OUR FAILING MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Our mainstream media are failing our democracy. In the last election, they provided almost no coverage of issues and policies, which should play a significant role in voters’ decisions. Even when issues or policies were mentioned, there was little fact checking or context provided, let alone analysis. Such in-depth reporting is critical to having an informed electorate, which is essential for a successful democracy.

Because the mainstream media are mostly huge, for-profit corporations, their focus is on the bottom line – on profits. Their revenue comes from advertising and is determined by how many people read or view their output. Revenue and readership / viewership are experiencing dramatic competition from on-line media. As the number of mainstream media users declines, the revenue per ad declines, so the ratio of ads to content goes up to retain as much revenue as possible. This detracts and distracts the viewer from the news that is presented.

To attract attention and eyeballs, the mainstream, corporate media have turned more and more to shocking, fear-mongering, or titillating stories at the expense of real news; in other words, to tabloid journalism. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” has become all too true of the mainstream media. Crime, terrorism, violence, and tragedy are typically the leading stories because a story that engenders outrage, anger, or fear is more likely to attract viewers.

During the election, shock value was more salient than facts, in-depth details, or analysis. Coverage was more focused on generating emotional reactions than informing. As CBS’s Chairman put it, the shock value of Trump’s statements “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

This focus on the sensational and lack of depth reflect not only the need to attract viewers, but also the slashing of newsrooms’ budgets. To cut costs and increase profits, our corporate, mainstream media now employ roughly 40% fewer news reporters today than they did 10 years ago; and further cuts are coming. [1]

The mainstream “news” is increasingly what is often referred to as infotainment – a cross between information and entertainment. This means less factual content and more emotional content. For political reporting, this has meant the more shocking, outrageous, and emotion-provoking the statement or story, the better. Information and factual content on issues and policies is pushed aside as too boring and too costly to report. The only facts that seem to be reported are from the horse race perspective – who’s ahead in the latest poll and who has raised more money. Ironically, we now get some of our best political analysis from our entertainers, comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Bill Maher.

The bottom line is that the business model of our corporate, mainstream media is not serving the best interests of our democracy. They are not providing citizens and voters with the information and analysis they need to participate meaningfully in our democracy.

A different business model is needed where news outlets are not huge corporations and are not dependent on advertising revenue. To deliver in-depth, fact-based reporting with context and analysis, not to mention investigative journalism, news outlets will require a significant portion of their revenue to come from public funding and / or readers’ / viewers’ donations. This will ensure that content is free of the coercive effects of advertising or other funders who have a vested, special interest in the news content.

For television and radio, we need our public broadcasting system (PBS). I encourage you to listen to or watch our public broadcasts and to support them financially. I urge you to be on the lookout for and to oppose efforts to cut PBS’s public funding or undermine its independence. It is essential to our democracy and over 40 other countries have highly respected public broadcasting systems, including the BBC in Great Britain and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Canada.

Finding reliable sources for print journalism (hardcopy and on-line) is not easy given all the junk and even fake news that are present on the Internet. For broad-based news coverage that includes coverage of issues of importance to our democracy, I recommend these five sources:

I hope you’ll go on-line and look at one of more of these. You may want to subscribe to their on-line news feeds or to their hardcopy publications (except for Common Dreams which is exclusively on-line). I guarantee you’ll be a better-informed citizen and voter if you do. If you don’t have time to follow one of these regularly, just keep following my blog. I’ll give you the highlights.

[1]      Bauerlein, M., 11/19/16, “How Trump played the media,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/11/trump-media-fail)

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