On the 11th day of March 1702, Elizabeth Mallet published the first edition of the daily Courant, the world’s first daily newspaper and from then on, news reporting has never been the same. The Courant was a single sheet with two columns, and adverts on the back. It carried digests of news from foreign papers, and Mallet herself (writing as a ‘him’), provided only facts, expecting the readers to make up their minds. Of course long before then, humankind has craved news of its communities, information and general knowledge. From the messengers of ancient Greece to the Roman forum, everyday news had been disseminated and traded for centuries.
With the Daily Courant though, the news moved from information discussed with one’s friends and neighbors into a daily affair. It allowed the knowledge of a single person in one part of the world to be shared with many people in various other regions. It created the ability to learn, teach and share on an enormous scale and is why we now can share on a much broader scale today. Information is power. If you really think about it, our successes or failures in life are pretty much determined by our ability to acquire information and transform them into our strengths.
Since then, the Fourth Estate has wielded enormous power and influence and with the birth of CNN in 1980 the 24-hour news cycle was born. News went from being something for the next day to virtually nonstop coverage. Over time, traditional news coverage became far more than a benign source of facts. From our attitudes to immigrants to the content of our dreams, it has become powerful enough to sneak into our subconscious and meddle with our lives in surprising ways. It can help us calculate certain risks better, shape our views of foreign countries, and possibly influence the health of entire economies. The role of journalism and news media cannot be over-emphasized. In a world of partisanship and selfish interests, the news media for a long time was rightly regarded as the neutral arbiter for politics and world affairs.
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The unspoken agreement and underlying premise of journalism, responsible journalism is that news is produced by professional journalists. These journalists are expected to fact-check thoroughly and remain neutral to ensure that they support the health of our democracy. For this reason, traditional media had more credibility and enjoyed the people’s trust. Fast forward to today and there are growing fears that the news media has failed in this sacred duty of neutrality. The ultimate culprit is partisanship or media bias, a phenomenon that unfortunately isn’t new. In the nineteenth century, most newspapers were explicitly linked to a particular political party and the economic interests of the publisher.
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In California during the Gold Rush, the San Francisco Alta California was the enemy of Democratic governor John Bigler, whose press champion was the Stockton Republican. Most of the coverage of crime during this period reflected those political interests and loyalties rather than mere facts. In the United States, until the 20th century, an ideologically neutral newspaper was all but unheard of and in 2012, the media’s reluctant coverage of the death of four Americans, including an ambassador, in Benghazi, Libya was yet another expression of the media’s political bias. In most countries across the world, newspapers and TV stations have often been controlled by a party or organizations with clear ideological leanings. Russian Pravda for instance was controlled all the way by the Party. and the CIA has been long accused of controlling what we think through the American media. This unsavory state of affairs has long existed, but these days, there seems to be a marked leap beyond the media’s traditional liberal preferences and biases to blatant double standards. Put differently, now things have changed and not for the better. What’s more, with the rise of the internet and social media, traditional news media has gone steadily downhill. Where traditional news media once called the shots and was the only source of information, they have suddenly become expendable.
A growing number of people have begun to view the news media as biased; 86% of Americans according to a 2020 poll, and this number is on a steady increase even as we all believe that an independent press is essential to a functional democracy. The media coverage of the Trump Administration and the latest Biden/Trump election has been shown to be overwhelmingly negative. So much so that in the post-Trump era, news viewership has plummeted with CNN losing millions of its viewers. The network has also taken heat for refusing to cover Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandal, yet another proof of its bias if we ever needed one.
The result is that we now rely more on social media news outlets for our information even if we believe they are not much better. To buttress this point, consider that this study by Pew Research Center shows that 68% of Americans get their news from social media. Although social media is infiltrating more and more of our daily lives, relying on it to get our news poses some serious risks. For one, most news we encounter on social media is a stark abbreviation of the whole story. This can lead us to read and believe information that is either highly skewed or downright false. The truth grows ever increasingly subjective and it becomes more challenging to adhere to these wise words of George Carlin, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
In my opinion, trust was the last unique asset of the traditional news media. When it comes to being entertaining they are not top of the list as there are streaming channels dedicated fully to entertainment. And when it comes to coverage, there are literally citizen journalists in every corner of the globe that tweet or blog about any news straight from the source. So, as trust continues a downhill slide, we are well on our way to witnessing the end of traditional news media – a thought that is disheartening for good reason.
Traditional news media, for all its faults, has a few upsides. The first is that it is heavily regulated and the second is that it operates in the public eye. No matter how extreme you find Tucker Carlson for instance, he says what he believes publicly and therefore you can criticize him publicly. With the death of traditional media, the beliefs do not die or change, the mode of delivery does. Platforms such as Substack will provide alternative media where the citizens can be reached directly. And with big tech, as Facebook has proven, the extreme always floats to the top.
In addition, traditional media have a widespread but targeted reach. These news outlets have spent years cultivating readers, listeners, and viewers, and they are masters at reaching target audience segments. I am a big believer in the democratization of news and information. Traditional media for long has served as gatekeepers against this and I do not celebrate its decline. I do not believe in censorship. I believe we should all have the right to air our views freely but I am an even bigger believer in the need to separate between news and views, facts and opinions. And for ages, the traditional news media has helped us do this.
When it comes to the news, I believe there is no substitute for a factual, balanced story. A change of perspective is also called for because instead of thinking about how social news media is the next best thing, it might be beneficial to think instead of how the two can work together to keep us more informed. The way forward here might be to rebuild our media infrastructure by re-integrating trust at the core. This re-integration is the most sustainable way out of this mess because if played right, social media news content can complement traditional media, not replace it.
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Cover image by The Creative Exchange.