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When it comes to the news, we get what we pay for
Why we should invest in better information sources.
It’s June 7, 2023. Today, I’m writing about our declining trust in media, and how our spending choices may play a role.
We don’t trust the media, but we get what we pay for
Paying for good information is money well spent.
Image: Knight Foundation
If you dislike or distrust something, it can be hard to make the argument that you should invest resources into or towards it. But that’s the argument I want to make about the media (and government, but not today!).
Earlier this year, the results of a survey from Gallup and Knight Foundation showed that Americans, by and large, have some serious issues with the media. A couple of top-line stats: 26% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the news media, and 53% have unfavorable views. Further, people perceive the media as more biased than they used to, and younger people have more negative views than older people.
I think that this is all reasonable. I think it’s perfectly rational, and probably wise, to come across everything with a sense of skepticism, and to try and think critically about what you’re consuming, be it online, in a newspaper, or on TV. Especially if you like getting your news from spicy memes.
I also think there are a lot of things at play. But I’ll come out and say it: A lot of our problems with the media derive from the fact that we don’t value information, and information gathering, nearly as much as we should. That is, we have something of an expectation that information — such as fair, accurate, news reporting — is and should be free. It’s not. But getting back to the things that are at play, and there are a lot of them.
For one, not all “media outlets” are the same. Some have reporters who dig up facts and develop stories, which are passed on to editors and often lawyers, ensuring they’re as accurate as possible. Some take the stories that others publish and publish their own articles based on the original story. Some take pieces of the stories and publish opinion pieces or hot takes derived from the original story. It takes some serious effort for many people to actually understand what they might be reading or consuming at any given moment — is it a news report? An opinion? An advertisement? Many people simply can’t tell.
Further, there’s the profit motive and audience-building element to consider. This is perhaps the easiest to see in cable news, where you have three main channels — Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC (there are others, yes) — which more or less create news and opinion for specific audiences. This can obviously breed resentment and distrust. The most glaring and recent example is what recently happened with Fox News, which was knowingly and repeatedly lying to its viewers (many of its hosts and personnel were doing the same, too) because they knew what their audience wanted. In the case of the 2020 election, it wasn’t the truth.
So, there’s a motivation at play to create the content that the audience wants, not necessarily what is true. That isn’t always necessarily an issue, but when you bill yourself as a “news” network, it certainly is. But this isn’t just about specific news or media companies. We have ourselves to blame for our falling out with the media, perhaps more than anything.
Americans love love love low-effort, sugary content. I know we do. I’ve seen the analytics. Media execs and editors see the analytics, too. That’s why they produce it in the first place. You might see stupid article after stupid article clogging up your social media feeds, and there’s a reason for it: People click on it and read it. If they didn’t, media companies wouldn’t create it.
Do you know what we don’t like? Complicated, nuanced stories, filled with smart people telling us things we don’t like to hear. That’s why huge stories — the Panama Papers come to mind — fizzle, while we simply can’t stop talking about the drama surrounding the Royal Family. Again, this is on us. Why eat asparagus when you can have kettle corn?
It takes effort to stay informed and to look at things with a critical eye. This is why most of us, or at least a good portion, just don’t do it. It takes time and energy, something a lot of us, including me, seriously lack.So, in that sense, I don’t blame people. We want what we want, and when someone offers it up, we gobble it down. Especially if it reinforces our current views or ideas — it can also make us feel smart, too.
Here’s another recent example: There was a story that made the rounds last month about homeless veterans staying in a hotel in a town not far from me, Newburgh, New York. Those veterans, the story went, were kicked out of the hotel to make room for migrants who had been sent to New York from the Mexican border. Outrageous? Sure. I don’t think anyone would really think that was a good or reasonable thing to do.
The story went wide, and people were, in my mind, justifiably outraged. The problem? It was all bullshit. But I’ll tell you what, in a few years, if you bring this story up, you’re absolutely going to hear from people who still think it was true, and who will hold a grudge against Biden or someone else for letting it happen. Which, again, was the entire point.
