State of the News Media

21 Feb

I traded some messages on Twitter last week with someone who was lamenting that there isn’t as much investigative journalism as there was in the past, and also that editorial standards had fallen.  Similarly, this echoes comments you hear often from people about how there aren’t any “unbiased” news sources that people trust anymore.  I couldn’t disagree with these criticisms more.  

For one, there’s more media, choice, and reporting than ever before.  It might not look like the media of +15 years ago, but it’s there and in huge quantities.  Pre-internet, you were relegated to a handful of media outlets.  Generally speaking, there were (any I’m missing?):

  • National newspapers like the NY Times and WSJ
  • Regional/local newspapers
  • Magazines like Time, National Geographic, Life, etc.
  • The major news networks – CBS, ABC, NBC
  • CNN as of the late 1980s
  • Radio news and personalities

When people lament the decay in supposed bias-free news, I think they’re really focusing on the newspapers of old and the traditional nightly news broadcast.  Newspapers and TV news anchors like Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, and Peter Jennings were supposed to give you a summary of important events and supposedly do so in a biased way.  There are two problems with telling it this way.  

For one, there’s always a bias in the news.  There’s no such thing as an “unbiased” telling of an event.  By definition, a newspaper editor or TV producer’s job is to be biased since there are hundreds of events they could cover but can only choose to cover a few.  By choosing to place event X on the front page and event Y on page 20, the newspaper is exhibiting bias.  

Second, the newspaper and the nightly news broadcast are incredibly limited formats.  There are only a handful of events that a 30 minute news program (probably closer to 23 minutes of actual broadcasting) can cover, or even a large newspaper like the NY Times.  

The beauty of the internet is that it has allowed for an explosion of niche content and gives a distribution outlet for proper coverage of that content.  Anyone can write on just about any topic, and they do.  The better economics of online journalism means that it’s much easier to sustain a professional media business focused on a small niche than it is offline.  You have more access today to high quality coverage of all sorts of events, people, and regions that you had zero visibility into before.  Think of coverage of the technology industry or sports as an example.  This is a good thing.  

One byproduct of the explosion in content is that perhaps average editorial standards have fallen versus the standard of old.  In this new world, not everyone has the rigor of a New York Times editorial board.  But that’s OK, I’m willing to take that trade off if it means more access to news and opinion.  And, generally, if you’re smart about using your own filter and not being a 100% passive consumer of information, then I don’t think this is too much of an issue.  

Another aspect of this new world is that there is much more opinion journalism and strong points of view than in the past.  The best bloggers today – Nate Silver, Andrew Sullivan, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Ezra Klein, etc. – all have strong points of view.  That’s the point.  Their job is to have an opinion and to argue their case in favor of that opinion.  I’m no fan of Fox News, but I’d say the same thing about a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.  If you’re watching their programming in the same way you used to read say that Washington Post (“this is my daily source of ‘unbiased’ news”), then you don’t get it.  

A final and crucial point I’d make is that the internet provides a mechanism for fact-checking the media that never existed before.  Pre-Google, you had no way to actually check whether what a media source was telling you was true or not.  And you had no way to quickly educate yourself on issues.  Right now there’s a debate going on over whether a recent CBO report means that Obamacare is costing jobs or not.  Pre-internet, you’d have to accept the analysis of whatever news source you used at face value.  Today, you can go read the actual report online, you can read competing analyses of it, and you can form your own opinion.  In fact, today there is better coverage of and watchdogging of the media than ever before.  

To call our current news media environment “biased” or to pine for the days of old is to be lazy and is to paint the past with too rosy a brush.  


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