Throughout this year’s ugly election, candidates and supporters on each side of the aisle used the media as one of their favorite punching bags. President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters accused the main stream media of having a liberal bias in their coverage, or lack of coverage, on certain issues. And the Hillary Clinton camp complained that Trump received a disproportionate amount of coverage, legitimizing what they felt was an absurd candidacy.
While there are some valid points on each side, the issue of media bias is much more complicated when you dig beneath the surface.
What Motivates the Media?
Before beginning this conversation, we must establish that the US media is not one unified body. It is comprised of thousands of traditional and non-traditional entities that disperse their coverage across a variety of platforms.
Each media company has its own mission and motives, just like any other business, but the one unifying motive is not a political motive, but a profit motive.
The proliferation of digital media has changed the way Americans consume their news, forcing traditional media companies to find new sources of revenue to remain viable and competitive. Earlier this year, Pew Research found that just 20 percent of Americans surveyed regularly get their news from print newspapers, and that number is largely made up of individuals aged 65 and older. While broadcast and print media once primarily depended on ratings and circulation metrics to attract advertisers, many of these companies must now produce content that drives clicks, views and social media shares to produce digital advertising revenue, too.
The Emergence of Click Bait
Click bait is a style of digital content characterized by sensationalized or misleading headlines and images followed by content that lacks depth and substance. Listicles and “how to” articles generally fall into this bucket as well. This fluffy content is designed to attract high click volume and social shares, but it generally lacks the journalistic sophistication or standards that healthy democracies expect of the Fourth Estate.
The public’s attention span is shorter than ever, and journalists must now think like marketers to find success. Newsrooms encourage, and at times pressure, their staff to plug their work on social media to drive as many views and shares as possible.
Who’s Driving This Trend?
The principle of supply and demand would suggest that the proliferation of click bait is driven by media consumers rather than media professionals and the companies they represent. The high demand for fluffy digital content forces these companies to balance those demands with their duty to serve as a watchdog on behalf of the public.
There’s a transition from traditional print to social and digital media. Some of the nation’s largest publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, are seeing more revenues come from their digital platforms. In fact, last quarter, WSJ digital accounted for 55% of its revenue. Because of big boosts in digital readership, it’s no wonder outlets are being forced to reduce, or in some cases abandon, their print presence.
Loudest Voice Gets the Most Listeners
Social media and other technologies have democratized news distribution. And while these technologies are nonpartisan, they can be powerful vehicles for political movements. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Vernon E. Jordan Jr. stated, “the same social media that fueled the Republican candidate gave voice to Black Lives Matter.” Technology is an important part of our lives, but, as the article says, it’s a “gift like fire – it’s power for good is equaled only by its power for destruction.”
With recent unlikely events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, it’s clear that grassroots movements empowered by social media are gaining ground across the globe.
Like it or not, there’s a new media landscape where the value of news is measured by popularity, and the loudest voices often win the most listeners. The article makes another poignant point by saying that, through giving everyone a voice with unlimited reach, we have “opened our national dialogue to bullies, bigots and buffoons – on both sides of the aisle.”
The same technologies and platforms traditional news organizations have adapted to have given non-journalists a way to spread distrust in the traditional media. This has created massive public anger and mistrust in the media, which was intensified by this year’s election. Back in February, Trump went beyond criticizing the media and issued a direct threat:
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
His proposal, which would have in effect added a layer of censorship to the press, drew a roaring ovation from the crowd. While no media company is perfect, this level of anger and hostility is a danger to our democracy and the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment.
While many, including President-elect Trump, are quick to blame the media, it’s truly up to media consumers to reignite a hunger for true journalism and elevate the level of public discourse in this country. Once the demand is back, newsrooms will deliver.