Here’s What We Need To Talk About
Headlines in the British press call it, “Anarchy in the USA.” The San Francisco Chronicle gives us “Insurrection.” In New York, from the Times: “Trump Incites Mob.” And from the birthplace of suburbia, we get Newsday’s “Capitol Chaos.”
Whatever you call it, one thing we can all agree on: What we’re seeing is unprecedented. Engulfed in unpredictable times, here’s another thing we should be able to agree on: We need quality news coverage to help us find common ground and start the healing process.
To do that, we need to be as critical of the news coverage as the news coverage is of its subjects. It’s a symbiotic relationship that relies on both sides of the equation being equally strong, yet today’s media landscape is complicated and under the strain of constantly changing regulations, ownership, and economies. And that puts a strain on the public, too.
Somewhere in all of that change, the public has moved from using the news to empower itself and move forward, to using news for self-validation inside each news cycle, however fleeting.
The lament of the masses seems to be, “How did we get here?” No matter what your political leanings, we should all be able to agree on this one thing, too: There has to be a better way for our society to live its daily life than what the news media chronicled on Jan. 7, 2021.
The thing that I keep going back to is that symbiotic relationship. Media haters will, of course, direct their anger at the media, claiming coverage is responsible for fanning the flames of unrest. And, perhaps in there somewhere is a valid point: Today’s news runs not only in cycles but in circles, ever repeating and spawning cloned messages running from websites, broadcasts, email alerts, newsletters, and printed pages, across social media channels and then it bleeds throughout podcasts. The repetition is, at times, deafening. It can harden the mind against considering conflicting messages, or at the very least, alternative points of view. It then seems to dictate that the mere act of repetition must, on some level, mean truth — at least, that’s what it feels like whenever you find yourself caught in that ever-so-sneaky technological trap of always being connected.
Coming up for air and disconnecting is important and becoming all the more necessary: We now have generations who have grown up on technology — us Gen Xers remember reporting to the “computer lab” filled with that wonder, the Apple MacIntosh — which has led to the compilation of enough research to illustrate that time spent online is not only diminishing our attention spans but also rewiring how our brains actually work.
What was I saying?
Oh, yes. The big difference in how news comes at us today comes at a price. If you’re old enough to remember having competing daily newspapers at your disposal, well, you remember a golden age of news. You were also part of something bigger: Those dailies gave you a sense of place, each time you picked one up. Technology’s focus is to break boundaries that, ironically, connect you and isolate you all at the same time.
The news cycle was much different then. It offered time to breathe, and think about what you were being told. Today, that’s considered a luxury.
We also have to remember how the news has changed, internally, and the role we played in that. The business model for news relied on display advertising to bring in the big money and classified advertising to keep the bread buttered. Automative advertising, in particular, was a hallmark of a healthy newspaper business. Classified advertising was considered a classic economic indicator: If a newspaper landed with a thud, it meant people were buying and selling. All was good.
So when social media sprouted into our lives like bamboo, entirely evasive and fast-growing, we stopped advertising as we had known it. We started spending pennies for clicks, thinking we were saving big. Maybe, just maybe what most of us actually did was become indistinguishable, as we followed the crowd. Posting kept us too busy to notice news outlets were gutting staff as those advertising dollars stopped flowing. Some news outlets closed, some stopped publishing print editions. They dumped the major overhead — the experienced reporters, editors, and anchors. Many merged, to become “bigger” by covering more territory, yet they halved their staffs and stymied their own news product.
Throughout it all, we kept busy, posting. When we finally looked up, we were perplexed as to why there was so little information contained in the news.
And still, the media haters blame “the media.”
So how did we get here? Perhaps it was due to the collective unconscious. We ran away with technology and — oops — eviscerated the news in the process. If it was any other product, perhaps we could have gotten away with it. But this product also happens to be a public service.
Our country is built on the foundation of freedom of the press, and that foundation crumbled. Sometimes right in front of our eyes, but mostly behind the scenes and often when we were too busy watching to pay attention to what we needed to see. A weakened media leaves me with a weakened country.
That brings us to Jan. 7, 2021, where a free press no longer seems like enough. It needs to be free, yes. But it also needs to be strong enough to be in good working order. And that’s up to all of us.