How to Fix a Broken Media
Journalism is mired in a self-inflicted crisis of public trust. Here's how to earn it back.
A free society cannot survive without a robust news media. Information is the fuel that powers progress, stability, and democracy — when its flows are corrupted, so too is society. Our media has failed in their stewardship of information and abused their influence for financial gain and the advancement of ideological narratives, at the cost of increasing polarization and a free fall of public confidence. This crisis of institutional trust is just as big a problem as those within journalism itself. While modern society runs on information, it is built upon a foundation of trust and shared truths. When those break down, the floor gives out beneath everything.
The press’s duty is to inform the public — to provide an accurate, balanced sampling of the information so that people can make up their own minds. Of course, there is much more information than anyone could ever hope to process. We need the powers only institutions can marshal to filter for us, to some degree, what we most need to know and what isn’t as important, because it’s physically impossible for us to do it ourselves. This is why we must find ways to curb the problems and abuses, foster a better environment and culture, and recalibrate the incentives in order to fix what ails journalism.
Responsibility does not rest with the press alone. This is a two-way street. We must improve journalism, but we must also improve the public. We must increase media literacy, civic engagement, and critical thinking. We must learn to recognize our own cognitive biases, to step out of our echo-chambers, and to resist gravitating only to those who tell us what we want to hear. We must, in short, become better citizens. Journalism has failed society. We have also failed society. Let’s commit to do better.
Strategies to Improve Journalism
Address the Profit Motive in News. The profit motive incentivizes click-bait, sensationalism, audience catering, and manufactured controversy rather than more objective and balanced journalism. Because of this, some important stories get under-covered, relatively minor ones get over-covered, and still other stories get spun in misleading ways that play to ratings and clicks. The 1960s and 70s were the high water mark for public trust in television news. Major networks each had a news division, and it was understood in the industry that the news wing was going to be the network's “loss leader”, meaning its least profitable division. Networks trusted that they would make more than enough profit from their entertainment programming to make up for this, and they essentially provided high quality, trusted news as a public service. It’s unimaginable to picture large corporations behaving in this manner today. Economic trends and forces have shifted, and today there’s no going to media companies and appealing to their good nature.
We can realign the priorities by offering tax incentives if media companies convert their news divisions into non-profits: removing paid subscriptions as well as all advertisements and commercials. This could apply to companies like the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.), but might also be used for parent companies that own a 24-hour cable news channel, or a newspaper, in addition to owning other commercial interests.
Addressing Paywalls. Large news websites are increasingly placing content behind paywalls, requiring users to be paid subscribers to access articles. As physical newspapers disappear, the internet will eventually be the sole repository of written journalism, and hiding it behind a paywall has larger implications for society. Making the consumption of news subscriber-only disadvantages the poor. Important information from the most widely read sources should be freely available to all. Paywalls should only be for editorials, opinion, commentary, or other non-reporting content.
Correcting Corrections. It is standard journalistic practice to issue corrections on factual errors and omissions. But often, the initial inaccuracy reaches a much larger audience, and the corrections are sneakily hidden like fine print, or silently updated in “stealth edits” that make no acknowledgement of the original error. All corrections should be required to be issued in a manner of equal audience reach to the initial error or omission, with no obvious attempt to slip it in beneath notice.
Improve Science Journalism. The press is the primary conduit through which new information coming out of the scientific and medical communities filters to the public. The problem is that science/health journalists aren't necessarily experts in these fields and may not have the best grasp on the source material. Add to this the fact that they are incentivized to churn out a high volume of revenue-generating click-bait material. This leads to erroneous or misleading content that can leave the public misinformed and researchers face-palming. Pieces of scientific or medical journalism (focusing on subjects in the hard sciences or fields of mainstream medicine) should require peer-review from credentialed experts in relevant fields, and should require these experts’ names be published as reviewers in the articles.
The NASCAR Rule. All news segments, articles, opinion pieces, panel discussions, and interviews, must clearly indicate all conflicts of interest involved, from the writers, reporters, anchors, commentators, and the company/parent corporation, and fined if they fail to comply. Trust is built upon integrity. Integrity is built upon transparency. Zip up those jumpsuits nice and tight, fellas.
Fund More Local Journalism. Local news is an oft-overlooked component of journalism, but it’s as consequential to residents of a given area as national or global news, and is more trusted by the public. It also greatly impacts state and local elections. In recent decades, there has been a great migration of journalists, concentrating them into a handful of major coastal cities. Accordingly, local journalism across the country has been gutted, closing thousands of local papers, and diminishing the personnel and resources of thousands more, leaving millions with little to no local journalism in their area. We should invest in local journalism by offering fund-matching grants or no-interest loans to struggling local papers or media startups in news deserts, provided they are able to meet various financial and organizational thresholds and comply with all relevant state and federal laws. This is another area where the profit motive runs counter to the needs of society, and public funding is needed to bridge that gap and fix the incentives. The alternative is to simply let the market drive most local journalism extinct.
