The media’s impossible task

Ensuring our democracies are not influenced by the conflicted priorities of our media

An excerpt from the book Solving for Democracy:

Photo by Kayla Velasquez
“Communications between nations must promote understanding — so went another dream. But the machines of communication can be manipulated. What is communicated can be truth or lie. Communication is a strong force, but also for either good or evil” — Richard Feynman, PhD, Nobel laureate

The media is an essential part of democracy. In most modern democracies a significant proportion of the people will have never read any policy documents or have never listened to any party speeches. The media is simply their only view of politics. The majority of voters only experience their politicians through brief sound bites in the media or on the internet. People have busy lives and the popularity of politics is quite low in modern democracies. This gives the media quite a large amount of influence. The media in its various forms, from traditional TV and newspapers, through to the more recent social media, get to decide what information and stories to present. They set the debate, they control the message, they control what is communicated, as well as controlling the priority given to each message. Transparency of political information has improved through greater competition and with the increased use of the internet. But the majority of voters still rely on largely unregulated third parties to present information about politicians and policies. The presentation of this information is then open to extraordinary subjectivity. As well as this, individual voters will generally only get their news from a limited and fixed list of sources. Although there may be a variety of competitive sources from which voters can choose, voters tend to have favourites from which they get the majority of their news. These favourites can then have much influence.

The media also has a significant problem related to their basic requirement to make a profit. Under this constraint it becomes extremely difficult to cover complex policy decisions. A demonstration of this problem occurred in the 2016 US Presidential election where Donald Trump was, essentially, an anti-establishment candidate. Donald Trump was the lead story virtually every day, saying things that were largely populist and headline grabbing, and yet was also reported by fact checking organizations as telling one lie for every 3 minutes of speech. The establishment, of both politicians and media, were facing challenges with the new candidate. Trump’s statements were so interesting that he was given significantly more coverage than any other candidate. The CEO of CBS (a key network news company in the US), Leslie Moonves, was quoted as saying, “I’ve never see anything like this and, you know, this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry! It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on Donald! Go ahead, keep going. Ah, it may not be good for America but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I gotta say”. And this is the difficulty for the media in political reporting, their first priority is revenue and hence ratings, and this priority is invariably in competition with good journalism. In politics, the media portrays what sells best, even if it has little integrity, or is not good for the nation. And yet our democracy is dependent on various forms of the media for its operation.

Selling TV, newspapers, internet websites and social media requires a media organization to grab and maintain people’s attention. In the modern age of the internet, attention spans are short and click-bait — where the aim is to get people’s attention, is tempting as well as being highly effective. There are significant difficulties in the requirement to provide entertainment as well as fair political reporting. Politics is rarely entertaining. To make it so almost inevitably reduces the quality of the debate. The complexity of an evidence based debate between conflicting and detailed policy options does not fit within the need to grab attention in the media. The media cannot capture and keep a busy person’s attention when discussing the balanced evidence for and against various complex policy options. Most people neither have the interest nor the time to read these long articles. What is certainly easier and more effective financially, is to highlight one superficial, scary, or anger inducing aspect of a story, and to bait people with just this component. Distorting and highlighting a particular aspect of a story simply works. Those organizations that do not follow this successful strategy lose customers. Only the profitable will survive. So inevitably, the media has descended to the lowest common denominator to compete in a tough world. We have seen in the past few years how the profitability of the paragons of quality journalism has just disappeared. Quality journalism struggles to sell. The public does not get to see a balanced and thorough coverage and cannot make informed choices.

In more recent times, usage of media has changed significantly after the widespread use of the internet. Reportedly large portions of society now get their news from social media rather than traditional newspapers or television (multiple surveys and reports of up to 44% of people getting their primary news and information from social media). Social media sources do not have the same levels of scrutiny for factuality or integrity of information. The US government claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, through the use of targeted “fake news” stories, demonstrate the potential risks. Social media and unregulated website coverage can produce the stories and information that people want but are not accountable for integrity. In 2017, independent watchdog Freedom House reported that in the previous year, elections in 18 nations were influenced by online manipulation and disinformation. Social media campaigns have also produced targeted ads which are only sent to particular sub-groups of users who fit certain criteria. Those direct ads and communications not only have little accountability but may not even be detected by anyone else. Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition was quoted as saying, “If political ads only appear on the timelines of certain voters, then how can we all debate the issues that they raise? How can other parties and the media do their job of challenging those claims? How can we even know what mandate an election has given, if the promises that voters relied on were made in private?” The potential for manipulation is significant.

There is an enormous potential for the priorities and agenda of the corporate or government owners of the media to influence reporting. In many democracies there is no significant independent regulator or body which can ensure balance in journalism. Even where there is a regulator balance can be difficult to monitor. The regulators are often made up from within the ranks of the media so have little independence. The regulators often have little power irrespective.

