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Is the public the enemy of good journalism?

It is a sad fact that the media as an industry is in a sorry state, both fiscally and qualitatively. In the first quarter of this year alone, online media companies like VICE, HuffPost and BuzzFeed News all laid off sizable portions of their reporting staff. Meanwhile, the UK has had a net loss of 245 local newspapers since 2005, 45 in 2017 alone. The US has lost 1,800 local papers since 2004–that’s one in every five local newspapers.

These outlets are failing, in part, because they can’t find a financial model that generates a sufficient profit for newsmaking. However, the underlying cause of this decline is something more fundamental. For one, fewer and fewer people are turning to the mainstream media for their information, leading to a diminishing readership. The other problem is that there is less willingness among the remaining readers to pay for quality journalism, especially when there are so many free alternatives.

So which operations are thriving? That would be cable news and social media. 24-hour news channels like Fox have seen a steady increase in viewership during the 21st century, a trend which has become even more pronounced during the Trump era. Meanwhile, over two thirds of Americans say they get at least some of their news from social media–even while nearly 60% say they expect some of the information on social media to be inaccurate.

This shift in news consumption habits can be attributed to cost, convenience and partisanship. Social media and cable news are both free sources of news, which is a massive incentive to consumers. Social media also provides individuals the opportunity to consume the news that those in their circle find important. Finally, openly biased channels, like Fox, and social media echo-chambers provide an increasingly polarized public with something they truly value–reinforcement of all their previously held beliefs.

The issue of partisan news consumption is particularly damaging to the quality of modern journalism. Increasingly, people no longer want to read news that casts a negative light on the politicians they support or contradicts their political philosophy. Instead, they demand that every story is spun–like one you might see in favor of Trump on Fox news–to satisfy their confirmation bias. If not, it’s invalid in their eyes.

The data bears this out. For instance, a Pew Research study found that most conservative respondents distrusted nearly all mainstream outlets–24 out of 36–while 88% said they trust Fox News. The reverse was true for liberals; they trusted 28 of the 36 mainstream outlets while overwhelmingly distrusting Fox News. The study also found that respondents in both groups have politically like-minded social media and friend circles and are likely to unfriend those with differing political beliefs.

These partisan tendencies lead to hard, objective news sources–like local papers–either going belly up at the hands of opinion news sites and cable channels, or being forced to lower the standard and quality of their reporting in favor of salacious headlines and biased narratives.

The flipside of confirmation bias is that people blindly share stories that reinforce their views without proper vetting of the quality of the source or the quality of the article and the reporting. One study found that over 60% of people will even share a given article on social media without reading past the headline. This has led to the preponderance of “fake news” stories, not to mention a decline in demand for straight news reporting in which no side is necessarily reinforced.

We saw this phenomenon firsthand at Vassar just last year.

In early 2018, a story began circulating among Vassar students on Facebook about the administration’s supposed plans to drain Sunset Lake as part of an experiment on the dissemination of fake news by a group of podcasters. Despite the VPR easily debunking the hoax with a quick email to the administration, it was nonetheless taken at face value by many angered pro-environment students.

Those same students, it can be reasonably assumed, cheered on or at least accepted the validity of the ‘disorientation guide’ circulated at this year’s freshman orientation. This was evidenced by the lack of a left-wing response. This is despite the fact that the guide contained numerous misleading, unproven or downright false claims, specifically regarding Poughkeepsie’s safety. These claims–like the Vassar lake claims–went unchallenged by students whose worldviews they simply reinforced.

There are, of course, more pre-existing consumer habits that have led to the long-term decline in high-quality reporting. The most prominent of these is the rabid manner with which the public consumes “exciting” stories that often lack substance. These often include extreme weather stories–which is why you will often see wall-to-wall coverage of a hurricane on cable news, stories about cultural issues like immigration or religious, racial or gender controversy, and salacious pieces about scandal and intrigue.

In this, the media is, to some extent, complicit. More and more, the media’s focus has narrowed to covering juicy stories that will draw as many clicks or eyeballs as possible, rather than stories of substance and import. Reporters, editors and media executives have a responsibility to ignore the public demand and stick to quality reporting.

However, for any one outlet to do so would be a huge risk, providing an opportunity for their competitors to steal readers by capitulating to that same public demand. Even if the industry somehow compromised on a benchmark of quality across all existing platforms, current outlets might’ve simply be supplanted by startups supplying the demand for crap journalism. Alternatively, current readers could simply stop reading the news altogether.

So where do we go from here? It’s difficult to think of any magical solution that can dig the media out of the hole that it and the public collectively dug for itself. Increased public ownership of media outlets would be one way to maintain quality and decrease the necessity for scandal coverage–but that would pose serious dilemmas in the area of censorship.

Then there are market-based solutions. Some startups, like Vox, are attempting to make typically tedious areas of journalism like policy reporting more digestible to the average reader. However, Vox has suffered economic setbacks–albeit to a lesser degree than BuzzFeed or Vice–having laid off 50 staff members, or 5% of its workforce, in 2018.

There is no silver bullet to slay this dilemma. However, the media and the public must do more to fix this issue, which is greatly contributing to the rise of polarization and populism. As it stands, the media is in a state of total inertia when it comes to institutional reform–largely due to the fact that positive reforms share an inverse relationship with public demand and profitability. Therefore, a good first step is to start ignoring what the public wants and getting back to the roots of journalism: information at any cost.

Learn more

New Yorker – Does Journalism Have a Future?

Associated Press – Decline in readers, ads leads hundreds of newspapers to fold

Washington Post – The profit-fueled rise of partisan journalism is tearing America apart (Paywall)

Andrew Solender ’20 is the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR and a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources, and City & State NY.

One Comment

  1. Sest April 16, 2019

    How about Democracy Now!’s model? They are the only media I pay. Gave up on NPR and all the rest in the last few years.

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