So, yes, you’re often right to distrust the media. There are lies and manipulation. It happens on social media (obviously) to a great extent as well. And it’s going to get worse. Also last month, after Twitter changed its rules about “verified” accounts — which were “verified for a reason! — fake images of an explosion at the Pentagon also went far and wide. Because the accounts sharing those images were “verified,” many people believed it was true. But again, all bullshit.
I do think that these types of absolute nonsense stories are relatively rare, though. Mostly, the lies and manipulation are more subtle. A local newspaper may simply avoid reporting on powerful local business interests, for example, for one reason or another. A certain media outlet might get in a spat with an elected official, and publish a series of scathing op-eds or stories painting that individual in a bad light. Those stories may hold water, but there’s still a little bit of tomfoolery at play.
This is all to say that most of the time, especially when you consider news outlets, most media outlets do their best. Some screw up, absolutely, and the serious ones make corrections, redactions, and apologies. The ones that really screw up get sued (like Fox News did), and theoretically, take a hit in the “information marketplace” — if that’s a thing.
This is all to say that I think we can all do better. Journalists can do better. Media executives can do better. And we can do better, as media consumers. That starts with actually paying for solid information.
This takes me back to the beginning: We get what we pay for. We like low-effort, easy-to-digest fluff, and we get it. We like stories that confirm our previously-held biases, and we get it. We don’t want nerds talking down to us — we want people who look and think like us to tell us how it is, and we get it.
With that in mind, this is all a tough nut to crack, and I don’t necessarily know if there’s a way to piece our trust in the media back together. But I do think we all should consider subscribing to or otherwise supporting media outlets that are doing good work. I’m not talking about signing up for Fox Nation or whatever the next incarnation of CNN+ will be — if you like those products, sure, go for it — I’m talking more about your local newspaper. Trade publications. Maybe bigger media outlets that you think do a good job, be it The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times (I subscribe to both).
The point is, if you distrust the media, then you should be looking for a higher-quality product. And no, it’s probably not going to be completely free. Yes, many of us are working within the constraints of a budget, but information is valuable, and if you’re filling your head with garbage that shapes and informs your worldviews — and your resulting decisions — I think it’s worth investing a little into outlets that are going to provide you with worthwhile information, news, and even opinions.
You don’t need to agree with everything that’s published — lord knows I don’t, and in fact, I think that’s a good thing to challenge my own beliefs and change my mind when the facts change. But we should reward journalists and media outlets that do good work. It’s easy to overlook the role these people and organizations play, but they’re still the gatekeepers, by and large. So, take a look at what you can afford, and consider subscribing to or finding other ways to support them.
Again, I think a good place to start is a local newspaper. These are the outlets that send reporters to community meetings, press conferences, and other boring things, so that you don’t need to go. ChatGPT isn’t going to your local town’s town hall. A reporter will. And that reporter needs to be paid for their time and effort.
Yes, I work in the media. I’ve seen how and why certain pieces of content are developed. I’m not an expert or executive, but I have a good sense of the issues within the media, too. But this isn’t a one-sided problem, as consumers need to take responsibility for their own media diets.
It’s a hard thing to do, but that’s what this whole newsletter is about: Doing things the hard way!
Numbers and links
8: The number of votes in one Oregon county that separates the minority, who want to break away and join Idaho, from the majority. Who’s going to pay for all their stuff without Portland and Uncle Phil? (NBC News)
750,000: The number of people between the ages of 50 and 54 who could lose access to federal food assistance as a result of the debt ceiling bill. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)
Crypto-no?: The SEC finally did it — it sued Coinbase for being an “unregistered” securities broker, as it expands its attempt to stake out crypto-regulation jurisdiction. (Fast Company)
Is this it?: Deutsche Bank predicts the first policy-led U.S. recession in decades. (Fortune)