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It’s Time To Fix The Media, And Make It Work For Us Again

We know what the problem is.

We even know most of the reasons why.

But when it comes to fixing the current state of chaos in the world of news, and misinformation? Well, that’s when things get fuzzy.

For several years I taught a number of different journalism courses at two different community colleges in my region. Again and again I would emphasize to my students the danger of using the internet as a primary source of information. Again and again, they would look at me with a uniform facial expression that said only one thing: ” This guy is a dinosaur, who doesn’t know how to use a computer.”

They couldn’t understand why the first thing that Google spit back to them, wasn’t considered to be sacrosanct, “A”-worthy, source material, by their hard-assed instructor.

Thanks to Donald Trump, Macedonian teenagers, and Russian hackers, the reasons are now uncomfortably clear.

The election of the most controversial president in American history spurred much angst not only south of the border, but around the globe.

Millions of Americans asked themselves, ” How could we have done this?”.

The simple, instant answer was of course, blame the internet.

It’s NOT the Internet

It seems that we suddenly discovered that a host of new, “fake news” websites were launched during the run up to the Presidential election, in a bid to influence the end result. These sites were created, and fed, by a plethora of sources with interests ranging from standard political mud-slinging, to serious money-making via internet advertising, and click-bait headlines.

It seems no surprise to me, that  Macedonian teenagers were the ones who embraced the spirit of good-old American enterprise, to cash in on the election by pumping out literally thousands of fake news items ranging from, claims that Hillary was going to jail, to confirmation that Obama was indeed born in Kenya. There was even one concerning the discovery and leaked release of a Bill Clinton sex tape. Not one of those items, was based in fact.

Fact was not the issue, however, money was. And luring American Facebook users into clicking spurious links, was a sure bet. All that was necessary was a pro-Trump, or anti-Hillary slant, and a sensational headline. The clicks, poured in. And so did the cash, from Google AdSense.

And then, there were the Russians.

That issue, still in debate, seems far more sinister and frightening than a bunch of Slavic party-boys, looking for easy money.

In any case, whether it’s Putin, the CIA, or WikiLeaks driving the Russian hacking narrative, the result is the same: more lies masquerading as truth, in cyberspace.

And yet, for all the sound and fury, it is very doubtful that the results of the 2016 election were conclusively altered, by the sway of “fake news”. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Jessi Hempel.

“This type of digitally disseminated disinformation is a problem, but according to a January study from Stanford University and New York University, it wasn’t the dominant source of news in the run-up to the election. Moreover, the study notes that just 14 percent of Americans called social media their “most important” source of information in the run-up to the election.” — Jessi Hempel: Head of Editorial: Backchannel.com

It has been argued that “fake” news is not the problem; fallible readers are. That too many people can’t tell the difference between “credible” news sources, and phony fodder. Modern consumers ( a euphemism for those under 30 ) read too little, choose quickness,s over depth and detail, and are prone to confirmation bias.

Age, I believe, has nothing to do with it.

Information overload, and a natural resistance to bad news, are more likely responsible.

How Journalists Killed Journalism. ( almost )

In any given day we are inundated by a flow of information that washes a week’s worth of news past us in mere few hours, or sometimes minutes. Only a generation ago, the steady ‘drip, drip, drip’ of information landed on the doorstep at 6am, or cast a ghostly light across the TV table, at 6pm. In between those two hours, we might receive additional details, or updates on the day’s biggest stories via the radio. Those reports, usually lasting far less than a minute, did little more than reiterate what we’d read in the morning paper, or set us up for the pictures we’d see that evening. And, there were far fewer sources to choose from than is the case today.

Mobile news apps, social media, podcasts, 24-hour news channels, digital newsletters and magazines,  and yes, even the comparatively small number of newspapers that still exist, flood us with a constant stream of buzz and bafflegab. In addition, and more importantly, the essential nature of the material contained therein, has drastically changed. And that is the problem with modern news.

Where once a small number of sources produced content geared toward what we needed to know about our cities, our nation, and the world — a large number of sources now fiercely compete to find content that will pull in the maximum number of eyeballs, whether that content has a significant impact on our lives, or not.

Need, and want, are two very different things, and by sacrificing deliberation of the former, and pandering to fulfilment of the latter, we’ve done serious damage to the function of our society.

News was once seen as a public service. A vital necessity for the maintenance and advancement of democracy, and a thoughtful society.

A well-informed populace was better equipped to make realistic, and wise decisions, regarding its own conduct and development.

That may seem simplistic and self-evident, but apparently we’ve forgotten the obvious.