Geographically Decentralize the Media. As noted, most people who work in journalism and related fields are to be found in a handful of large coastal metro areas such as New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area, with Chicago as one of the few major hubs on the interior. The media hasn't arbitrarily chosen these locations; this is also where the economic, industrial, intellectual, and political power is concentrated. One problem with this arrangement, aside from the drain on the rest of the country, is that these coastal power hubs foster a different kind of political and social ecosystem than the nation at large.
Having most of the country’s journalists crowded into this handful of similar environments cannot help but shape them. It results in something approaching the cliché of the out-of-touch “elite” media type — someone who hob-nobs with the rich and powerful, dines at swanky galas and cocktail parties, and comes to view the mechanics of wealth, influence, and power almost as a sort of game that they enjoy playing. Regardless of whatever humble beginnings some journalists may have started from (and in most cases, their roots embody the quintessence of privilege), this leaves many almost completely disconnected from the day-to-day lived experience of most citizens, and instills within them a deeply pro-institutional, pro-establishment bias, whatever their views on social issues. From within these bubbles, the press then proceeds to analyze, commentate, and report on a society they do not (or no longer) understand, and whose welfare they increasingly have less of a stake in. If anything, the worse things get, the more they stand to benefit. We need to break up these geographical monopolies.
Foster More Diversity of Thought. Diversity is all the rage these days, and news organizations have been no different. Walk through any major newsroom and you will see every skin color, ethnic background, and minority group represented. But a closer look reveals this diversity for what it is — a hollow and superficial sham. There is a stunning homogeneity of thought — one that is consistently out of step with the lives of the average citizen, and which often doesn't represent their best interests. The press has virtually none of the only kind of diversity that truly matters: the diversity of thought.
Part of this is geographical location, as described, and decentralizing the media would help. Part is owing to the profit motive and prestige of elite-level journalism, and reducing the profit motive would help. But a large part is a broken media culture. It’s unclear how to fix this. It seems a problem that must be handled internally by news organizations themselves; we can't/mustn't have laws mandating some kind of ideological affirmative action in hiring practices. This leaves us with the unwieldy and imprecise tool of public social pressure. We, as citizens, consumers, and critics, must demand better, and withhold our clicks, attention, and dollars from those who don’t measure up.
Digital News Should be Regulated Just Like Television or Radio News. Any website or online program not adhering to the basic standards that TV and radio news are subject to should not be allowed to call themselves news on penalty of fine. We don’t let food companies who produce plant-based mock-meats made to resemble chicken call their products “chicken.” They must instead call it something like “chik’n.” Short of the common free speech exceptions like incitements to violence, no digital platform should be disallowed from saying whatever it pleases. Anyone who wants can produce “newz.” But if it doesn't adhere to journalistic and media standards, it can’t call itself news or otherwise mislead viewers into thinking it’s news.
Outside the Box Strategies
News Co-ops. Cooperative employee-owned media companies could be a good way to inject some fresh blood into journalism. While cooperatives would not get rid of the profit motive, they would be much freer from the institutional biases and corporate greed that besets much of the press. As with the strategy to fund local journalism, there should be fund-matching grants or no-interest loans available to news co-ops, provided they are able to meet various financial and organizational thresholds and comply with all relevant state and federal laws.
Universal Basic Income. By partially decoupling income from work, UBI can lessen the bad monetary incentives in journalism, help compensate local journalists for the work that they already do, allow more media startup formations, and allow more people to pursue journalism as a career, especially independently, which would create more competition and drive up quality.
Meta-Journalism. There is very little accountability in journalism. Things like sexual harassment and outright plagiarism are internally policed, but not biased and misleading coverage, which is much more common and insidious. This is what needs to change. What if there were a branch of journalism entirely dedicated to reporting on and even investigating other journalists or organizations for bias, inaccuracy, or low standards? Imagine if journalists were subject to periodic adversarial grilling about their own reporting, editorial choices, biases, mistakes, etc. Journalists themselves need to understand what it feels like (to a degree) to experience the pressure and scrutiny of those they cover, and to be held accountable if in no other way than in the court of public opinion for their decisions on the job.
Systems and Ideas, Not People
It is important to stress that while the press is deeply flawed, they should not be demonized or scapegoated. The media is comprised not of villains or crooks, but of human beings — products of their environments, circumstances, incentives, and self-interests. Smug and out of touch though many are, the truth is that in their shoes, most of us would be no different than today’s elite journalists. We should direct our criticisms, frustrations, and efforts toward ideas, systems, and rules, not toward people. That road doesn’t take us anywhere worth going.