The American news media has evolved over many decades, from an institution governed by a strict “just the facts” ethos to one characterized by a mix of values and objectives. Considering most journalism professors will agree with the proposition that the news media is essentially a fourth branch of government and a vital check on the executive, judicial and legislative branches, all trends deviating from strict journalistic integrity should alarm citizens about the capacity of this “branch” to serve its purpose. Interestingly, a review of the major trends in the news media over the past 50 years does ring that alarm, loudly.
The following trends are just a few key demonstrations of how the public is not getting what it needs in order to make informed decisions. Is the future of our democracy in jeopardy?
New Formats Breach Barriers Between Broadcast News and Entertainment
In the 1960s, there were essentially two forms of news programming: the evening news and the documentary. As news became increasingly profitable, competitive pressures led to the development of new formats designed to appeal to emotions and grab ratings. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission had gradually relaxed its regulations and standards for public affairs programming. In the 1970s and 80s, news magazine, talk show, and morning show formats emerged, which mixed news with opinions and speculation, and blurred the lines between news and entertainment. Because these formats presented news in a more entertaining way, ratings for traditional evening news and documentary formats declined.
Round-the-clock Cable News
CNN took coverage of breaking news events to a new level when it was introduced in the 1980s as the first 24/7 news station, especially with its live coverage of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Though the cable news network ostensibly kept Americans more abreast of domestic and international news with up-to-the-minute reporting, the drive for ratings combined with the pressures of continuous broadcasting led to some sacrifices in journalistic integrity. Gradually, more human interest and editorial style programming emerged and graphic visuals predominated, further diluting the audiences interested in pure journalism.
The divergence of traditional news formats into hybrid news/entertainment formats in the 1970s and 80s set the stage for the next wave of tabloid journalism. In print, newspapers like the National Enquirer produced content designed to sell, featuring sensational headlines, which often betrayed the actual content of the stories within the papers. Tabloid TV shows like Inside Edition and A Current Affair borrowed from the sound and feel of real news reporting to present information much more skewed to entertainment rather than education. Very little of this reporting had to do with public affairs and the issues that create an informed citizenry, but these shows did, and continue to, cannibalize the ratings of true news formats.
Cratering of Print News
With the rise of these alternative forms of news, as well as digital news, traditional newspaper circulations gradually declined from the 1980s through the present. Print advertising dried up as radio and TV and, later, online media bled print advertising dry. While the larger and most widely read publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal adapted to digitalization of content, digital natives like HuffPost and Buzzfeed have gone from employing just a few journalists to thousands. Unfortunately, this occurred at the cost of the many now-defunct newspapers with journalistic standards that were once a morning tradition in American news consumption. Now, many of the online news sites that benefited from the decline of newspapers skew to one side of the political spectrum and are widening the political divide among the American populace. Bias is everywhere in the media.
Social Media Now the Main Source of News
According to Forbes, a 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 50 percent of internet users hear about the latest news through social media before hearing about it on a news broadcast. The platforms Americans rely on most are Facebook (43%), YouTube (21%) and Twitter (12%). While there was a dramatic increase in traffic to the news sites reporting through social media feeds, people are consuming less and less of these articles. Most are simply scanning headlines and looking for short video clips or soundbites. The average visitor reads an article for an astoundingly short 15 seconds, and watches a video for 10 seconds.
It gets worse. Facebook distributes the news in its feeds based on what consumers have already indicated they like. More likes get a story more attention, which means that stories with sex, violence and other forms of sensationalism are favored by the platform. This incentivizes journalists to produce news that gets distributed, regardless of whether it properly informs the public. Yet even worse, each individual consumer gets fed increasing amounts of what they have already indicated they like. In other words, a reader who starts out slightly to the right or left of center will get force fed news that confirms their biases. The macro effect is an increasingly polarized society, with extreme viewpoints becoming the new norm. That dynamic has created an opportunity for “fake news” distributors to further polarize news consumers with information that has no basis in reality, and is — as in the Russian election meddling scandal — created by actors seeking to destroy American democratic intuitions like our election process.
Though individuals in a democracy enjoy the freedom to choose news sources, the institutions of American democracy depend on an electorate that pursues an understanding of the facts. The blurring of entertainment with news, implicit bias and the relentless pursuit of advertising dollars stands in the way of honest journalism and an educated electorate.