Why?

Well, a large part of the blame, I am sorry to say, must be placed on those entrusted to guard the integrity of the process in the first place: journalists themselves.

Not so much the ink-stained, spotlight-blinded, hoarse-throated wretches who toil at typewriters, flatten their feet at live locations, or rattle a microphone through six sessions on morning drive — but rather, their financial masters.

Once upon a time, there was a clear fire-wall that separated the editorial pursuits of the newsroom, from the economic avarice of the sales department, and the flinty-eyed numeration of beans, in accounting. It was recognized that the acquisition and dissemination of essential information, was a responsible means of public service, that should not be swayed by anything but the pursuit of a greater truth.

Print journalism has always recognized this fundamental principle, and so the economic structure that supported print, was always predicated on this basis. For decades, this was a successful model, until suddenly it wasn’t. Digital media has very nearly destroyed print journalism, as new generations prefer mobile applications updating in real time, to cumbersome, turn-the-page publications that often contain items that have been dated and outstripped by unfolding developments.

As the eyeballs turned away from print newspapers and magazines, so did advertisers.

For broadcast media, the task of maintaining the wall between news and sales has always been a fundamental challenge. Since the inception of broadcast news, there has always been tension on this front. The first television newscasts were sponsored by huge corporate entities such as tobacco companies. But because the real money in television and radio was made in programming, rather than news, for the most part, the divide was maintained.

There was another factor as well. Once upon a time, in most radio markets, the station with the number one ratings for news, was also normally the station with the highest ratings and largest audience overall. In other words, news was already paying for itself, in many cases. The same was largely true in local television.

As cable, satellite, and internet broadcasting expanded competition, and shrank revenues; while digital music formats and technologies threatened to destroy radio completely, those traditional revenue patterns were rendered obsolete.

And so it was perhaps not all that surprising that one day, some genius decided that news-gathering was expensive, and, because it was expensive it should either pay for itself, or be abandoned. Since the public was already accustomed to receiving a regular diet of broadcast news, and would have ( at the time ) objected to losing its conduit to such information, the only choice left was to make the news a truly commercial enterprise designed to generate maximum revenue. At that point, editorial considerations, no longer mattered.

This new emphasis on monetization soon led to a situation where newsrooms no longer prioritized which information was the most significant, or important, but rather took direction from the sales department concerning what “news” could be sold most easily. And with that, the age of “infotainment” was born. Soon afterwards, newsrooms began to shrink, and disappear.

News, real news, began to lose its significance.

Science is boring. Math is boring. Political institutions and systems are boring.

But ignoring them means that we fall prey to fallacies such as; vaccinations cause autism, higher minimum wages kill jobs, democratic reform is impossible, and voter suppression is a myth.

When the internet came along, an already weakened and wobbly estate was shredded by increased fragmentation, and the proliferation of digital sources that had no background, training, or even interest, in the practice of traditional Journalism.

Sources didn’t matter. Attribution didn’t matter. Confirmation didn’t matter. Hell, even the facts didn’t matter.

What mattered was the ability to grab the attention of as many people as possible as quickly as possible. You didn’t even necessarily have to hold their attention, as long as they hung around long enough to be counted by some means of digital technology.

The careful cultivation of trust, care, and mutual respect once required to build, and sustain a large, and loyal following, was now virtually insignificant to the overall operation of the medium.

When news outlets lost respect for their audience; the audience quickly returned the favour. And that, more than anything, killed the credibility of traditional media.

Which brings us to the current era of “fake news”.

So, what do we do about it?

” A Modest Proposal.”

Well, I have a few thoughts, and some of them may be surprising.

First, we need to establish new standards in Journalism that are universal, and widely recognized. Serious news organizations need a clear way to separate themselves from the world of click-bait dreck. So, I am proposing that those who wish to practice Journalism ( as opposed to simply blogging, podcasting, or cranking out e-zines ) should be required to obtain a licence to do so.

I can already hear the startled cries of rage from my former colleagues, and current news-gathering practitioners, who will no doubt chafe under the weight of any  infringement upon their cherished independence and freedom.

And rightly, they should.

But the world has changed and we, as journalists, must adapt, to protect, and sustain “the craft”. There needs to be a clear separation between those who are willing to adhere to high professional standards and long-curated practices, and those who just want to shout shit on the internet.

That is not to say that digital media should be excluded from this process. On the contrary, more than any other type of news medium, purveyors of on-line information need to be a part of this process.

Who then, would licence and regulate these professional Journalists?

