The News Media is Broken, and It’s Your Fault

Here’s where we went wrong — and how we can fix it…

We complain about it constantly. ‘Fake news!’ ‘One-sided reporting!’ ‘Alt-right journalism!’ ‘The liberal media!’ ‘They’re manipulating us instead of informing us!’

Ultra-rich media moguls control the stories we see and the spin on those stories, and they get ultra-richer doing it. It’s gotten to the point where many of us just shake our heads sadly and shrug the whole thing away with the simplest explanation: they print and spin what gets people angry or scared enough to keep watching and reading. Higher ratings bring in more advertising money. It is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about it.

That isn’t what it is, though. ‘Follow the money’ doesn’t exactly apply here. An older rule of journalism is far more applicable: ‘Follow the truth.’

The truth is this: It’s our fault that we’re in this predicament. You caused it. I caused it. And we can correct it…

Don’t believe me? Turn back the clock a bit. Remember when we had just a few network news options? Before cable? We’d all tune in at five or at ten, and we’d get a daily download of what was happening throughout the world and in our little part of it.

News coverage back then was built on a foundation of real facts, with very little added commentary. Their mission was to inform you about events as clearly as possible, so that you could understand what was happening and form your own opinions about the motives and meanings behind it all. They knew they only had your attention for a half hour or so, so what you got was distilled, straightforward, and mostly true. You pretty much got the same information on a conflict overseas or a financial misstep by some well-known company whether you read about it in a newspaper or watched the television news at night. News organizations were fastidious about things like fact-checking and journalistic ethics.

Fast-forward to today. The ‘facts’ you see depend very heavily on which news outlet you choose. Most people choose outlets that they know in advance will resonate with their deeply held opinions and political bent. They ignore as complete nonsense the news outlets under the control of ‘the other side’.

When we look at the (mostly) unified approach to news that we used to have and compare it to the fractured, laser-focused ideological towers of today’s news media landscape, it might seem impossible for us to imagine how we got here. It’s day and night. It’s like someone dropped a bomb on how we did journalism and blew it into something chaotic, segmented, and unrecognizable. It’s the difference between a respected research library where all can come and partake of information about the world — and a land of isolated information communes, each led by a cult leader who only wants you to listen to his or her version of reality and reject all other voices.

The answer to how it happened is simple, though: We signed up for the cults. We bought into the new schema and we fed the new system. We stopped demanding (or even expecting) impartial news and flocked to the gurus who were openly peddling biased, slanted newstainment with all of the subtlety of carnival barkers.

The news became a variety show. Then it became a spectator sport. Then a bloodsport…

Luckily, it’s not too late. We can still fix this. We can bring responsible journalism back.

The further from reality the news got, the more money they pulled in. The more they cherry-picked facts to spin and stretch their stories towards the edge of pure fiction, the more we lapped it up.

Of course advertising revenue went up. Media moguls got richer and doubled down on this new strategy for making buckets of money by selling people their own already-held opinions in ever-brighter and ever-shinier packages. But these are results of the problem, not its root.

Here’s the journalistic norm today: If a story has ten known facts to it, one outlet will casually neglect to include five of them, because the other five data points will allow them to present the story as proof of some ridiculous conspiracy theory or favorite refrain. Media outlets catering to ‘the other side’ will gladly trumpet the other five facts, while downplaying the five that their competition highlighted — thereby ‘proving’ that the other outlet is ‘fake news’ and that only they have their viewers’ and readers’ best interests at heart.

This is easy to prove for yourself. All you have to do is stop looking only to your favorite news source for information. Look at those you despise as well as those you prefer. Read and view content from everywhere — even the outlets that turn your stomach. Become a student of what’s going on here.

Seriously — take a few minutes to do this today. Read an article on some breaking news. Take notes. Pretend you’re in a journalism class. Break down the story and dig out the handful of basic facts that are being presented. They’ll be buried in a lot of commentary and opinions that are there to tell you what you should think about the situation — but ignore all of that for this exercise.

Once you’ve unearthed the facts in the article — making note of only verifiably true nuggets of solid information — go and read the same story from two or three other news providers. Do the same deconstruction exercise with their stories.

In many cases, you’ll find that facts A, B, and C are used as the skeleton of the coverage from Media Outlet X, with a lot of flesh on those bones that supports their worldview, while facts C, D, and E form the skeleton that Media Outlet Y builds their story upon.

You’ll also find that no matter which outlet you choose, they will put the most sensational facts and potential facts up front in each story, leaving the more concrete, undisputed facts for later in the text. Sadly, most people read the first paragraph or two of a story, shake their heads as their pet beliefs are stroked, and then give a satisfied nod as they move on to another story — not having read the piece to its end. Attention spans are short today, and the media outlets bank on this. (The fact that you’ve read this far in this article impresses me, actually.)

You’ll also find a lot coverage in which multiple outlets share the same known facts, but they flesh them out so that 80% of the text (or talking head rhetoric) on those bones is made up of their favorite opinions and — let’s just say it — propaganda. You will have a hard time finding the bones in all of that added fat. Work through it, though, and you’ll find that it’s possible to build two or three completely different bodies on the same skeleton.

So how is this our fault? How did we let this happen? When the first blatantly biased news organizations poked their heads above the primordial media ooze, we should have ignored them and kept our attention on ethical journalism. Instead, we flocked to these colorful new creatures and cheered them on. We left traditional journalism to die on the vine.

Luckily, it’s not too late. We can still fix this. We can bring responsible journalism back.

How?

You and I need to do what we should have done in the first place. We need to stop watching. When the cult members walk away from the cult leader, the cult dissolves and ceases to exist.

I realize that many of us are young, and don’t remember the days when the media was more homogenous, straightforward, and trustworthy. You’ve grown up thinking that the current way of things is simply the way it’s always been. Look into it, though — generations of people were far better-served in this area than we are today. They were given the news in ways that allowed them to form reasonable opinions about things for themselves — not sugary prepackaged ready-made opinion meals meant for unquestioning consumption.

We need to do learn to do some research and dig a little deeper. We need to read multiple takes on the same stories, and identify which ones are trying to drag us to one side or another. We need to direct our eyeballs as much as possible to truly unbiased and ethical sources of news. If we can’t find any, we need to create them ourselves.

You don’t need to be a media mogul to do that anymore. The internet gives all of humanity a platform for the exchange of ideas. The barrier to entry is low. Why do we let only the radical elements of misinformation among us take advantage of it?

If no eyeballs are pointed at the screens or broadsheets of a media outlet, it will dry up and disappear — or change its ways to get those eyeballs back. The equation really is that simple. You and your eyes are worth a fortune, and you hold all of the real power in this exchange. Where you direct your gaze quite literally determines who rises and falls in this arena.

We, the information consumers, can change this warped and broken landscape. Stop lapping up what they are peddling, and we can make the media respectable again. The power to accomplish this is literally in your hands, in your eyes, and in your mind.


Photo by Oliver Thomas Klein on unsplash.com

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