I just finished watching a BBC Storyville documentary “Deadline: The New York Times” which has my head filled with an issue that has been a huge concern of mine for a while. The doco follows key members of the NY Times over the last few years during which there has been a massive change within the business profile of traditional print media. The rise of the internet combined with the financial crisis has lead to a sharp dip in advertising and sales revenue. It has caused a number of US newspapers to go under and those that remain are operating in a restricted manner. What does this mean for transparency and accountability in our societies?
This is a complex question.
I personally have never bought more than a few newspapers in my life and get most of my news through the internet versions of newspapers and various blog sites. Besides the fact I find the whole idea of chopping down trees, processing into paper, printing, distributing and then paying for a giant wad of paper that I will spend say 30 mins flicking through to read on balance a handful of articles, perhaps 1% of the actual paper before casually disposing of it (hopefully recycled) completely ludicrous and deeply unsustainable, I personally don’t find too much relevant with what the mainstream media reports. For me there are a few inherent flaws with the way in which the news is reported that means the idea of buying a paper rarely enters my mind.
Firstly, it is a slave to the 24 hour news cycle. This in some ways has made the media into a wing of the entertainment industry. People get bored with the same old news and are wanting fresh stories, the more scandalous the better. This has led to three things, the dumbing down of the stories reported, recklessness with the truth and the overuse of the word crisis. Everything is a crisis these days, so much so I think that the word has almost lost meaning and has made it harder to sort out what the real problems are in the world at the moment. The other problem with the 24 hour cycle is the constant pressure of deadlines, to pump out material regardless of it’s journalistic quality. We often assume that because something is in print that it is correct and has been validated, just as we assume most of the products we buy from the store are completely safe for human consumption/use. But the reality is much farther from this than we would care to admit. My last job was in a government water utility and we tracked all mentions of us in the media. The amount of times the articles mis-reported an issue or simply got some facts wrong was quite astonishing. It made me wonder just what percentage of the newspaper articles were correct and what the impacts of this mis-information had on public opinion.
This leads me to my main issue of contention. Editorial direction. Being an Australian most of our papers are owned by one Mr. Rupert Murdoch and the same can be almost said for many of the US and UK papers. Now what control management has on editorial direction and content I can not say, but there clearly is varying levels of bias. Now I am not naive enough not to expect any bias, but the big papers, such as the NY Times have a duty to maintain journalistic and editorial integrity to accurately reflect the most important issues going on in the world today. In this I think they have failed. I believe that climate change and the broader issues of sustainability is THE most important issue in the world today. It underpins the economic crisis, our political systems, our societal values and ultimately the direction of where humanity is heading. I have my own bias but the actual impacts a changing climate will have on us all means it is the biggest issue facing us all by about a dozen country miles. But this is not the impression you would get from sampling a bunch of broadsheets today.
But the design of traditional newspaper media process means that it is almost inevitable that it will fail in reporting such a complex issue. The complexity of the world and science has magnified exponentially over the years making it increasingly more difficult for a reporter or a reader to wrap ones head around the issues. Take me for example. I left my job as an energy efficiency engineer a little over a year ago. In the process of trying to figure out how I could help with the climate situation on meaningful scale I ended up latching onto the subject of peak oil. I have spent a fair chunk of the past year researching the topic, reading numerous reports hundreds of pages in length. Before all of this I thought I was reasonably knowledgable on the subject but now I realise just how little I knew and also how much mis-information is out there on this topic. It’s up there in terms of importance with the financial/debt crisis stuff rampant in the media today but I would guess it wouldn’t get 1% of the coverage. But how many reporters would actually have the time to read all of these various reports properly? How many have the background knowledge built up over many years to understand it all? Then how would one actually be able to present the complexity of the topic so that the average reader would really get it or would want to read it in the first place? We can see by the quality and quantity of the general media on the topic of climate science that it is a little beyond most journalistic entities. As I have been struggling with all of this for almost a year now I am not surprised.
But what of the alternatives? Blogging and the internet is better at serving my specific interests but they too have far more bias than the average newspaper. It’s just usually a bias that I prefer. But what does this mean for the general knowledge of the people and society? Will peoples views be more fractured and society less able to find common ground? Also, what does this mean to the foundation of investigative reporting? A blog site can hardly pay to have a reporter on the ground in Baghdad or be bothered to cover the more mundane aspects of politics and governmental accountability. This costs money and as I am painfully aware, there is very little financial incentive to choosing to be blog reporter for a living.
There is no question that the role mainstream media has performed in the past is critical to a healthy society/democracy. But in so many ways it is becoming redundant and a new model needs to emerge. The future of where we will view this media is no doubt on the internet, but how to fund and maintain the required foundation of journalists, in both terms of numbers and variety of fields, remains an unanswered question. As much of the internet is stealing or at least basing themselves of the the journalistic foundation that the NY Times and other such news sources provides, can these existing private models continue to exist? And what will be the consequences if they disappear?
One obvious solution is through tax payer funded institutions such as the BBC and the Australian ABC but this will hardly deliver the variety of opinion needed. As the internet has now become this virtually free domain we can all play in, maybe the role of government to support the workability of this platform needs to increase. The industry is struggling to find a financial model that will work, but they are having to compete with sites and organisations that are able to externalise many of the costs. In the meantime I can only hope we can honour the original source of our news and if asked, be prepared to pay a little for the service they provide.