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Oppenheim: Media Addiction

Let me make a confession. These days, just about every time I open a news app on my phone, listen to the radio or get my morning TV news fix, I want the latest on the horserace.

What did Donald Trump say now? How are Hillary and Bernie going to work it out? I’m checking in a lot these days, when I wake up, when I go to bed, and often in-between.

And I’m not alone. This is a time when Americans get hooked, when the drama of a presidential election is almost like a TV series that’s hard to stop watching. And now, after nearly a year of warm-up, we’re about to enter the final season which promises big moments – conventions, debates, and the final push to November 8th.

Some of this isn’t a bad thing. Participation in US presidential elections has been ticking up. Ratings for the conventions this summer, especially on the republican side, could be high. Donald versus Hillary debates could get audiences north of 40 million viewers. There’s evidence the public is engaged.

But there are downsides. Some of what we watch, hear and read is petty. To be sure, if the Donald says something controversial, that’s news. But along with that comes the counter-response, the analysis, and who tweeted what. An enormous amount of oxygen gets devoted to this back and forth. And while we’re taking it all in, we’re not spending as much time paying attention to other things, particularly the rest of the world.

Sure, sometimes other stories break through. What happened in Orlando was so horrific, the pattern of news took a turn away from non-stop campaign chatter. But even there, the event got reframed – as in - what did the candidates say about that?

As a country, we’re at worst isolationist, and at best, self-centered. Even in non-election years, it’s arguable that the American view of what’s important is myopic. And the media makes money on our myopia. From a big media perspective, as long as ratings rise, this is all working just fine.

But I can do something – and so can you. Turn on the BBC. Read a website from another country. Download an app from another source with different revelations. I know, in an election when emotions will run high, it may seem counterintuitive to turn away from it. But it’s exactly at moments like this when we run the danger of becoming obsessed - when it’s a really good time to think – outside the box.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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