Last month I published my promised primer on media literacy. While I was writing it, I realized asking the right questions while you’re reading a news article helps only just so much, if you don’t know (really know) how the news industry works. A free and independent press was enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution because it’s THAT important. It is a counterbalance to political power, and can be a valuable source of accountability to contain and expose corruption.
It’s not perfect. Nothing involving humans can be. And partisanship and slanted reporting aren’t new- newspapers during the Revolutionary War were famously, fabulously biased, full of propaganda and bickering. “Yellow journalism”, a phrase coined in the 1890s during a battle for supremacy and market share between publishing titans William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, described the sensationalism and self-promotion that propelled our country into the Spanish-American War. In a lot of ways, both press and government have actually calmed down over time. (We haven’t had any senators try to beat each other to death on the Capitol floor in good 150 years now, after all.)
In this Part II, I’ll give you an overview of news and media: what it is, how it works, why it matters.
<a href="People photo created by wirestock – www.freepik.com” target=”_blank”> <a href="People photo created by wirestock – www.freepik.com” target=”_blank”> *photo via FreePik*
WHAT DOES ‘MEDIA’ MEAN?
A medium is anything that carries or transmits something else. News media is any means of mass communication, in print (newspapers), broadcast (TV and radio) or a website that carries an electronic version of news.
“Mass media” just means that lots and lots of people can access it. Pretty much all media is mass media anymore, with the exception of small, targeted blogs, like mine.
“Mainstream media” is a pervasive term used usually as a pejorative– a bad thing. Sometimes it’s abbreviated ‘MSM’. In real life, all it means is large, well-known, usually well-funded major news sources with big distributions. The major video networks- NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the like are mainstream media. So are the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other large papers.
The word mainstream implies the existence of alternate sources. Alternate sources exist everywhere now, thanks to the internet, and they often position themselves as “real” simply because they’re not the more-established outlets. This is an easy trap for a suspicious mind to fall into.
Whether a source is good or bad is solely a measure of its sourcing, thoroughness and journalistic ethics. Being big or small is a measure of circulation numbers and reach, not accuracy or bias.
Now, a few necessary definitions if you’re going to understand news coverage:
NEWS: news is specifically newly received, noteworthy information. In journalism, information that’s more than a few days old is not news. Sometimes the term ‘hard news’ is used to differentiate from other kinds of articles.
FOLLOW-UP : this is further information that adds depth or perspective to an earlier news story.
FEATURE: a feature story is ‘soft news’ or creative journalism, a topical, longer-form story related to a subject of interest in the news, or that the writer thinks should be better understood.
OPINION: what a writer thinks or feels about what happened in the news, sometimes called commentary.
ANALYSIS: offers extra information for context and understanding, often using research by or interview with outside experts.
Learn to discriminate between the types of coverage, or you may be misled. Opinion is not news. Ever.
BUT HOW DOES NEWS WORK?
This is an overview, so the answers will be broad.
In the United States, news is mostly a business.
There is a small percentage of public broadcast funding from public grants (the rest comes from private donations and business partnerships), and of course publications like Stars and Stripes and Voice of America are publicly funded. Government code includes a ‘firewall’ that prevents political interference in news coverage by those outlets.
All other news sites, papers and channels that sell advertising are commercial. So what does that mean to you, the reader?
It means that good reporting, like good law enforcement, costs. It’s expensive to do it right. Doing it right involves constant travel, research, subscriptions to research resources and services, phones, computers, cars, and contacts. Travel is expensive, but only so much depth can be acquired over the phone or secondhand.
If you want high quality reporting, investigation, editing and publishing, you’re going to have to pay and the way you pay comes in three varieties: subscriptions, advertising and information.
First, know that subscriptions do not cover any significant portion of the costs of reporting and publishing news. If they did, no one could afford them. What subscriptions do is provide a small, steady base of income and also proves a base of loyal readership for advertising sales. Paying for news access is more common internationally than in the US, but some small, local papers have been using the model to fund high-quality local news coverage.
Next, advertising sales is the most common source of steady income for news, whether it’s print advertising or the unending flow of television and web commercials. Businesses pay for space, time and eyeballs, ad execs get paid a commission, and the remainder of the fees pay for reporters, resources, travel, subscriptions to research services like LexisNexis , and costs for buildings, printing and more.
Lastly and most recently, information about you funds the production of news content. That’s what’s going on when you click on a news story, and get blocked by a survey before you can read it. Just click on the survey; it’s annoying, but it’s also cheaper than subscribing, and less intrusive than online advertising. Cookies collect your data without even asking first, after all.
A FREE MARKET GUARANTEES A FREE PRESS- RIGHT?
Eh…sort of. Well, no. The news industry in the US is relatively free from official, governmental interference because of the First Amendment. However, the pressures from commercial sources are many.
People have political and social opinions. People own businesses and spend money to promote their businesses in commercial advertising. Therefore, they can withhold advertising dollars when news coverage displeases them, or worse, their customers. Boycotts and broken contracts are the original expressions of cancel culture and censorship.
In theory it shouldn’t affect coverage. In reality, news stations and papers have bills to pay and losing big advertising accounts (or more palatably, “partners” or “sponsors”) exerts a LOT of financial pressure to tailor coverage to avoid offense. This can come in the form of minimal reporting without detail, skewing a story to avoid unflattering content, or ‘spiking’ a story– pulling it altogether and not covering the topic at all.
Because revenue from internet advertising is driven by traffic, more traffic (clicks) means more income. This creates a feedback loop that rewards sensational and controversial topics. Stories that provoke an immediate and powerful emotional response drive comments, argument, sharing– and money. Any rewarded behavior will be repeated; it’s human nature and a financial imperative.
Does this mean the news industry is evil? No, it means the news industry has bills to pay. Just like law enforcement, they must use the resources at hand to pay those bills.
For you, that means the local tax base, grants, and in some places, revenue from fines, fees and asset forfeiture. For news papers and stations, it means advertising, subscriptions and sometimes grants. The work product of both industries is unavoidably shaped by their economic realities. Ethics, integrity and education will vary in both, and there are good reporters who have destroyed their own careers by running with the right story, just like there are cops who have thrown away their pensions to make the right arrest.
Until someone comes up with a better idea, that’s the way it goes in our economic system.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
It means you have choices to make, and those choices influence the quality of the news everyone consumes.
1. Choose to read and share only well-sourced, well-written news. Learn to discriminate between opinion and news.
2. Support high quality sources and writers with sound ethics. Engage with their articles on social media, share them, subscribe if you can, grit your teeth and finish the surveys.
3. Understand that we, the readers, have influence over what ‘goes viral’. It’s easy to say “MSM will never report this!” but the fact is that, if you’re reading it anywhere, someone already reported it. THE STUFF THAT GOES VIRAL IS THE STUFF THAT GETS ATTENTION. So, search the topics that are important to you, read them, pass them along. Give those clicks to the topics that matter.
4. Don’t get derailed by name on the masthead. The best interactive series on the Dinkheller video I’ve ever read was produced by CNN.
5. Remember that civilizations are destroyed when judges, cops and reporters become fair targets for attack. We’ve watched it happen in Colombia, in Mexico, in Egypt, Afghanistan and Libya.
Understand how news happens, and how it gets reported. Understanding the limitations, pressures and responsibilities of the news industry makes it simpler both to take advantage of the resource and to have some say in how topics important to you are represented in public.