What is wrong with the news media today? There have been abounding books, podcasts, exposes, and more on this topic, so it is safe to say the answer can be summed up as “a lot.” This article will obviously only scratch the surface of the question, but scratch we must because this is another dynamic at the core of why the landscape of American politics is the way that it is today (not good). Let’s make sure we confirm exactly what we’re talking about here though. The American news media is comprised of groups of people within many different organizations whose jobs are to inform the American public about various topics, regardless of the specific medium they use to do it (TV, radio, website, etc). Politics is an example of one of those topics and one that has grown in the proportion of news stories where it either is the primary purpose of a news story or is mentioned tangentially in a news story. These organizations come in all shapes and sizes and some focus exclusively on news media while others produce other media such as entertainment or opinion.
We at Political Rankings contend that the majority of what is wrong with the news media, internally and externally, are undergirded by increased partisanship (which is part of the Hyper Politicization Complex mentioned in the previous article). This is not to say that politics should never be the topic of a news story. Politics has been a staple news media topic for centuries, and always will be, due news media’s role as the “fourth branch” or “fourth estate.” Things have come out of balance as politics grew (and continues to grow) in proportion to other news topics. Next, combine that with the natural win/lose process that comes with curation of news stories and partisanship really starts to rear its head. However the news is communicated, that time/space is limited; news stories either make it (win) or they don’t (lose). The number of news stories that don’t make it to an evening TV news segment, for example, vastly outnumber the handful that do.
News media organizations, hereafter shortened to legacy media, have grown ever more adept at sensing what their consumers want (so they can provide it to them). The handful of non-politics news stories that do make it to production start revolving around similar topics they believe their consumers want and the ones that don’t make it typically revolve around topics they believe their consumers do not want. The same happens with the politics news stories. Whether it starts with politics news stories or non-politics news stories, overarching narratives start to form. And since there are 2 main political parties in America, there are 2 broad narratives that have formed to be favorable to one or the other party. Left-wing news outlets generally favor Democrats while right-wing news outlets generally favor Republicans. They speak “truth to power” when stories involve politicians on the other side and “celebrate achievements” when stories involve politicians on their side.
All of this isn’t even the most visible way a growing number of Americans have become aware of the increased partisanship of legacy media. TV anchors, contributors, authors, and others do not communicate the news single-handedly; they have teams of people backing them up. But isn’t it the darndest thing that those types of positions are filled with people from Republican administrations for right-wing legacy media and those types of positions are filled with people from Democratic administrations for left-wing legacy media? The flow works the other way too of course and we’re not talking about a coffee intern at the EPA becoming the sound guy for a TV news show or Joe in accounting becoming a random IRS tax agent. There are plenty of highly visible examples of this carousel of personnel. Even for those Americans who reminisce about a time when TV news programs were more “balanced” or “nonpartisan,” the highly partisan activities of some well-known TV anchors after they’ve retired have left Americans wondering how “nonpartisan” they really were back in the day.
In case it isn’t clear at this point, we want to specify that this goes on with both left-wing and right-wing legacy media. Therefore the other issues with legacy media that follow, internal and external, apply to both left-wing and right-wing legacy media.
As with any industry, there are always plenty of internal issues causing varying levels of turmoil. The legacy media industry is no different but most of the issues seem to be primarily or tangentially related to 1 thing: the meteoric rise of social media. It has disrupted the workflow for legacy media getting news stories out to the American public in ways never conceived of not too long ago. Take cost for example. People generally have to pay for some sort of TV subscription to receive the TV channels to watch an evening TV news program. Social media is largely free. With regards to interactivity, there is basically zero of it between a TV news anchor and the audience. Social media is by definition interactive and typically fun, which is the part of the point. A TV news program has a finite number of ad revenue it can make based off a finite number of minutes it can devote to ads. The more interactive and fun a social media platform, the more time a person spends on the platform, and the more ads that can be shown to them. With news stories, being the first to break the news or communicate it to the public in a timely manner is of vital importance. Depending on the timing of a news event, a TV news program may have to wait up to 24 hours to cover it while it can be communicated via social media in less than 24 seconds.
The list of internal issues caused by the battle between social media and legacy media goes on and on. One frequently cited resource on the topic is the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy. Though listening to some critics of the legacy media will lead Americans to think there is some maniacally evil bad guy behind the scenes just wrecking everything, he does not exist (that we know of…). It seems far more likely that the external issues more visible to Americans consuming content from legacy media are correlated with the internal issues. What are some of those external issues you might ask? Look no further than the next paragraph!
High levels of inaccuracies have led to poll after poll of Americans believing legacy media get the facts straight less and less. It should be noted this is not a problem that is exclusively caused by legacy media. Sometimes the “other facts” end up being wrong or misinformation (promulgated via social media). But it seems highly likely that the time crunch mentioned previously in breaking news has had an effect on a growing number of errors in legacy media news. This issue gets compounded with the issue of such errors going uncorrected. It’s understandable that nobody or no organization likes to be wrong, but due to the highly visible nature of legacy media, uncorrected mistakes carry a lot of weight. There are examples here and there of corrections being issued, but critics point out how typically the incorrect/initial story gets huge attention while the correct/follow up story gets a fraction of that attention. Then there are the errors that go uncorrected, which due to modern technology are easier to capture, store, and disseminate.
Compound the two previous issues with meta-issue of “who watches the media?” and you can begin to see the snowball. Other than extreme or illegal cases, the government can’t do it because of the first amendment. Any legacy media organization that tries to do it, especially to other legacy media organizations, is met with critiques about conflicts of interest. Smaller media organizations don’t really have the resources for the task. Another issue is that sensationalism has taken legacy media by storm; and not just any storm but a mega, huge, end-of-the-world storm! See what we did there? “If it bleeds, it leads” is a famous saying in the news industry. Covering boring topics in a boring manner would quickly reduce the audience of any TV news program, for example. The bigger the disaster, the more extreme the adjectives, the bigger the effect, the better, right? Mostly yes, but Americans are getting tuned out by news stories that communicate non-stop negativity and “this disaster is even worse than the last disaster.” Also, the disasters and tragedies seem to rotate faster and faster as there have been multiple studies confirming the ever shortening attention span of the news media. See this paper by faculty at UCLA for info on these problems and more.
To balance out all of what was just said about legacy media, we want to go on record as specifically not saying everyone in legacy media is bad or evil. Some of them are good people trying to do the best job they can do in a tumultuous industry. It should also be noted that society’s problems, and America’s problems, run much deeper than the issues with the legacy media. Raise a hand if you think critics of legacy media would do well to mention that at least once in a blue moon? Ok then.
In conclusion there can be no escaping one huge consequence of all of these issues and that is a loss of trust by the American people. Approval ratings (highly correlated with trust) for Congress have been at historic lows for decades. You know you have work to do in the trust department when approval ratings for your industry is comparable to Congress, or in the case of the recent COVID-19 epidemic specifically, lower than Congress. Some people have speculated that as legacy media continued to lose trust that social media would gain trust, but that has yet to materialize because Americans’ trust with regards to social media is generally lower than legacy media. This huge lack of trust by Americans in legacy media and social media is why we see it as a dynamic at the core of why the landscape of American politics is the way that it is today (not good). This landscape needs an organization like Political Rankings to be a nonpartisan, comprehensive, trustworthy source of political information.
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