Can the media save us from #TrumpLife?
In a time of sweeping change and turmoil, what is the role of the media today?
It seems every day we are waking up to political news more shocking than yesterday — and lately the bar has been set pretty high!
The first 10 days of the Trump presidency have been nothing short of chaos — and for many - turmoil and distress.
It is at times such as these that we the people turn to the media to inform us about what is going on in our world.
For a long time — decades — the press, despite clear flaws and agendas, has held a certain kind of respect in the public eye. A trust, if you will.
Subconsciously, when we picked up a newspaper (aging myself here), or read the website of a recognized news organization such as the New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, or turned on the six o’clock news on CNN, we could read or watch the news with the understanding that the story has been vetted, facts checked, with both sides of the argument presented fairly.
It’s an unfortunate reality that today, for many of us, that implicit trust in the media has been eroded. Each news story is viewed with skepticism or downright suspiscion.
This is not necessarily unfair. The emergence of alternative media such as Breitbart News and countless, blatantly fake news sites which spread their stories with great effect on Facebook and other social media, have no doubt contributed to this erosion in faith placed in the more traditional media outlets.
Here are two screenshots from Breitbart’s home page today:
All of which brings me to this:
Media as The Fourth Estate
In the nineteenth century, the term ‘The Fourth Estate’ was in reference to the media (in that day, the reporters’ gallery in the English Parliament) as being an essential fourth societal pillar, in addition to the three traditional estates of the church, the nobility (upper class), and the commoners.
In 1841, Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship, credited Edmund Burke with coining the term, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
In plain English: “The importance of the press in a representative democracy is twofold: it informs the citizenry and also serves as a feedback loop between the government and voters.”
Today our society is more secular in nature, however the ideal represented by the Fourth Estate still remains: to be a source of reliable, uncorrupted information for the public, and to hold to account the powers that be.
Where did the media go wrong?
To explain this, let me take you back to an RMIT University lecture hall in Melbourne Australia, circa 2005.
I was in the first session of our esteemed journalism program, recognized by many as the finest journalism school in Australia.
The hall was filled with young, bright minds eager to learn the trade of journalism and to put it to use for the betterment of society.
Our program director, an active, respected and high profile journalist, asked our class the question: What is the purpose of the media?
Quickly, hands shot up and the answers came back:
- “The purpose of the media is to keep the public informed.”
- “To investigate and report on things relevant to society.
- “To hold the government accountable.”
- “To share interesting stories.”
The list went on.
At that point, the director flashed a slide up on the big screen which was blank except for two large eyeballs, in black and white.
He then said, “The purpose of the media is to sell eyeballs to advertisers.”
You could feel the hearts sink.
Here we were, the top 50 journalism students in the country, pursuing a noble craft, and we’re told that our job is to ‘get’ more eyeballs than everyone else.
From an economic perspective, this is broadly true. Most media business models today remain dependent on advertising to fund their editorial production. The trouble being, that with the advent of the internet, the ‘rivers of gold’ that used to exist in the form of classified advertisements in newspapers, dried up and media organizations were forced to consolidate their operations.
What did that lead to?
- More syndicated news, less local news.
- Less jobs for journalists.
- More ‘sponsored content’ meaning, more advertisements presented as news stories; and incidentally
- More awareness from the public of who is ‘behind’ their news. I.e. News doesn’t come “from the telly” - it comes from Kerry / James Packer, Someone Fairfax, Rupert Murdoch, or whoever owns CNN and Fox News.
So what is the media to do now?
In an environment where there is declining trust in the media, this poses a dilemma. The media still has a crucial role to fulfil in society, and they must overcome this widespread skepticism to serve their most noble purposes.
The media is under attack, rather directly, from the President of the United States.
Even if you don’t agree with the angle they take when it comes to covering politics, the NYT is hardly what springs to mind when the phrase “fake news” is mentioned.
In times like these, where finding trusted sources of news is increasingly difficult, the legitimate media has an even greater role to play.
So what can journalists do?
If I were a member of the press right now, this is what I’d be doing:
i) Build and/or maintain your reputation. Perhaps more so than in any other field, your reputation is central to your credibility as a journalist. Never compromise it.
ii) Report without fear. This is easier said than done. It’s likely that the current political climate gets worse before it gets better, and journalists will face pressure to not report on certain events. It’s crucial that the media continues investigating and reporting what they see, even in the face or real or perceived danger. Courage is a valuable and admirable quality in times like these.
Which reminds me…
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
My dad worked for a newspaper called the Kyabram Free Press.
We didn’t put much thought into the meaning of the name growing up, however Dad did explain to us that the Free Press part of it meant that the paper could publish what they wanted (for the most part) without fear of retribution.
The Free Press.
Societies crumble when their media becomes state-controlled. Fear reigns. Power corrupts. People are silenced.
What can you do?
- Support quality journalism: Subscribe to NextDraft (free), The Atlantic, your newspaper of choice.
2. Don’t believe everything you read. Especially on social media.
3. Limit your news consumption. You don’t want to go insane. Don’t fatigue yourself with news saturation. Quality trumps quantity. (See what I did there?)
4. Be kind to one another. Don’t let differences in opinions divide your friendships, your relationships, or your families. Unite on the things you can agree on.
5. Try to laugh occasionally. Studies show it’s good for your health. Relieves stress, and such. Shit’s bad right now, no doubt, but if we don’t laugh every now and then, we will die in a sea of chocolate and frustration. Hat tip to my friend Marquis Harmon for finding this exclusive audio clip of recent phone calls between President Obama and President Trump:
But before you catch the clip, if you liked this article, please do me a solid and click the ‘heart’ button at the bottom of the page — it helps share this story with more people :)
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