Newscasts Feed on Lottery Frenzy

Originally posted: December 16, 2012

mccall-fox-june20009-1Now that the second of two Powerball jackpot winners has stepped forward, perhaps TV news producers can finally let go of a story that received far more attention than its news value merited.

The sensationalized coverage of the record Powerball jackpot demonstrated again how superficial the broadcast news agenda has become. The hyped-up coverage wasn’t so much news as it was shameless promotion for a government-sponsored tax that disproportionately takes money from lower-income Americans.

Once it became clear the Powerball jackpot would hit record levels, TV stations went into overdrive. No doubt every local newscast in the 42 states that collectively sponsor Powerball contained lottery news, often as the lead story.

The coverage was characterized by reports reporters talking about lottery excitement and interviewing ticket buyers at convenience stores. Other stories reported all the luxuries that could be bought with the $500 million, along with the best systems for choosing lucky numbers. Instructions were given about how to organize friends and coworkers to buy tickets in groups and then share the winnings. Anchors talked about buying their own tickets, essentially endorsing this state-sponsored racket. They reminded viewers of the deadline for purchasing tickets.

This is not journalism; it is marketing. It is shining up to lottery executives who already spend millions each year on those television stations, advertising to push state-sponsored gambling. This coverage is value-added publicity for the lottery, which gets promotional time in newscasts for free. Television news’ lottery obsession sends the rhetorical message to viewers that Powerball “frenzy” is more important than the education of their kids, employment of their neighbors, or funding of their government.

National TV outlets also ramped up the story. Even the formerly venerable “Nightline” on ABC stooped to join Powerball fever, sending three news crews to spend the day at stores with high lottery sales to report about “days of breathless expectation.” These reporters revealed journalistic scoops regarding how lottery participants select their special number combinations. NBC News sent email alerts about the size of the jackpot, winning numbers and where those winning numbers were sold.

McCall Book Taking Control-212x321Largely missing from this reporting of lottery frenzy was any notion of the futility of playing the lottery. The odds of winning are impossibly long. Only about 60 percent of money dumped in the lottery ever returns to players in prizes, the rest goes to state coffers. The return rate for most games in Vegas is more than 90 percent, so the lottery looks like robbery in comparison.

Lotteries are marketed by state governments as get-rich-quick miracles. TV journalists, who are supposed to be surrogates of the public, play along in distributing this narcotic. Studies show that lower-income and lower-educated players are the people most likely having their pockets drained by the lottery. Thus, in a sense, the lottery is a tax on people who can least afford to pay. If a state legislator suggested raising revenue by taxing the poor, television correspondents would jump on their high horses to report the injustice. When it comes to the lottery, however, television is right there leading the parade.

This lottery “news” isn’t relevant to the majority of viewers. Estimates are that fewer than a third of Americans ever play lotteries. For the rest, the lottery is just a curiosity. Sure, 130,000 Powerball tickets were sold per minute on the day of the drawing, but much of the volume was artificially created by free marketing in newscasts.

The latest Powerball frenzy was the third time in 2012 that a lottery jackpot got excessive attention. The record MegaMillions jackpot in March also got huge exposure, as did the $320 million Powerball in August. And the next time there’s a large jackpot, we will see the same reporting puffery. This kind of “news” appeals to the television industry because it’s easy to cover and saves doing the hard work of real reporting.

McCall is professor of communications at DePauw University and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.

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