May 10th, 1883, New York City.
The owner of a successful St. Louis based news paper completes the purchase of a small failing morning paper entitled the New York World. Within just a couple of weeks readership sky rockets. Not long after that it is one of the largest papers in the country. He accomplishes this feet through the use of sensationalism. Catchy headlines, huge pictures and injecting a healthy dose of drama into the stories. He brings in even more profit by selling advertising space along side the news. This is the birth of what came to be known as “yellow journalism“.
At the time, this was looked at as a good thing. The common man was reading the news and keeping up on current events because it was easier to understand and more interesting to read. People were more connected with the happenings of politics and other places. He re sparked an interest in the world around us which had begun to dwindle as people lost interest in the bland fact forward style of reporting used up until then.
This style of news quickly spread to other papers not just in New York but around the world. Deadlines moved up, fact checking became an after thought. The news became more about the story, the drama and political motivations than the actual facts. This has continued to snowball right up to our present day. The advent of TV brought with it the chance for flashy videos and reporters out in the field showing first hand accounts. The internet has fueled a still stronger demand for instantaneous information regardless of accuracy and even the best of reporters with the strongest integrity are being shoehorned into the demand for pushing political agendas, views and ultimately huge profits. Modern major news media has become nothing more than an outlet for those in power to accrue more wealth while expressing their political bias for further personal gain. Meanwhile on the other end of things are the smaller independent news media outlets pandering to ignorance and the perception of “hard hitting journalism” to gain attention and notoriety. It has become extremely difficult to find unbiased, fact checked and reliable news in a world where we have more ability than ever to produce exactly that.
Everyone has a bias. Good and ethical journalism (according to the Canadian Association of Journalists) requires reporters to recognize and put aside those biases to tell a fair and complete story. This includes both in reports and in their personal media. It is not the job of the media to sway political decisions. It is the job of the media to relay facts and information from politics and it is for the public to make up their own minds about what they want. The public has a very hard time doing that when they are being fed one side of the story. Half facts, out of context quotes or attacks aimed only at one political movement create incredibly one sided mindset among readers. A quick look at a media bias chart shows exactly how political the media has become. Some of the biggest news sources for people sit on either far end of that chart. We need to start pushing for more of those to be brought back into the middle so we can get fair and accurate stories.
Politics aren’t the only way news outlets show their biases. Major advertisers or friends of the publishers also get special treatment and spin to make their companies look good. Peter Vanderwicken says in a story for the Harvard Business Review that “Indeed, much of what appears in the newspapers as business news is nothing more than corporate propaganda.” and that “On some days, most of the stories were clearly identifiable as coming—some nearly word for word—from announcements by corporations or government agencies.” Of course we aren’t going to get a real full story if what we read is only what the companies tell us.
He continues to argue in that article that media has become sensationalized. That people see the ordinary and mundane around them every day so they look to the news for excitement and something different. News becomes almost a fantasy for us to live in. We’re being told that the world is so much more exciting than it actually is because all we’re getting to see or hear is the crazier stuff and not the every day stories which are probably more relatable and have much more of a direct impact on our lives. It’s as if we’re reading an adventure novel and living vicariously through the news.
With the need to capture the consumer’s imagination on the rise, media outlets seem to be caring less and less about accuracy and fact checking. The Daily Source cites multiple studies showing how often both the public and media themselves find error in reporting. They mention stories being rushed to print before all the information is out, outdated or misinformed stories not being corrected (which going back to the CAJ ethics of journalism should always be done) and sometimes straight up lies being published. But nothing is being done about it. Even when someone has to issue multiple appologies, has been sued on a number of differen occastions for libel and has knowingly worked with a “far-right neo-facist” they can still somehow hold onto some credibility and have articles spread around the internet under the guise of real news.
This issue seems to be specifically problematic in the health and medicine section. While we really don’t have to look much further than some of the headline and articles circulating about SARS-COV-2, Talia Maze makes a very strong argument for it in her article for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. In this piece she examines the media hype which occurred when Viagara made its way to Canada. She looks at both the problems of the media ignoring other medical stories and also the lack of proper communication and understanding in the stories. She points out that most of the stories didn’t cover the negative side effects, unsafe conditions in which to take the drug, or they exaggerated possible positive side effects (these claims usually being based on very small studies or notes from studies on completely different subjects). Again, people are being fed only the most fantastic bits of the information while the more boring and mundane ones are probably the most important for them to know. Talia says that this is caused by a combination of media companies demanding earlier deadlines, exciting stories and reporters not having the knowledge themselves to properly understand the scientific stories.
While these three issues should be easy to address, nothing is being done about them. Media does not care about accuracy. It would be easy to read a little bit about nutrition and publish a report that “superfoods” are bullshit. But we rarely see those stories because the buzz makes people excited, makes them feel like they’re living a better life and it sells them products which fuels advertising, revenue for the publishers. They feed the public misinformation to further their own views and to sell sensation all in the name of profits.
This has all created an extremely profitable, and thus extremely competitive industry. It’s not only the big media companies fighting for recognition and readership, but also the individual reporters. Each one want their big break, to be a recognized household name and in pursuit of that they leave behind ethical journalism in favour of the pushy harassing journalism many of us have come to associate with “good” reporting. Ever see ads for the news saying something along the line of “We ask the hard questions!”? Here’s a hard one…how hard is it to ask a question? It is their job. We all ask the same questions of each other every day, they just have the opportunity to ask the people who have the answers. Reporters and news outlets want to be this image of Lois Lane chasing down a story and being met with opposition at every turn, danger and threats all to uncover a huge story of corruption which flips the world on its head. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
See the news isn’t just creating a sensational world to sell to us, they’re casting themselves as the main characters. Reporters love being filmed chasing down politicians or business leaders asking the same question over and over while being pushed away by security. But what does this accomplish? By all means, ask questions, look for answers. But when has anyone after going through this stopped and said “You know what, just because you asked 17 times here’s all the answers I said I wasn’t going to give you.”? The chasing down and harassing for answers is nothing more than bullying to creating a media circus. A cry for attention which gets viewers to focus more on whatever their being told than how true it actually is. This drives the “rebel” image of reporters. They won’t be held back by red tape or the law! They’re fighting the big government to uncover the conspiracies. They’re doing it all for YOU!
But they aren’t. They’re doing it for them. They’re doing it for clicks, for comments and for sales. They’re doing it to feel like they’re a big deal in a hyper competitive world which has more interest in the bottom line than actually doing its duty to society. This isn’t to say that every single news source is corrupt, and it isn’t say that even the biased ones don’t have some truth to their reporting. But overall…news was once factual, succinct an honest. That ins’t the case anymore and it needs to change. Reporters have to adhere to their standard of ethics. Editors have find a balance between making enough money and running a good reliable paper. The consumers have to start thinking critically and questioning what they’re told, finding multiple different sources to get a better understanding of the whole story.
It’s ironic to me that the biggest and most prestigious honour in reporting. The single word that evokes integrity, honesty, reliability and overall good journalism is named after the same guy who turned a failing news paper into an empire built on pandering and entertainment, Joseph Pulitzer.