The Perilous State of Journalism/2016

img_0064We have a problem with information these days in America. Trust in the media is at an all time low, there are too many outlets purposefully spreading spurious stories, and the citizenry appears to be ill-equipped to process the information they receive.

In 2016 a presidential candidate performs a ritual at his rallies whereby he goads his followers into taunting journalists who are kept locked up in a pen. It used to be that members of the press were given a separate area at events in order to facilitate special access to people and equipment they needed to do their jobs. Now it seems we do it so we can poke them with sticks through the bars.

One can barely get through a single day without seeing a reference to or even actively participating in a conversation about biased journalism or mainstream media. But is this really fair? How much of this is the fault of the news consumer rather than the news provider?

A modern absurdity is the insinuation that news, whether it be newspapers, magazines or television—and by recent extension, the Internet—was once an ivory tower of objectivity. Some argue there was somewhat of a Golden Age of unbiased news in the latter half of the 20th century but even taking that into consideration, the fact is that newspapers in America were always utilized to influence opinion. When they shifted to a profit-driven enterprise in the 19th Century, that didn’t change, in fact it got worse as publishers discovered they could just make things up in order to sell more papers.

Likewise, from its inception, commercial radio and television have always been about selling advertising. All programming exists so people listen to the content and more importantly, the commercials. Yes, even the news. Especially the news. Anyone who says there is some sort of altruistic goal of informing the citizenry is obviously trying to sell you something.

When we first learned of the World Wide Web and saw the potential of the Internet, we were filled with boundless optimism, the notion of the free exchange of information between any two computers showed a lot of promise. We saw opportunity and how much smarter we could be, with the ability to access almost any piece of information we could dream of to expand our knowledge and create a better world for all humanity.

But it turns out that the Information Superhighway is riddled with potholes, downed trees and road kill. Because while it is true the Internet has allowed for greater access to the world’s knowledge, it has also amplified the amount of noise and propaganda that shape people’s thoughts, opinions and ultimately their actions.

This presidential election cycle has become mired in a steady barrage of misinformation that replicates itself like an unchecked virus. There’s no indication that the actual election will bring it to an end, and this is one market that really needs correcting.

These days, anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection can call themselves a journalist. Get yourself a fancy layout and a catchy domain name and you are a legit news outlet. As long as you are consistently feeding people salacious headlines that feed their confirmation biases, you can be a very successful news outlet. Add the growth of social media and the sharing of these sites and you have a recipe for the rapid dissemination of misinformation on a very large scale.

Some of these websites are simply content mills; click bait to generate ad revenue. Write a gripping headline, add a stock photo (often violating copyright) and get people to click to that site consisting of a three sentence “article” with unsourced information. Accuracy doesn’t matter, just clicks and page views.

Another kind of website is the deliberately biased. These entities act as a signal boost and often simply copy/paste the text of a story from one another and it spreads virally throughout the echo chambers of whatever political or social persuasion the site’s creators are interested in reaching.

Another negative consequence of this information glut is that our attention spans are nearing zero. Long-form journalism is dead. Who wants to read an article of 10,000 words thoroughly researched and substantiated by several sources? Hardly anyone. These days consumers prefer to ‘skim’ their information, gleaning only what they perceive to be the important parts. They want bullet points, an overview.

Unfortunately most of the things that we should be talking about are very serious, highly nuanced issues that demand attention and depth. But if you can’t stick a few words in Impact font on an image macro and send it around Facebook, hardly anyone wants to be bothered with it.

Thus, I worry that the age of the internet has accelerated the demise of good thorough journalism. It is our constant clicking and shorter attention spans that is to blame. We are telling the market that we don’t want detailed, thoroughly investigated news, we want sensational headlines with minimal information.

And then there’s the problem of low media literacy and undeveloped critical thinking skills. When someone says, “The media is biased. You can’t trust them,” what they are really saying is that they lack the wherewithal, or simply the intellectual capacity to bother confirming information that is being presented to them.

It’s rather silly for anyone to discount any particular news as biased because they all are to a certain extent. People must be able to filter out the noise, not just in a macro sense, but in the minutiae of every TV news story, newspaper report or shared link that crosses their Facebook feed.

In high school, I took an elective journalism class and first learned of the notion of bias in journalism. Mainly, that it wasn’t supposed to be there, but it was anyway. Ever since then, I’ve always closely examined the news. It turned out that no matter how objective the outlet or the journalist, I could always find even a little bit of bias; whether it be a surreptitiously placed modifier or the way quotes are cherry picked from a source, it is always there.

Sources that intentionally mislead people are only part of the problem. Even with reputable news agencies, everything you read is going to contain some degree of bias: the writer’s choice of adjectives, the editor who is cleaning up the copy, a hastily-written headline, or the overall tone of a publication or organization as dictated by the people who sign the checks.

Knowing that nothing written will ever be 100% free of bias, one can see why it is important to be able to understand when and how you are being mislead. The key is to apply critical analysis to the things we read, see and hear and not trust any one of them implicitly.

The opposite reaction is to not trust anything at all ever and that is just as irrational as falling for fake news stories. If one lacks the ability to properly analyze information, not trusting anything is the lazy way out. What you have then is lots of grossly uninformed people.

Rather than relying solely on media that aids one in upholding their confirmation bias, people need to become media literate so that they understand the tools of persuasion being used to control what they think.

There are those who don’t want to be better informed. They have become so attached to their opinions they don’t dare change them. And no amount of coaxing will get them to see things through a lens other than the distorted one of their personal choosing. I am stunned by the widespread lack of simple reasoning as exemplified by people’s ever present opinions they chose to share with the world.

Sometimes complex situations call for complex thought processes, and let’s face it, some are not up to the task. Unfortunately those who choose willful ignorance and eschew facts for political dogma are growing. And growing and growing and growing.

I worry about the future of journalism and news media. It has been slowly eviscerated by the proliferation of content sites masquerading as information and this horse race election has exposed just how desperate legitimate news outlets have become because they are losing the click-and-ratings war. I think we are at a turning point in terms of how public opinion will be shaped and now more than ever, we need to step back and carefully consider what is presented to us.

[NOTE] I started this weblog to examine media and journalism and to cast an equally critical eye on the citizenry and their consumption of media. This first post and probably most in the near future will focus on politics because, well, that is the dominant force at work in the media at this time. It’s also an easy target, because political reporting is rife with absolute garbage. Thanks, I hope you will stay tuned for more!

Coming soon:

  • An Examination of Bias
  • Tools for Media Literacy
  • Think Before You Share, or Even Form an Opinion For That Matter
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