When US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer recently, the headline race was on once again. Instead of pausing for a moment to honor a great personality for her leadership and stamina in the quest for justice, most of the news media didn’t miss a beat. Who would President Donald Trump nominate as her successor, and how would that reshape American society? Reporting instantly took second place to speculation and opinion, drowning out the announcement of the 87-year-old’s death in a sea of noise.
The predominant frame for interpreting today’s world is winning and losing, and the media has bought right into it. Being faster, smarter, delivering yet another interpretation, speculation and judgement – a certain breathlessness has always been inherent in journalism. But in pre-digital times, news media only competed against each other. The difference now is that they are up against everything an average smartphone holds. The battle for attention shapes their very existence. And readers are responding by leaving in droves. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, one in three people now regularly avoids the news. A rising share of audiences find journalism too overwhelming, too negative, too opinionated with too little relevance for their daily lives. And they believe it can’t always be trusted.
This is bad news – for democracy. In a world of noise, propaganda and misinformation, leadership by independent media that provide the facts is needed more than ever. Studies show that voting turnout is higher, more people run for office and public money is spent more responsibly where local news media keep citizens informed and hold institutions to account. But business models are broken. Platform monopolies have gobbled up advertising money and optimize for attention; too often the media has followed suit.
Now there is no way that media companies can outsmart Google, Facebook and the like. News media have to go where their audiences are. But when opinion is everywhere, quality information becomes a critically important currency. Covid-19 has demonstrated that people crave trustworthy journalism. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in the first weeks of the pandemic more people relied on major news organizations than on government agencies or even their own friends and family for information. This is a huge responsibility, but what to do with it?
First of all, listening to audiences is vital. Many journalists still spend more energy on beating the competition than attempting to find out what their audiences need. Among these are more explanation, more solutions, a clear distinction between facts and opinion, less noise, clickbait and talking down to people. Instead of indulging in thumbs-up, thumbs-down journalism, more constructive reporting is needed.
The news media cannot go it alone, though. The political sphere needs to secure press freedom; supporting the economic viability of the industry is part of it. And the platform companies that shape today’s communication infrastructure have to take responsibility too. Their algorithms have to optimize for quality content.
Yet blaming Silicon Valley for everything that is going wrong has been the easy way out for too long. A recent study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society confirmed what other research has already pointed out: the mass media are much more responsible for spreading misinformation – for the most part thought up by political leaders – than social media is. This is bad news and good news at the same time. Bad news, because journalism has not lived up to its potential. Good news, because the media still has plenty of agenda-setting power. Instead of blaming platform companies or foreign meddling for spreading “fake news”, the news media and its leaders should confidently reassert their historic mission to lead through a world of information confusion: that is, to deliver the facts, be transparent about their quest and stimulate serious public conversation. The health of our societies depends on it.