When I was a child, I had a favorite news anchor. In my single digit years, I grew up in Lockport, NY, watching WKBW and I was fascinated by Irv Weinstein. Whether it was his voice, demeanor, or simple presence that glued me to the 5 o’clock news, I’m not sure. But watching Irv ignited a lifelong interest in the news and journalism in general.
This love for the news spilled over into becoming obsessed with radio, and as an adult I pursued and earned an Associate’s Degree in Mass Communications/Journalism. Along the way, I wrote for the college newspaper and interned at a local talk radio station. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Of course, when one is fully invested in something, it is difficult to not be critical of aspects of it. As I learned more about how the news media worked and how it has evolved, several glaring things present themselves. These issues are at the root of why, at least in America, that trust in the news media is rapidly declining. Regardless of what our current President thinks, our news media is suffering from the growing pains of technology, social media, and a rising flood of mis- and disinformation on the Internet.
There are several, more nuanced reasons why our news media is failing to live up to its Fourth Estate duties. The following are broad stroke reasons why the American news media is deteriorating.
The rise of blogging
The Internet allows for the mass dissemination of information at levels unheard of in human history. The invention of blogging allowed everyday citizens to build a platform, gain an audience, and influence the decisions of others. However, it is a double-edged sword. While those with the talent and know-how grew and thrived, those who lacked any sort of journalistic training or etiquette also had the benefit of having their voices heard. This led to ignorant, false, and wildly ridiculous information to be accepted as fact by the general public, who make the assumption that someone with a blog and a few hundred followers is some sort of expert or authority on whatever topic they are writing about.
There is really no way to regulate who can or cannot have a blog. It is up to the general public to decide whether or not the information presented is factual and important with diligent cross referencing and research of their own. Sadly, the public doesn’t bother with this, mainly because of the next entry.
Media ignorance of the general public
Let’s face it: most people are lazy when it comes to consuming news media. They read a headline or a short summary and think that they know what an article is about. They rarely stray from their habitual news providers, carefully curated based on their personal political views, opinions, and biases. This is a horrible way to consume news, but it is a monumental task to break the public of this habit.
General knowledge of how the news media works is also lacking. If more people understood how the news was funded, researched, written, edited, and broadcast, there would be less distrust and skepticism revolving around it. Some people are paranoid that the news media is only telling us what they want us to hear so we can stay ignorant. This is the exact antithesis of why the news media exists.
To learn more about the history of news media and how it works today, check out Crash Course’s video series about media literacy.
Printing a newspaper or magazine, broadcasting a newscast on TV or on the radio, or publishing articles on the Internet requires money. This money has been traditionally collected in two ways: through physical copy sales and advertising. In the 21st century, physical copy sales have plummeted thanks to access to content on the Internet. Print advertising has also seen a rapid decline, forcing newspapers to lay off workers, restructure, or outright close down.
A common solution to save a newspaper or a radio station is to be purchased by a larger media company or have a single person owning the majority stake in the company. This has caused a funneling of news outlets into the hands of very few individual entities. Currently, six media giants own 90 percent of the media in America.
This presents two major problems. One, the owners of the media companies have the power to influence the editorial process of the purchased news outlet, creating a conflict of interest and a biased slant on the news. For instance, a CEO of a media company can ensure better treatment for a political candidate they support by making sure articles that show that candidate in an unfavorable light are minimized or outright omitted from the publication. Or if another corporate holding of the media company comes under scrutiny for bad business practices or public endangerment, they can make sure those stories do not end up in their owned newspapers. This ensures the integrity and profit margin of the holding remains steady.
This editorial control, along with the conglomeration of news outlets, leads to the second problem: removal of the consumers’ freedom of choice. If all of the newspapers, radio stations, and magazines available to a certain area of the country are all owned by the same corporation, the consumer will inevitably face the same editorial censorship between all available choices. This problem can be remedied by the availability of other sources via the Internet, but even those are subject to another corporation’s bias.
The 24-hour news cycle
Back in the days before the Internet and cable television, people only had a few chances during a normal day to receive news. This usually included the morning and evening papers, the morning, noon, and evening news broadcasts, and the occasional updates via radio. However, all of this changed in the 1980’s with the invention of the Cable News Network, or CNN, by Ted Turner.
CNN ushered in what is now referred to as the 24-hour news cycle. This describes the ability for news consumers to tune into cable news at any time during the day and receive up-to-the-minute news. Anchors, producers, field reporters, and editors were all hired to cover as many news stories as possible at all times of the day. While this increased the public’s awareness of current events both stateside and abroad, it eventually devolved into the current state is in today.
Cable news networks like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Headline News all need advertising revenue to continue broadcasting. This led to the development of news personalities whose soul job was to make their block of time not only informative but entertaining. This would bring in more viewers and thus more advertising revenue. Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann, and Wolf Blitzer all owe their careers to this phenomenon. However, having an entertaining host wasn’t enough.
The development of news personalities for cable news networks worked for a time, but in order to fill an hour of air time, they needed more. This led to the rise of the pundit, a figure (usually an expert on the topic being discussed, or just a very opinionated figurehead) whose job was to banter with the host and any guests about the topic being discussed. In theory, the pundit was supposed to lend their expertise in their field to the discussion, further fleshing out the issue for the viewers. Instead, all we got was a whole lot of speculation.
Speculation is about as useful to news reporting as a dowsing rod is to finding water, or tarot cards to a person’s future. It is thought to be worthwhile, but is invariably wrong and useless. When news reporters, news personalities, and pundits speculate, the general public interprets this as factual information even though it is simply a projection of estimates based on the current trends in the news topic. This inevitably leads to the public losing trust in the news media when the speculation that the consumer took as truth ends up not being so.
Unfortunately, speculation is probably here to stay. News travels fast but develops slowly, and news outlets need to fill that air time with something in order to justify their advertising rates. An improvement in the quality of pundits would help, but again, outlets will hire big name people to bring viewers.
I will always love, admire, and respect journalism and those who strive to fulfill their duty as informers of the general public. I hold myself to similar standards when writing for this blog, and I hope it shows. But there is no denying that American news media is in dire need of a Renaissance. Trust must be re-earned, ethics must be upheld, and those working in the industry should be paid well for providing such a public service. Lots of lives have been lost in the pursuit of the truth. Each day that President Trump tweets “FAKE NEWS!”, those who have died and those who are currently working are being egregiously disrespected.
It is up to the public to pull their weight when it comes to consuming the news. Due diligence of an informed population is required for a democracy to function properly. Losing trust in the very thing that provides that information is a stake in the heart of freedom of speech and the press. I encourage everyone who reads this to take the steps to becoming a well informed, thoughtful consumer of news. It is one of the last bastions of our republic that we can lean on.