It is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions and nobody is in need of reform more than the executives who run the big media news outlets. 2019 was a dismal year for news industry performance. The hyper news agenda featured sensationalism devoid of depth and context, and a harmful blending of information and partisan opinion.
Unsurprisingly, the news-consuming public has generally lost confidence in the journalism industry. Journalists are supposed to serve as surrogates of the citizenry, serving the information needs of a democracy. Instead, the news industry is now viewed as more interested in riding ideological high horses than serving its mission.
Unless the executives who run the news industry from their corporate towers commit to introspection and renewed focus on the public interest, the industry will suffer from more layoffs, more pressure on the financial model of journalism, and continued cratering of public trust.
The news media stumbled through a series of high profile blunders during 2019, beginning last January with frenzied and misdirected coverage of the Covington Catholic high school students in Washington. The news industry was then snookered by Jussie Smollett, giving the Smollett story way too much time and space, and failing to scrutinize a situation that had “dubious” written all over it.
The media hyperventilated over the Mueller investigation for the first several months of 2019, trying to anticipate what Mueller would find, even though there were basically no facts on which to base such speculation. When the Mueller report at long last surfaced, without the bombshell affirmation of Trump-Russia collusion, the media lost interest and stepped away.
The New York Times changed a headline about President Trump encouraging unity in the face of racism after the Times got blowback from the on-line social media mob. The New York Times also generously described Iran-backed militants who attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq as “mourners.” Then there was ABC airing video of a Kentucky gun range as part of its reporting of Turkish battles with the Kurds in Syria.
News coverage of the impeachment process has allowed opportunistic politicians to grandstand in front of cameras, but has provided little nuance and fewer facts. Coverage of the Democrat presidential candidates has focused more on campaign mechanics, polling, and empty television debates than on anything having to do with policy.
These kinds of journalism industry failures expose a newsroom culture in which the old professional standards of objectivity, accuracy, depth and balance are now minimized in favor of pushing agendas, superficiality, shrillness and the never-ending pursuit of clicks and ratings. The irony is that this reprioritizing has chased audiences away. According to Gallup, public trust in the media has dropped 14 percent in the last 20 years. Rasmussen Reports research indicates that almost two thirds of American are “angry” at the media.
Of course, much good journalism is still getting done in America, but the high profile failings stick in the public mindset. The journalistic blunders are unnecessary, avoidable, and worst of all, caused by a newsroom culture distracted by careless, dogmatic crusaderism.
Twentieth century sociopolitical observer, G.K. Chesterton, described journalists as “conjurers.” He went on to say that journalism is cursed in that journalists “think themselves cleverer than the people for whom we write, whereas, in fact, they are generally even stupider.” This, he said, leads journalists to talk down to the public it is supposed to be serving.
The public doesn’t need to be manipulated or lectured to by journalists. It is time the news industry worked for the public instead of trying to push public sentiment.
The nation needs journalism of substance to provide the common information base essential to a functionally interdependent society. There are many reasons for the partisan and cultural divides now faced in America, but media performance is surely a contributing factor.
The year 2020 will provide many challenges for America, with the upcoming general election, divisive cultural issues and dangers abroad. The news industry should consider how it can help inform a nation as it navigates through these challenges, rather than to serve as a hindrance to understanding.