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OP-ED: We Have Become a Nation of Blissful Ignorance

The news cycle is a powerful insight into a culture. Because the news media depends on people consuming their content, one can determine where the majority’s concerns lie and how they feel about major issues. Today, it is easy to deduce we are a country obsessed with celebrity gossip and trivial matters, while serious issues are relegated to quick segments on the nightly news.

So what does America care about it? From your news feed today, you could probably easily deduce three top stories from the past week. Former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner wants to be a woman, and explains he has felt like a woman for most of his life. A former child actor, Sawyer Sweeten, took his own life. And two male cast members of the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron movie caused a stir when they jokingly referred to a fictional cartoon character as a slut and a whore.

Meanwhile, a massive scandal involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to thicken. Clinton, who has now set her sights on the White House, allegedly sold influence and policy concessions to foreign governments and companies during her tenure as Secretary. The implications are massive, and yet mainstream media has largely contained its reporting to within 10-minute segments.
It’s partly due to America’s short attention span. But more accurately, it’s because that’s all networks are able to do with real news anymore: sandwich it between stories about celebrity tragedy and sexual gossip.
Europe’s financial crisis? Russian selling arms to Iran? Reports that FBI forensic experts gave faulty and misleading testimony regarding evidence in hundreds of cases over decades?
None of these stories are able to permeate the American consciousness. If they can’t be broken down into a short tweet-friendly catch phrase, the story fades away. Good luck finding an average American to explain any of the stories I just mentioned.
But we know about Bruce Jenner’s struggles with gender identity. We know he is a Republican (gasp!) and that liberals were upset about it. That’s what passes for political news today.
And let me be clear: it isn’t the media’s fault. No, contrary to popular narratives about the corporate media trying to “dumb us down,” the truth is far simpler. Media companies need revenue to survive, and you the viewer/reader decide what is important and what is not. Media then chases the dollars. If tomorrow the country suddenly decided it cared about what was happening in Greece, the news would pump us full of Greece-related stories.
Are we becoming a nation of the blissfully ignorant? Most would rather watch mindless entertainment than engage any news story that may make them think. We fawn over celebrities and fret when a popular show like Grey’s Anatomy kills off a main character. Yet, no one notices when a US soldier is killed overseas.
Someone recently asked me why I don’t spend more time writing about some of the substantive issues I care about. My answer was simple: no one will read it. Like most professionals in the media game, I am constantly searching for stories that will be popular rather than exploring issues I believe to be important.

The only way to get audiences to care about important topics is to tap into their personal beliefs and connect the story to them through outrage. Outrage generates clicks and gets views. If an important story can be blamed on President Obama, suddenly conservatives will care. Not because they want to inform people of the issue, but because the story has resonated with them emotionally. Tell someone about an important story, they may or may not care. Connect that to their personal beliefs, especially cultural beliefs, and then suddenly they care.
Example:
“ISIS Kills 10,000” – this headline will be ignored by many
“ISIS Kills 10,000 Christians” –this headline will get MUCH more attention. It’s personal. People will say ‘wait, I’m a Christian! That means ISIS wants to kill me!’
An even better headline would be:
“ISIS Kills 10,000 Christians, Obama Does Nothing”—Now we’ve attached personal relation AND partisan opinion.

This is how media works, and again, it isn’t our fault. Like any market, the consumer determines what companies produce and how they market it. Our priorities are out of whack, our attention is misplaced, and our interests are increasingly drifting away from important issues.
Is there a way back, or are we doomed to continue this circular descent down the proverbial drain? It really is up to the public, and if you’re reading this then you’re probably not the problem. Most people won’t read this, which is fine. But most Americans also won’t bother to learn about Hillary Clinton’s money scandal, and that is not only tragic, but it could result in a criminal becoming president.