How the mission of media has evolved, making media outlets less trusted.
Recording stories and sharing information dates back to the beginning of humankind, with ancient cave paintings, maps and carvings. Yet, today the speed of information travels immensely faster with new technologies and a demand for instant gratification. From the printing press to telegrams to TikTok, the innovations enabling information sharing have evolved rapidly.
Mass communication, or exchanging information on a large scale, is not a new concept, but in today’s world, absolutely anyone can produce and consume content. This now means that not all mass media is trustworthy.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
News anchors: from “most trusted man in America” to evening entertainment
In the 1960s, Walter Cronkite, the anchorman of the CBS Evening News, was surveyed as the ‘most trusted man in America’. With his famous saying “and that’s the way it is”, he was known for his mission to provide unbiased, factual news that he felt people just needed to know. At that time, news media was viewed as a public service.
But in 2022 a dismally low proportion of people, just 26%, say they trust the mainstream media. In addition, media outlets have become more divisive in their storytelling than ever. So, how does mass media go from being one of the most trusted forms of information to a divisive, biased, and untrusted platform?
The answer lies in following the money.
In Cronkite’s day, networks made their money from entertainment platforms and news programming often incurred a loss. At that time, showing the evening news in an unbiased manner was a requirement for television stations to be able to show other profit-making programs. But that all changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s as network executives started to see dollar signs around news programs. In the 1980s, America’s wealth reached a peak and the climb for dollars accelerated.
The turning point was an incident in 1979 which opened network executives’ eyes to the earning potential of the evening news. On November 4, 1979, some students and militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran and captured 52 Americans. The Iran hostage crisis was broadcast on ABC News which saw Americans glued to their screens every evening. For the first time, the news was drawing in more eyeballs and interest than entertainment programming. ABC News made the show permanent, renaming it Nightline, and other networks soon followed suit with shows of their own. Nightline continues to this day, but the stories it covers have evolved. Nowadays, they cover everything from regular nighttime news to the lives of celebrities.
Advertising buys in
The next big change in news media evolution was the growing dependency on advertising. With more viewership, the evening news programs became attractive advertising platforms. Slowly but surely, these advertisers set a new normal of buying not only their space but also agenda-setting stories.
Advertiser agenda-setting has been going on in media for decades. With media dependent on advertising budgets, the advertisers over time placed pressure on editors to avoid stories that would conflict with their interests. For instance, in the early 1970s when The Daily Iowan started to share anti-Vietnam war content, sponsors withdrew funding leading to internal pressure to change the tone.
In 1992, 90% of editors at daily newspapers had experienced economic pressure from advertisers around agenda-setting, and over one-third of them had given in. This trend continued with 30% of journalists admitting to softening or avoiding stories that could negatively affect advertisers in 2000, and a 2021 study found most editors experience significant pressure from advertisers on what goes on in the newsroom.
This problem is not going away anytime soon. In 2022, nearly 70% of domestic news revenue comes from advertising. There are even several recent cases of advertisers stepping in to control news stories on topics like COVID-19, fossil fuels, and marijuana.
The threat of advertisers withdrawing their support has led media outlets into struggle more than ever before. So, unfortunately, following advertiser directions is necessary for them to survive. In many cases it is a requirement for them to keep their jobs.
Changing regulations allows for more media bias
Besides money, another big change occurred in the 1980s that allowed broadcasters to become more divisive: the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine. A 1949 decree from the FCC that required broadcasters to present balanced and opposing views on an issue, the Fairness Doctrine prevented media bias. However, within just 40 years, the FCC overturned the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, clearing the way for partisan and polarized stories that were better for business than for public service.
But, even if we had the Fairness Doctrine in place today, it was only designed for broadcast media so applying it to social media or other mediums would be another challenge, if not requiring totally new regulation.
Technological innovation and information overload
Humans have always relied on communication, but the form of that communication has changed drastically over time. Newspapers have been around for centuries, dating back to ancient Rome. However, the advent of the printing press in 1440 further expanded newspapers’ reach.
In the last two hundred years we’ve seen more technology developed to advance mass communications than we have in the last two thousand. The telegraph, which arguably shortened the length of human communications more than any invention prior, was invented in 1774 by George Louis Lesage.
Furthermore, digital innovations would transform mass communications permanently. Personal computers were invented in 1970, soon followed by the development of email in 1972. The internet was considered official soon after in 1983.
The rise of social media in the mid-2000s gave us Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. Nowadays, anyone can post anything online. Technology is involved in every aspect of our lives, from smart home speakers to our cars to our telephones, we are constantly surrounded by it. Media consumers have adapted to immediate gratification, and they expect news stories almost instantly.
While this is not inherently bad — it’s truly fantastic that we have access to more information at our fingertips than ever before — it makes it much more difficult to sort through the news and to know if sources can be trusted. Plus, studies show that most people overestimate their information literacy, or the ability to find and evaluate information and sources. This means they may be trusting media sources when they shouldn’t be.
However, the solution isn’t to remove technology from the media; it is already too intertwined. The solution is to use technology to enable more transparency in mass media and give unique insights to media consumers.
So, what now?
The media is supposed to arm us with information to make decisions about the world around us. But, even media can be bought, and regulation does not currently require that media present unbiased facts. Promoting diversity and unbiased coverage is not censorship. It’s how the news should be.
That leaves consumers of media in a Catch-22. On one hand, you need to know what’s going on in the world. On the other hand, consuming biased content will not get you the full picture. Plus, the constant bombardment of information is difficult to sort through.
That’s where The Daily Edit comes in. The Daily Edit is a platform powered by machine learning that compares world news to expose bias and misinformation. Only The Daily Edit app can empower users with confidence that every story they read, hear, or watch is the full story, levelling the playing field against forces of misinformation and disinformation. The Daily Edit is a technological solution to a socio-technical problem, exposing media through transparency scores that give consumers real time media insight.
Featured image by the Austrian National Library