The digital revolution has changed virtually everything about how things are done in every industry around the world. In the realm of the media, internet connectivity has provided just about as many challenges as it has advantages.
One of the biggest changes in reporting is centered around the medium by which the news is delivered. Gone are the days when newspapers dominated the proliferation of the most important breaking news stories. Nowadays, most print papers are struggling financially and many have already closed their doors for good. There are simply too many other options for consumers that are cheaper – or free – more convenient, and oftentimes more engaging.
However, there’s a reason why the Information Age has alternatively – and perhaps more aptly – been dubbed the Disinformation Age. Experts and the general public alike have had their concerns about the authenticity of information floating around online, and this leeriness has only increased in recent years. Policing the information on the internet is an impossibility – at least until it can be fully automated – exemplified by the extended political live streams that have grown popular on social media. The hosts of these streams often bear two key features: they have strong political biases, and they lack proper journalistic credentials. Naturally, these trends are quite concerning to those who value truth and proper journalism – as they should be.
Edmund Burke first coined the Fourth Estate, a title which stands for the idea that journalism itself acts as a fourth branch of the government. When news outlets put out hard-hitting stories that make political figures accountable for their actions, their influence in governmental and legislative affairs is very real and carries substantial weight. Journalism has also always been the primary way for people at large to absorb important information going on in their world. For centuries, these values have been at the essence of journalists’ mission around the world.
The ultimate question being asked now is whether the addition and proliferation of things like blogging and social media posts are enriching the journalistic landscape or, as many analysts and members of the general public fear, muddying the waters so much that some people don’t feel like they can trust any information at all anymore.
News in a New Century
This idea that the news has become less reliable now that it’s spread out amongst so many obscure online outlets is one that has its merits. A number of studies have been conducted with findings that suggest a move away from fact-, context-, and event-based reporting since the year 2000. More and more in the modern era of reporting, stories have taken a turn to the flashy and eye-grabbing, and this makes sense when you think about the nature of the internet itself. There’s always so much information being thrown at you at any given point in time, making it impossible for a story to gain any traction if it doesn’t have some kind of a hook; and more and more, these hooks have to pull out all the stops.
The only problem is sometimes these flashy headlines and buzzwordy articles come at the expense of factual news reporting.
One notable feature about online news reporting is the shift away from the true root of social and political issues and focusing, rather, on key people and events. This technique of grabbing readers’ attention with polarizing topics such as political parties, sustainability, and gun reform, can often have the unwanted side-effect of distorting a person’s perception of what’s truly going on with the issues being discussed.
TV and the News
Absorbing the day’s news and updates on longer-spanning stories via the television has been a daily ritual for some people’s entire lives. While this habit has waned in general due to computers, smartphones, and other internet-connected devices, there are still plenty of people who love to watch and listen to the talking heads. On both a local and national level, televised news programs don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
However, this doesn’t mean that the 6 o’clock news isn’t without its journalistic faults as well. Similar to print outlets, reporting on news channels has steadily seen a shift to more subjective, conversational, and often argumentative styles of programming. Rather than producing stories that highlight key issues that cut to the core values of society as a whole, more and more televised media sources are choosing to report largely on opinions rather than facts.
While there are many who believe that there is no harm in people getting their opinions out there, and might even go so far as to say that it’s conducive to good politics and an informed public, time and time again this type of reporting has been shown to mislead and misinform. This proliferation of misinformation has been a threat to democracy and has certainly damaged many countries’ political processes, possibly even permanently.
It’s clear that these changes in print and televised news sources are a direct result of online news and the measures it takes to capture readers’ fleeting attention.
Online journalists, who sometimes allow themselves to be called bloggers and other times adamantly don’t, have a general tendency to write their articles from a highly personal perspective. While this might hold a similar function as Gonzo journalists like Hunter Thompson, whose highly personal and experientially-focused writings reshaped the world of journalism forever. While it might be perfectly suitable for everyday household conversations like keeping up with pet hygiene, it’s not always the best thing for accurate and concise reporting of current events.
When a piece is written subjectively, a person’s biases might be easier to spot since the author is being candid about them. Perhaps ironically, this style can give readers a better opportunity to draw more objective conclusions from the piece. When a writer’s biases are suppressed, they might come out in subtler ways that the reader can fall prey to.
Whether or not these types of opinion pieces are more of a help than a hindrance to journalism is of course, in itself, a matter of opinion. There are, however, numerous studies that continue to show that less fact-based reporting leads to a more confused public.
The frightening truth is that with a public that has a clearer grasp of what’s going on in the world, in their country, and even in their state, territory, or region, democracies aren’t able to function the way that they’re supposed to. People need clear and accurate information that’s readily available to them in order to make the decision that’s right for them at the voting booth. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that fact-based report prevails.
Rob Hicks is a freelance journalist who writes in various outlets. He is currently living with his wife and two kids.