Context in news has been missing for a long time. For instance, crime news, a staple of local news, almost never includes a discussion of the larger socioeconomic factors. Disconcertingly, even these abysmal standards are slipping.
A big part of the problem is that mass media (television) lends itself very well to dramatic imagery and sound effects. A visual medium hustling for advertiser dollars is not likely to be good at focusing on the dull numerical facts. Perhaps it’s not just dullness of facts that prevents media from showing context but also a deliberate strategy to “frame” news in a way that doesn’t put any pressure on the citizen to act to demand action from government or local authorities. The subtext of crime stories is that all crime is due to bad people and who can prevent the evil within; bad people only listen to authority. Television’s coverage of news not only changed how news was covered there but also had a critical impact on how news was covered in print. For example, the print cycles hastened for magazines from a month to a week, newspaper story lengths dropped etc.
Clearly diminishing context is not the only ailment that mass media brought to the coverage of news. Improvements in technology have not only brought us perennial coverage of news, albeit sometimes the same news, but also ‘live’ coverage of news. These, in turn, have contributed to the diminishing marginal value of news (more on this in next column), and a renewed impetus for newspapers and journalists to get their first rather than get it right. Given that the heaviest coverage of a news story in mass media happens when journalists have the least clear idea about the ‘truth’ (which generally emerges through careful research and interviews with key players over the longer time), the dissemination patterns are catastrophically skewed towards presenting bad quality information quickly.
The theories which my above anecdotal argument dovetails are akin to ‘medium is the message’ and that the ‘popular medium influences coverage in other forms of media’. To fully understand a medium’s impact one must account for the fact that medium not only affects presentation but also stipulates the resources needed (in broadcast medium â€“ a lot), distribution structure (to lots of people), organizational structures within news organizations, self-selection of reporters, managers, and editors (camera hungry bimbos or hard-nosed journalists or teenage bloggers), content of the message (what is covered and not covered, how it is covered), the economic landscape of other media organizations etc.
Given the possibility of significant multifaceted effects, it is useful to chart out how our day’s new media â€“ the Internet â€“ will change news media.
There are three main characteristics of ‘new media’ â€“ most popular ‘new media’ assets are controlled by ‘old media’ organizations, for example prime media assets like NYTimes.com or BBC.com are controlled by old bigwigs, the ‘new media’ departments are generally run by younger people or/and people with comparatively less experience in professional journalism, and ad-based rather than subscription-based monetization, which is same as the economic model for mass media.
The new media effects
There has been a ‘virtual’ explosion of sites (includes blogs) devoted to politics and news over the past decade prompted by the lowering of the threshold for publishing. Aside from the small positive effect stemming from the factual criticism by bloggers that have made the media companies more cautious of what they write and how they write, the impact of the glut of politics and news sites has been largely negative. Rapid rise in number of people publishing has led to increased competition, resulting in hustle for revenue, market share, and imperatives for controlling costs, and perceived increase in diversity of stories resulting in perceived sense of lower responsibility for writing a balanced context-rich story given that other ‘angles’ will be covered by someone else.
Increasingly competitive market and proliferation and popularity of nearly free user-generated content have resulted in companies less willing to support quality investigative journalism that is resource intensive. News organizations have also resorted increasingly to third-rate punditry which is much cheaper to produce. These trends were already present in the competitive cable news market but have merely been magnified by the emergence of these new sites.
Responsibility in the era of information glut
On the content side, journalists and news organizations increasingly feel that they don’t have to write a well-rounded piece because they are covering only a speck of the spectrum. Reporting tends to be ever more context-free, and ever more fragmented. The misguided idea behind this trend is that given the informational options that a viewer or reader has, s/he can build a comprehensive idea of the entire story by reading multiple stories from multiple sources. Of course, media and readership don’t work like this and certainly not in the US.
The second worrying trend is that the role of editor as a guide to what is important has been sacrificed to the role of the public at large and strategic groups at large. The proliferation of top ten lists in newspapers and other link referral and aggregation sites like Digg have helped drive visibility of few articles, generally fluff â€“ a cursory glance at these lists should be enough to prove this contention- beyond their importance.
The most insidious part of the rise of mass media is that it has somehow validated infinite subjectivity as a valid model for covering news. The dominant opinion that pervades in the ‘new media’ is that it is a normative good to allow everybody to participate and that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. What we have gotten is a proliferation of absolutely bunk analysis and increasingly readers are getting subsumed in this with little or no idea of what is going on anymore. We read and see more yet we know less. Partly it’s because we see more of the same thing, and partly because reading ten stories about a topic doesn’t tell us exactly how to weigh each of those things and construct a bigger picture.
There are a few solutions that I would like to propose for the kind of problems that we are seeing. Firstly, new media must develop clear standards for ethical discourse that highlights objective information instead of inane opinionating. Secondly, new media firms should start investigating how to bring the editor back as a guide to the common reader. Thirdly, we need investigative journalists and foreign bureaus with a larger understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. We need them to provide context to the small stories media covers endlessly, which I would argue the media can stop doing. Lastly as my friend Chaste mentioned in his column â€“ get journalists trained in statistics. Don’t let journalists mindlessly adorn their stories around with pretty but inaccurate numbers.