We’re in the middle of a crisis in journalism in the United States, and in many countries throughout the developed world. We collectively rely on news media to provide us with accurate, informative, and important information on which we can make decisions and build our lives.
When that information is inconsistent, unreliable, or distorted — it causes tremendous ripples in our society.
Tech Issues are at the Heart of Our Flawed Modern Journalism
It’s easy to blame the issues with modern media on modern technology – and in many ways, this link is undeniable. But the relationship between technology and the flaws of modern journalism is more nuanced than it seems at first glance.
Current Issues With the Media
Let’s start by outlining some of the most important issues with modern news media and journalism:
One of the most prevalent problems in modern journalism is the pervasiveness of inaccuracies – in other words, fake news. News organizations sometimes report on things prematurely, before all the facts are in. Sometimes, they intentionally distort facts.
Some news organizations are unscrupulous, and more than willing to outright lie if it means pushing an agenda. As a result, millions of people are now skeptical of nearly all the news they read, assuming that at least some of the information is wrong.
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s a natural occurrence and not something that can be completely prevented. But for a healthy news environment, it’s important for institutions to step up and take accountability for those mistakes.
As soon as possible, journalists should step up, acknowledge, and correct these mistakes — doing whatever it takes to reach the original audience who heard the inaccurate information. Unfortunately, these types of widespread corrections are rare.
The news media also suffers from ongoing sensationalism. Small stories are often blown up in terms of importance to provoke an emotional reaction from an audience. An isolated incident involving a small number of people can seem like an epidemic, and a temporary setback can seem like the end of the world.
Exaggerated and emotionally charged stories make people often misinterpret or misconstrue the ramifications of stories, even if they’re factually reported in an accurate way.
As an extension of the sensationalism problem, many news outlets are outright partisan in nature. Everyone has personal biases that affect the way they interpret and write information, but there should be checks and balances within institutions to correct for those biases when the public is trusting the institution with accurate reporting.
Instead, we have siloed institutions that are firmly aligned with one side of the political spectrum, or ones that are nakedly in pursuit of a specific agenda.
The fast news cycle
The fast news cycle is a separate problem that exacerbates many of the problems outlined above.
Institutions are pressured to publish stories as quickly as possible to beat the competition, and there are often isn’t time to follow up on previous stories – especially if there’s minimal public interest in the matter.
Lack of self-reporting and accountability
Who reports on reporters? The news media is responsible for keeping politicians, companies, and even celebrities accountable for their decisions – but there are no institutions designed to keep news media organizations accountable to their reporting.
Quantity over quality
Most modern journalists are interested in publishing new content as often as possible, filling newsfeeds with passable content – rather than turning their attention to the most important issues, or investing in quality work.
As a result, unsexy yet important topics get completely abandoned, and our news feeds end up filled with poorly researched fluff material – rather than exhaustive journalistic reporting.
These aren’t just isolated observations; even journalists themselves tend to agree that most (if not all) of these problems exist and are deteriorating the integrity and perception of modern journalism.
Is Technology to Blame?
Do we have to ask if technology to blame for these problems?
We must be careful with this phrasing. Technology is always a tool, capable of both great good and great evil depending on how it’s wielded. There’s nothing inherently wrong with researching and developing the technology for highly advanced weapons, but using them can cause a devastating loss of innocent life.
Many of the issues with modern journalism can be linked, in some way, to the rise of new technologies. These technologies create or exacerbate problems with the media, and are left uncorrected.
In some ways, we tend to create and utilize technology faster than we can process what’s actually happening. As a result, we’re left with the consequences of new technologies before we can even understand which safeguards should be created.
There are a few aspects of modern technology that have practically forced journalists and major news outlets to create, ignore, or even benefit from the aforementioned issues.
- Demand for profitability. First and foremost, most news organizations are for profit. To remain in operation and please stakeholders, these institutions must find a way to make money. In the early days of circulated news media, newspapers could subsidize their costs by charging people for individual papers or daily subscriptions; they could make even more money by selling advertising. But modern tech demands new profitability models, which depend on user engagement.
- Universal competition. It’s also unhelpful that the internet opens the door to ubiquitous competition. A few decades ago, newspapers only had other newspapers to deal with – and local newspapers didn’t have any real competition. These days, every news media outlet is competing with thousands of other news media outlets – and oftentimes, individual users on social media who can share videos in real-time and provide their own commentary. This puts pressure on journalists to outcompete others in some key way; usually, this means reporting as fast as possible in an outrageous or sensational way, which leads to a cascade of global issues.
- Audience engagement optimization. In part because of the demand for profitability, most news organizations prioritize audience engagement above all else – which means favoring engagement over the accuracy or responsible reporting. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if it wasn’t for the most reliable tactics to get audiences to engage. If you want to attract links, shares, comments, and clicks, you have to provoke some kind of emotion or tell an interesting story. That often means distorting the facts, selectively reporting, and playing up angles that you know will upset or stimulate your audience. The fact that analytics platforms and content generation algorithms make it easier to understand and prioritize user engagement is an additional complication.
- Social media and user attention spans. We also need to consider the effects that social media has had on user attention spans and expectations. Many social platforms encourage users to communicate quickly and concisely, constantly scrolling down a feed of new information and forgetting whatever was newsworthy yesterday. This incentivizes a lightning-fast reporting style, presenting stories before all the facts are in, and disincentivizes retrospective analyses, discouraging organizations from retracting inaccuracies or making corrections.
What is the Solution?
Even if technology may be partially to blame, the solution can never be “abolish the internet” or “ban all social media.” Such a proposition is ridiculous and probably wouldn’t fix the core problems anyway.
Audience demand for rage-inducing, short-lived, rapid-fire reporting will remain, and the incentives for profitability will continue to spur irresponsible practices in for-profit institutions.
There are no “silver bullet” solutions to the tech problems facing modern journalism, but something needs to be done if we’re ever going to trust and rely on the media to inform the general public.
How to Rebuild Trust
Can trust in media be built again? Could trust come from a variety of strategies, such as greater accountability in the industry, better platforms for sharing informative content, and new incentive structures for journalists that favor quality and accuracy?
Until we begin rolling out new tactics like these, the problems with modern media are only going to grow worse.
Image Credit: fauxels; pexels
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