I am not a fan of self-regulation. Self-regulation is self-serving, and feckless. That said, there would have to be at least a significant component of industry involvement and oversight, to fight for and protect the turf that the free and independent press has so staunchly defended over the last century.

Licensing is one thing. Restriction and control, is a completely different animal.

So, perhaps some combination of industry veterans, academics from Journalism programs, and citizen participants might do as candidates for membership on a new, industry regulatory board.  ( Representation from the legal community might not be a bad idea, either. )

This governing body would establish required standards, impose penalties for violations, and mediate complaints involving individuals or organizations covered by the regulatory provisions.

In exchange for regulatory restriction, the industry should demand, and receive the following, from government:

  • Legislation that establishes without doubt, that the operation of a free and independent media is a guaranteed right of the people of Canada. ( the current mention in the Canadian Bill of Rights is too broad, and vague, to be legally sound.)
  • The implementation of a  clearly defined and rock-solid “shield law” for anonymous sources. Not even a court should be allowed to compel a licensed journalist, or news organization to reveal the names of whistle-blowers, witnesses or individuals who provide verifiable information affecting matters of substantial public interest.
  • An official commitment to maintain the current laws concerning defamation, and resist attempts to curtail or restrict the functions of a free press by intimidation, or litigation.
  • And finally, changes to current “Freedom of Information” laws, that would impose significant penalties on government departments, ministries, or other bodies currently bound by F.O.I. regulations; for failing to release or provide information to the media within the timelines already established by current legislation.

At the moment, the common bureaucratic tactic used to suppress or deny information, is to delay its mandated release for as long as possible, in the hope that the news cycle will move beyond the information specified in a typical F.O.I. request. They can do so with impunity, as there is no penalty for failing to produce the information within the timelines required.

They stonewall, in other words.

Another tactic, is to use the massive redaction of relevant information from a document, to such a degree that the object of the F.O.I request virtually incomprehensible, and useless.

The default position of government regulation, and response, should be that all government information, is public information that can be released immediately. The only exceptions made to this rule should be for classified defence and security information, proprietary trade information, and the individual health records of Canadian citizens. A judicial panel should be established to determine whether disputed records and information in these cases should be withheld, or released.

There should also be changes made to the Broadcasting Act.

First, fully fund the CBC, and remove the necessity for them to compete commercially with private television networks. Require the Corp to expand news and information services, with particular emphasis on local news delivery in areas of the country which are currently underserved.

Impose regulations which would require all holders of television broadcast licences to provide a minimum of 20 hours per week, of commercial free news and information programming, locally focussed and produced in every individual municipality in which the licence-holder operates, or maintains a transmission facility or repeater signal.

In other words, private networks like Global and CTV would have to maintain individual local news programs in cities like Barrie, London, Windsor, Kitchener, Red Deer, Sydney, Yorkton, Fredericton, Sherbrooke, and Saint John; rather than use regional or network broadcasts that pay little or no attention to significant local stories in those smaller communities.

Should the private networks wish to opt-out of a local news commitment, their share of funding for that location would be turned over to the CBC, to extend or enhance news coverage in those areas.

Yes, that would cost a fortune. And so, we would have to pay for it with a fund established by the federal government, but administered by the CRTC. Canadians currently pay one of the lowest per-capita costs for public broadcasting in the G-20. The U.K pays three times as much. Switzerland, five times as much. Norway, nearly six times as much. The new Broadcast News Production Fund would be monetized by tax levies on citizens, businesses, industries, and perhaps even municipalities from which the local news programs originate. All of us should pay. Because in the long run, all of us would benefit.

A similar “stabilization fund” should also be established for traditional print media.

They have done the heavy lifting.

Newspapers have continued to provide in-depth coverage, investigative journalism, and a hyper-local focus, in the face of a devastating assault on readership, and revenue. In many ways, they alone, have kept the traditional standards of professional journalism alive and intact.

They deserve not only our support, but our sincere thanks.

This seems like a lot. I know. But we need to keep our eyes on the prize.

To establish, stabilize and maintain a strong system of local Canadian newsrooms, operating under professional standards, and free from the influence of monetary requirements; would be worth the cost in tax dollars, and effort, for the clear purpose of serving the public interest, encouraging media literacy, and promoting a more robust democracy.

And there is nothing fake, or phony, about that.

 

scoturquhart@outlook.com

I'm a veteran broadcast journalist, producer, writer, and talk show gadabout. I like to play bad hockey, drink good beer, take sporadic rides on my bicycle and generally annoy my family with Dad jokes and selective memory. ( Lois the dog, excepted. )

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