“It occurred to me that nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting … and thereon I decided to print opinions, ignoring facts.“ ~ Herbert Bayard Swope, editor, New York Evening World 1921, Father of the Editorial Page
“Do you consider yourself informed?” is a loaded question. Most people would say it depends on the subject, which is true, but I am speaking more in a broad sense. Do you feel equipped to make sound decisions financially, politically, or environmentally?
If you answered yes, then what makes you feel that way? Do you study one of those subjects? Do you have a paid news subscription? Do you have family or friends that keep you up to date? Do you trust a person or political figure to give you facts? Do you watch the news most nights, or lean on social media from trusted sources?
I have never felt sufficiently informed. My parent’s and grandparent’s generation use to consume news on a weekly basis, and that weekly consolidation of content created a perception that the information you were receiving was essential. That was surely naive to think, due to the lack of diverse perspectives and voices back then. I imagine it nevertheless was comforting to have some confidence in the information you were getting. Today it is much different. The number of digital news employees has nearly doubled since just 2008 and Google/Facebook continue to dominate advertising revenues. As the media landscape has undergone this monumental shift from print to digital, that confidence in information has become more and more scarce.
We have a MAJOR problem that never gets legitimately addressed because it directly concerns the people that should address it. There is an over saturation of opinions under guise of journalism in this country, and it is harder and harder to distinguish fact from fiction. The tools and processes used to identify legitimate, objective sources of information are becoming less and less relevant and realistic for everyday people.
A steady diet of reliable information is vital to a healthy democracy, but most Americans have been served quick, satisfying dollar menu details for far too long and the news corporations are profiting massively from it. You have no doubt experienced this as well, every time you go on two different major news websites or channels and see the exact same event covered as if it is existing in two alternate dimensions. That disconnect is directly attributed to years and years of financial incentives based on what people want to hear, as opposed to what people need to know.
This reflects in the numbers as well. A recent Pew Research study found that, among thirty news sources in the US, zero were trusted by a majority of American adults. Let me reiterate, there is not one major news source that Americans can, even moderately, agree presents more truth than fiction. Given this state of the media, one can start to see why we fail to agree on basic facts, a phenomenon the RAND Corporation calls “truth decay”.
The “fact” is, the modern media economy doesn’t incentivize facts.
The truthful, nuanced headline about the complexity of healthcare reform probably signals the most beneficial article for you to read. Unfortunately, it exceeds some arbitrary character count and doesn’t say “blank DESTROYED blank on healthcare reform”, so it’s not viable in today’s digital landscape.
A 2014 study about the effectiveness of news headlines confirmed such when it found that “an extreme sentiment score obtained the largest mean popularity.” This means the more overtly negative or overtly positive a headline was, the more successful that article was. This pushes publishers and journalists to feign certainty even when they are speaking of an uncertain topic. For years now, news companies have been using your own data, to refine this process and emotionally engage you more and more, creating an entire economy around confirmation bias.
Given the 24-hour news cycle, disinformation campaigns, and corporate conflicts of interest, being sufficiently informed has become a full-time job that most Americans cannot afford to work. Many people are already working multiple jobs, being caregivers, building businesses, or attending schools. There is also a mental health epidemic ongoing that leaves most people unlikely to vet sources to confirm every stat they read in national news.
The reality is that they shouldn’t have to.
“Seek Truth and Report It” has turned into “Seek Clicks and Repeat It” and until that incentive structure has changed, the political divides will deepen, the manufactured outrage will accelerate, and we will continue to unknowingly make decisions against our own self interest.
No matter your political affiliation, if you answered “yes” to the question above, I would challenge you to ask why. I would truly question whether the information you are receiving is what you want to hear, or what you need to know. We desperately need to reform journalism standards so that they function in this century and gain some semblance of confidence in basic fact. Our democracy depends on it.
Now what can we DO about it?
Part Two: What Possible Journalism Reform Looks Like
Part two will be coming out next week. It will be about what that potential reformation might look like, the specific problems causing this crisis, and some solutions to those problems. I will detail some tools that you can use when vetting the information you are consuming. I will also provide you with some actionable things you can do to start supporting healthier financial incentives in your media diet. Let’s start solving this problem.
- Pollard, Michael S. and Jennifer Kavanagh, Profiles of News Consumption: Platform Choices, Perceptions of Reliability, and Partisanship. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4212.html. Also available in print form.
- “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 24, 2020) https://www.journalism.org/2020/01/24/u-s-media-polarization-and-the-2020-election-a-nation-divided/
- Reis J, Benevenuto F, Vaz de Melo P, Prates R, Kwak H, An J (2015) Breaking the news: first impressions matter on online news. In: 9th international AAAI conference on weblogs and social media (ICWSM) https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM15/paper/viewFile/10568/10535
- “Digital News Fact Sheet” Pew Research Center, Washington DC (July 23rd, 2019)https://www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/digital-news/
- “U.S. Digital Ad Revenue Climbs to $57.9 Billion in First Half 2019, Up 17% YOY, According to IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report” IAB Research and Analytic (October 21, 2019) https://www.iab.com/news/u-s-digital-ad-revenue-climbs-to-57-9-billion-in-first-half-2019/
- Angèle Christin, “Counting Clicks: Quantification and Variation in Web Journalism in the United States and France,” American Journal of Sociology 123, no. 5 (March 2018): 1382-1415. https://doi.org/10.1086/696137
- “What this Stanford scholar learned about clickbait will surprise you” MELISSA DE WITTE, Stanford News (March 21, 2018) ://news.stanford.edu/2018/03/21/this-stanford-scholar-learned-clickbait-will-surprise/