page, and the growing power the consumer appetite for stories has in determining the editorial decisions publishing, broadcasting and web newsrooms must make.
Those institutions that wouldn't have spent ten seconds on stories such as Casey Anthony not so long ago now belly up to the pop news culture bar, albeit without the gusto and off-the-charts performance we're seeing on the television cable talk channels. Or the network talk shows (radio and television) for that matter.
Here in northeast Ohio, for example, the ongoing trial of Anthony Sowell for the murders of eleven women continues. Coverage has been above the norm, led by all four commercial television stations and of particular note the Plain Dealer. The work by the newspaper team and Cleveland.com is evident in this index of their coverage, providing a comprehensive view of the case from many angles. It was enough to merit a full hour of in-depth discussion on WCPN's Sound of Ideas program, not your usual public radio fare. But then, finding eleven bodies isn't your usual fare, period.
But we haven't been subjected to the shrieking guest list exhibited on Nancy, Dr. Drew and Jane.
Our local reporting has been thoughtful, audience-respectful coverage. It's what I suspect most local news organizations provide their respective audiences during the "big story" although the crush of media mob-style coverage can be a difficult thing to remain independent from. Locally, we saw the same in the case of Jessie Marie Davis and resulting trial of her boyfriend, Bobby Cutts, Jr., for her slaying.
Full disclosure: I was one of the on-camera folks on the Grace program during the trial, as was former reporter/anchor Tina Kaufmann and the Akron Beacon Journal's Phil Trexler.
When the circus comes to town, it's tough to not act like a clown.
The Nancy Grace types of the broadcast news/entertainment world don't purport to be journalists; there's no "capital J" in what they do, and what they do has an audience. A strong audience.
The Associated Press reports HLN (the network serving up Grace, Velez-Mitchell and others) scored high when it came to "capital R" with their coverage of the case. The highest number of viewers since CNN put "Headline News" on the bird in 1982, more than four and a half million people -- more than double the usual. On the day Anthony was found to be not guilty of murder and manslaughter, The Nancy Grace Show scored it's highest audience ever at nearly three million people.
Is it good journalism? I'd say not, especially watching the un-credible punditry leading up to the verdict and the howling afterward. But the changing face of the media means it isn't my decision. It's yours. You hold the power in determining accuracy and credibility when you hit the on button and pick a channel.
Is it good television or radio? If the metric for "good" means the number of people watching and listening, then the Casey Anthony coverage hit a home run for those organizations that went all-in and didn't mind going over the top.
There was a time when media organizations were a reflection on their society. It was reasonable in the 60s, 70s and 80s to picture the BBC as quintessential stiff-collar Britain, or the Guardian as liberal English. The same could be said for Japanese, French, German, and Italian media: if you really wanted a taste of those nations, watch their television. Even reading, watching or listening to state-controlled media such as Pravda, Radio Moscow, or CCTV in China would help form a picture of what life was like in those countries.
From the 60s on, we had people like Chet & David, Uncle Walter, Peter, Dan and Barbara to show the kind of stuff we were made of. 60 Minutes carried forward the Murrow standard. All (then) three networks had outreach beyond America's borders through radio and television. CNN added to the mix, then MSNBC, then Fox.
Was our society a reflection of them, or were they the reflection of us? If the latter, watching HLN this week is like looking into a national mirror.
How's that looking for us?