2011 was a year of intense and compelling news stories: from the Arab Spring, to the nuclear disaster in Japan and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
It's often assumed that people bury their heads in frivolous news when hard news is too much to take. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik says that this year media consumers embraced the hard news.
"They were often transfixed by it," he tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish.
An annual report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an offshoot of the Pew Center, found that international news went up from being 11 percent of all coverage in 2010 to 18 percent this year. People also closely followed economic news.
The Project for Excellence report indicates people were interested in the news even longer than the news networks were interested in providing the information. Folkenflik says coverage of the earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan serves as an example.
"The media swarmed that issue. It was intense," he says, "but at the same time, they pulled back fairly quickly, before the public was ready to do so."
While social networking played a prominent role in media consumption this year, Folkenflik says, it tends to be romanticized as being democratizing.
"A lot of the tweets that had the most resonance and the most purchase were actually from people who were already in place and knowledgeable about such things — specific journalists and activists on the ground, people in place," he says.
The distinction between "old" and "new" media is also becoming blurred, Folkenflik says.
"I almost think that it's worth kind of tossing those [terms] out to a certain extent. What looks like an 'old' media outlet, Al Jazeera, it's very much a new player," he says, "but it became for days the dominant media outlet in terms of conveying to the outside world, including the U.S., what was happening [during the Arab Spring]."
As for the biggest media story of the year, Folkenflik points to News Corp. and the scandals that rocked Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
"The whole point of trusting news organizations is that they will perform a watchdog service on major and powerful institutions in society," he says. "In the UK, it appears as though this was one institution — the Murdoch news empire — that was beyond such holding-to-account, and to see that done in so explosive a manner is quite an unexpected sight to behold."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Audie Cornish.
2011 was a year of intense and compelling news stories.
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DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. Merry Christmas.
CORNISH: Merry Christmas to you, too. So it's often assumed that people bury their heads in frivolous news, right, whenever the going gets tough, when news too much to take. But how did news consumers actually deal with hard news in 2011?
FOLKENFLIK: They embraced it. They were often transfixed by The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is an offshoot of the Pew Center, does this big study of coverage of news each year. And they found international news was a big winner. And that went up from being 11 percent of all coverage the previous year to 18 percent - which, if you think about it, is a lot.
And you're also seeing a lot of coverage of economic news. People are still very worried; paycheck to paycheck. They're very much following what happens in Washington, what happens with the Fed, what happens with employers.
And I think it means that people are seeking out new sources - old and new. You know, the three big networks have been said to be declining for years and yet the ratings are up. People are saying, I care and I want to find out what's going on.
CORNISH: And in that report, it seemed to indicate that people were interested in the news even longer than the news networks were interested in providing them information on those stories.
FOLKENFLIK: That's absolutely right. I thought that was really interesting. They said, you know, people's interest endured in major stories. Think of the tsunami and earthquake and the nuclear disaster that occurred in Japan. The media swarmed that issue. It was intense. But, at the same time, they pulled back fairly quickly before the public was ready to do so.
CORNISH: David, this also seemed to be the year that social networking really was the sort of breakout star of the news business.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, there've been elements of this in recent years. You think of the uprising in Iran a few summers ago. But in this case, you really saw that people relied on tweets from Tunisia to Egypt and throughout the Arab Spring.
There was a report that was just released by the International Journal of Communication. They studied the use of Twitter hashtags to go through, I guess, tens of thousands of tweets about what was happening there. You know, there's a romanticization that says, oh, this is so democratizing. It's everyone doing it.
A lot of the tweets that had the most resonance and the most purchase were actually from people who were already in place and knowledgeable about such things - specific journalists and activists on the ground, people in place. You know, you think in our network, people like Andy Carvin can curate reports that are happening from there on Twitter and through other social platforms.
I think there's a real blurring between what we've called old and new media. I almost think that it's worth kind of tossing those out to a certain extent. What looks like an old media outlet, Al Jazeera, it's very much a new player. But it became for days the dominant media outlet in terms of conveying to the outside world, including the U.S., what was happening.
CORNISH: David, given all of this news, what do you consider the biggest media story of the year?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, can you really ask me? For the media story, as opposed to the biggest story of the year, you know what I'm going to say.
CORNISH: Is this going to be about our friends across the pond?
FOLKENFLIK: This is going to be about our friends actually six blocks away from our bureau here in New York, over at News Corp. and what occurred to their empire across the pond, what happened in the London newspapering world of Rupert Murdoch. After all, it's I think easy to say it's the world's most influential media and news corporation. It's based here in the U.S., led by an American citizen. And it's fascinating to see the repercussions go from country to country.
CORNISH: David, give us a little bit more context though. Why is the Murdoch story to you the one that resonates the most for the industry?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, obviously the charges in London. There've been 20 arrests so far and there may well be a lot more; involve questions of illegal hacking of voice mail messages and of bribing police officials - that is corruption. But, at the same time, it's really a question about in some ways media power, media consolidation and the use of influence in the political process, in the law enforcement process, and to, in some ways, intimidate and dominate rivals.
The whole point of trusting news organizations is that they will perform a watchdog service on major and powerful institutions in society. In the U.K., it appears as though this was one institution - the Murdoch news empire - that was beyond such holding-to-account.
CORNISH: NPR's media correspondent is David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.