Bias can be also implemented in an extraordinary number of ways. Objective measurements of bias have proven difficult, and forms of bias vary widely. It is possible that bias can be exhibited in a single article, in giving a favourable interpretation of a single policy or politician. Or more likely, bias can be expressed as an overall pattern of behaviour that comes out over months and years. Over a period of time a particular media organization may well report each new policy differently for each side of politics. Every new policy involves give and take, costs and benefits, winners and losers. Government is generally a zero-sum game since there are limited resources available. Whenever a new policy is announced the media can choose to either highlight the benefits or the costs. For one side of politics, they may consistently choose to highlight the benefits of new policies, and for the other they may consistently highlight the costs of new policies. The choice, conscious or otherwise, can be made to consistently highlight different evidence for each side of politics. Any individual article may not on its own demonstrate bias, but when seen as a pattern of behaviour over months and years of reporting the bias may be clear. The media may generally give one side of politics the first coverage in each article, delegating the response to the end where few readers remain. They may provide more column space to one side of politics. The media may more consistently provide expert opinion with evidence for one side of the political debate. The media may consistently explain one side of expert opinion more clearly. They may give one side more direct quote space. They may consistently highlight problems that are of concern to one side of politics more so than they do for the other side of politics. They may endlessly refer back to and reiterate past problems for only one side of the political spectrum. The media may also even portray differently the motivation of each side of politics. For example, they may describe the policies of one side as being primarily designed to buy votes, and for the other side as being designed for the benefit of the nation. It is difficult for a member of the public to be aware of subtle, long-term patterns of bias. While the media is often the only source of information for the voting public ongoing entrenched bias is a serious concern for democracy.

Politicians are so dependent on the media for virtually every public perception of their performance that it is very difficult for them to deal with any concerns about the media. If they make proposals for change to the media which would inevitably reduce media power, influence and/or freedoms, then the real risk for politicians is that of the media’s conscious or subconscious wrath. A politician is so dependent on media coverage that most are currently unwilling or unable to deal with the problems of the media. To propose meaningful changes to regulations or the law around the media is considered politically dangerous and, in some cases, political suicide.

When it comes to media influence in our society, a basic cause of the issue is a freedom that is held dearly, that of the freedom of speech. Our basic freedom of expression — whether that expression is incorrect or filled with irrational thought, is valued highly in our liberal societies. Plurality of all thought is considered a key protection against many ills, including that of a potential degradation to despotism. Inevitably any potential changes proposed around this in our existing democracies will be more about an effective governance process to mitigate risk. Some regulatory framework around our media to encourage more balanced coverage would have positive benefits. However, if we are not careful in looking to mandate better media regulations and standards, which is possible, we may also reduce our basic freedoms. As well, chasing media manipulation with regulations alone is a difficult process since resourceful people will then imagine more creative ways to influence public thinking.

The media has arguably the most influence of any industry on our election process as well as on our perception of policies and politicians themselves. For most people it is the only current way of finding out about the political process. In modern democracies most large industries do have some independent form of regulation. It does seem extraordinary that what is clearly the single most influential organization in our democracy — the media, can in many nations have no independent and powerful external regulator. The argument that potentially the single most influential industry in our democracy can also be the only industry that is self-regulated (and trusted to itself), would seem somewhat ludicrous. There is little ongoing evidence to justify our assumption of a trusted and benevolent media. The issues facing the media in modern society represent a fundamental concern for our democratic process. Without a clear, thorough and transparent view of our political process we cannot expect to run an effective representative democracy. At the moment we assume that our open society will allow this to happen. In reality, there is little to guarantee that voters have a clear view of the issues at hand.

A more effective and powerful regulatory framework would seem essential and worth the effort. However, this cannot be the only solution since it is not getting to the heart of the issue. All forms of media remain an imperfect view of politics simply because it is unworkable to expect the delivery of an in-depth, thorough and balanced coverage in a competitive media landscape, which requires entertainment for profit. The media simply face an almost impossible task if we expect them to be our only view of politics. The problem is not that the media does influence our democratic process, the problem is that the media can influence our democratic process. Instead, we need to improve our democratic process to ensure that we act reasonably, in spite of this influence in our society. Where the media does inform us, we need a way to clarify and expand our view of the world, with the media being one of a number of sources of information. Those involved in our collective decision making must be fully and transparently informed, without a dependence on the media for information. Essentially, the collective decision making of the new democratic process must be structured to be immune to the influence of the media.

The above was an excerpt from the book Solving for Democracy: A democracy without politics, removing the problems that limit our government. Available on Amazon

Another story by the same author, which may be of interest: We keep changing politicians, why not change what matters?