How Sensationalism in the Media Won the Election
and what we can do about it.
“The social body to which we belong is at this moment passing through one of the greatest crises of its history . . . What if the nerves upon which we depend for knowledge of this social body should give us false reports of its condition?”
— Upton Sinclair, 1919
The pursuit of eyeballs and social shares led the media to sensationalism and away from what matters.
This was a complex election cycle. It would be silly to distill the results down to just one factor, or to look only to the last few months on the campaign trail. There are numerous fundamental issues that separated the country. These disparate views, and the emotions tied to them, have been brewing for years.
But among the bifurcation of the country and the issues of the election, it seems there was at least one common belief across party lines: the failure of the media.
Trump, for example, called the press “scum”, “dishonest”, and “sleazy”. He repeatedly claimed the media was biased against him and helping rig the election.
Clinton lambasted the press for continuing to focus on her potential email scandal. Liberals blamed the media world for creating and feeding Trump.
But despite Trump’s claims that the media was out to get him, it turned out that almost the entire media world was sincerely shocked to see a Trump victory. The media world truly did not see it coming.
So how did the media get completely blindsided while being in charge of telling the greater population what was going on? The answer, as is often the case, is tied to money.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
— Upton Sinclair, 1935
This is not the kind of money trail that was tied to corruption, bribery, or special interests, though. It is a much more systematic problem around the business model of the media world.
Media as a whole makes money based on eyeballs, not the value they deliver to their viewers.
In a saturated space like online media, this very quickly results in a race to the bottom. Every site feel required to create more eye-catching headlines than their competitors in a competition for clicks. They are rewarded for calling something a scandal or blow-up if it gets more shares on Facebook. They are incentivized to put out as many stories as possible as quickly as possible to maximize their potential viewership.
Why focus on asking Trump about the issues that matter if it will result in less clicks or attention? Write for the thousandth time about Hillary’s emails if Wikileaks is always good for views?
Even if they don’t believe what they’re saying, or believe it is the most important thing to cover, they say it because they are paid to do so without thinking twice.
The ad based business model pushes websites towards a ‘news as entertainment’ mindset, where their mission is to grab the attention of as many people as possible rather than inform as many people as possible. This extends beyond just their own site, but into the newsfeeds of social media websites, where a story is rewarded for shock factor or controversy over substance.
The way the media business makes money and the ability to spread information via social media (within our bubbles) led us to where we are today.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We can help move media towards a model that serves us rather than advertisers. We can put it on a path that promotes quality over quantity.
The way to do this is creating systematic changes that allow us to support quality content and journalism directly. There will always be a need for advertising based content. But the more that quality publishers and media organizations are compensated for the value they create for viewers, the more they will focus on creating that value. Importantly, sites getting more money directly from consumers helps both paying consumers and ad based consumers.
The good news is that we are already seeing a shift this direction. Consumer based revenue is increasing, and many major sources like the New York Times and Financial Times now make more than half of their revenue from consumers. This is partially due to an increase in consumer revenue and consumer willingness to pay for quality content. The other side is lowering ad revenue, due in part to tech companies adding competition to CPMs along with an increasing ad blocking user base.
So what can you do? Put your money where your mouth is. Support quality content publishers, writers, and creators. Subscribe directly to your local newspaper. Get a subscription on sites like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Donate to non-profit websites focused on investigatory journalism like Mother Jones or ProPublica. If you want to block ads, do it while supporting the sites you spend the most time with (which is what we’re working on at CoinTent).
Free content is not truly free. You may pay for it by seeing ads. You may pay for it directly. Or you may pay for it in loss of quality — by driving websites to create even more eye-catching content with less funding.
Help make the future we want to see and support the creation of quality content.
“Can you not see that the task is your task — yours to dream, yours to resolve, yours to execute?”
― Upton Sinclair, The Jungle 1906