Episode 7 The
problem
with
The Media

Cable news seems to believe it’s the protector of freedom and democracy — but what they are airing is often more speculation and entertainment than actual news. It’s a very broken system driven by ratings, which is a real problem since we need it to keep our democracy in good health.

So how do we change the way we cover news to make it more about quality journalism and less about EXCLUSIVE BREAKING NEWS TUNE IN NOW OR YOU’LL BE SORRY?

The media makes for an easy scapegoat for people all across the political spectrum, but the truth is that the media still matters — and it’s essential to maintaining our freedoms. (Remember? ) Good journalism can hold people in power accountable, tell important stories, and connect us all in ways that keep our society informed and functioning. So the big question, then, is why is it so hard for the media to give us news we can actually use?

What we talk about when we talk about the media

Right vs. Left

Before we go any further, let’s be clear what we mean when we say the media. We’re talking about traditional news outlets, aka the “mainstream media.” Or as some have come to call it, the LIBERAL MEDIA. Sure, ok. But the most important thing to note is that we are not talking here about the right-wing media propaganda machine. They’re aiming for an entirely different thing, and by the way they’re fucking killing it. (And our democracy along with it, but hey at least it keeps our grandparents company all day. And night.) 

Fox News and the ring-wing outlets like OAN and Newsmax that have come on its coattails are, of course, their own massive problem that's slowly chewing the fabric of our society to shreds. But, as Jon laid out on the episode, it took them just days to take Critical Race Theory from something one guy said to something President Trump prioritized at the White House. So… they really don’t need any advice from us on how to do a better job.

Expectations vs. Reality

Let’s go back to the regular old media, who like to think of themselves as warriors for truth and justice. And, yes, it’s nice to think that journalists are superheroes who can save us from this dystopian hellscape. But is our current media really providing the kind of light we'd need to save our country from falling into total darkness? That's the real heart of the issue: the distance between what the media aspires to be and what they actually do.

We’re gonna focus here specifically on broadcast news, because even though its ratings are down, it still drives much of the media narrative and has an outsized influence. The case of the Mueller report-a-palooza, which Jon laid out in the episode, is just one example. When a story runs out of facts to fuel it, 24-hour cable turns to speculation and sensationalism — or, news cum, if you will (and we don't blame you if you won't) — to keep people hooked.

This isn't to say there aren't a lot of good journalists out there doing tremendous work. But when news ceases to become about the hard work of reporting the facts and shifts into being entertainment, well, RIP democracy.

Meet our panelists

The death knell is if your numbers go down. That’s why we only get one story at a time. Producers know that that will work and that will rate so we’re gonna stick with the thing that people are expecting and that they know.

Chris Stirewalt

Too Much Noise

So why is broadcast news so fixated on keeping people hooked to a constant drip, drip, drip of “breaking news”? Ratings! Ratings translate very directly into money for networks — A LOT OF MONEY — so there’s a reason why they obsess.

As our panelist Soledad O'Brien explained, news shows get minute-by-minute ratings reports. They can see which stories they were covering when viewership drops, and if they lose viewers they won't keep covering it — and they’re also less likely to report on something similar down the line. It’s hard to overstate the impact of ratings data on what gets covered.

The Problem with Data

Even at a very high level, using viewer interest to guide your journalistic compass isn't a great way to decide what to gets on the air — after all, the truth can be pretty freaking mundane sometimes. But if you dig a bit deeper, you find a much bigger problem: Ratings data is flawed.

Nielsen, the company that has long handled the majority of traditional broadcast ratings, hasn't been able to keep pace effectively with the ways people consume media. As Sean McLaughlin explained on the panel, “You have people consuming content all the time on all kinds of different devices and platforms, and it just hasn’t kept up. So now you take that data. You start splicing it down to minute-by-minute. You take bad data, make it smaller, and you’ve got nothing.”

The Social Media Cycle

Ratings aren’t the only thing informing the producers and other decision makers about what’s working or not. As Chris said on the panel, "The truth is social media provides a morphine drip for these producers to keep them like 'Ok, we're in the zone. This is what the people want.'" He concluded, "It has permeated the thinking in very profound ways, and it's made us dumber." Fair enough — we shouldn’t let offhand social media reactions be what validates our news coverage. 

Social media noise also works in the opposite direction, though, luring more mainstream news outlets into covering misinformation and disinformation that’s picking up steam online. (Shoutout to Critical Race Theory yet again!) 

Fixing Our Broken System

Alright, it seems we’ve got ourselves a broadcast media system that’s resting on a haphazard pile of unreliable data and internet noise! Perhaps this is why public trust in the media as an institution is in, to put it politely, the toilet? It is also probably not a coincidence that cable news ratings are declining. 

Regardless of the quality of the system’s foundation, it is still a system that has an interest in maintaining the status quo. Soledad explained the mindset:

“I'm in the system, and this is how the system is, and if I would like to get paid — continue to be paid the money that I'm making, which is seriously good money — do I really want to fight the system?”

When we talk about trying to make this whole system better, the common media refrain/defense of “If the audience would watch better journalism, we’d show it.” Well, it turns out that Americans really do want better quality news

At some point, we gotta reset.

How exactly do we do that?

What are our options, then, if we want to rebuild a broadcast system built on quality journalism, not on ratings? The short answer is that, as a business model, it’s a challenge. Bob Iger, the former CEO and Chairman of Disney who oversaw ABC News, explained why during his interview with Jon: 

“I don't think you can create a subscription news service that would generate the kind of revenue you'd need to cover news right. And advertising is typically reliant on consumption. So you'd have to really be betting that you could drive huge amounts of consumption.”

Iger isn’t even sure that kind of news organization would make a meaningful dent in our current media landscape. But as long as we’ve got a system, it seems worth trying to make it serve its audience better.

There’s no single way to achieve this. It’ll look different for different networks and platforms. If you want to go deeper into what we can do, head on over to our Take Action page. But there are some fundamentals of responsibility we can all push for. 

No lying

As Soledad so nicely put it, “Don’t put liars on television.” This, of course, should be a principle for print and digital media too. Deciding who to platform and give oxygen to is something the media clearly struggled to navigate the Trump administration, which turned out to be full of lying liars. 

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

Everyone involved in making the news needs to be empowered to present substantive, quality news. It shouldn’t be padded with hours worth of opinion on the same story, and it shouldn’t be designed to entertain people so much that they just can’t click the “off” button on the remote. It might make “good” TV, but we don’t need a bunch of people screaming at each other all day to survive as a society. In the words of Chris, “News should be news. Entertainment should be entertainment.” 

VIEWERS NEED TO REWARD WHAT THEY VALUE

For people outside of broadcast news, the number one way to push for what you’d like to see is to pay for media that you think is good — if you consume it regularly and there’s a way to pay for it, do it. You can also support the work of a lot of individual reporters who have been pushing for changes like this for many years, and there are groups who are advocating for reforms as well. Here are a few to get you started: 

Columbia Journalism Review

Media Matters

Funny Shit