Fair and balanced?

Who can we trust, the business of news, and 5 links worth your time 

Can we all agree our disagreement is out of control?

Last week, I read a 2018 study in which more than 15% of respondents (from both political parties) agreed that they had, on occasion, thought, “We’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.”

Most people didn’t say that, but I still can’t believe any people said it.

Who should we blame for that disagreement?

In another poll released by Gallup earlier this month, 84% of Americans said that media bears “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” of the blame for our political polarization. Most of us (according to the same poll) believe the news media is vital to maintaining democracy, but most of us also think there is political bias in the coverage we see.

We’re in a lot of trouble if all that is true, because apparently news media is powerful enough to make some of us think that the country would be better off if those who disagree with us were dead and news media is biased.

In our latest episode of the Civil Squared Podcast, I spoke with Marshall Kosloff, director of outreach and media for the Lincoln Network. Marshall has studied the history of news distribution and the business models that support it, and I learned a lot from him.

The “golden age” that never was

Are you worried that we’ve left a “golden age” of news behind as we use the internet and social media to get information? There was a time, you might say, when we could trust what we read, saw, or heard, but those days are gone because Facebook (or talk radio or FOX or MSNBC) has made it impossible to trust the information we consume.

If that’s what you think, my conversation with Marshall may surprise you. The idea of objectivity in journalism, for instance, is relatively new and was, in large part, a reaction to the sensationalism of newspaper reporting in the early twentieth century.

All news, Marshall reminded me, is subsidized by someone. Early newspapers were associated with political parties and privately owned. For many years, advertisers played the most significant role in newspaper finances (even more so than subscribers), but the internet—with its almost unlimited advertising space—actually changed that. Today, the most sustainable business model for many news sources is subscription.

The business of the news

As a news provider, whether you’re trying to ensure you don’t lose advertisers by publishing sensational content that offends your readers or you’re trying to grow your subscriber base, it’s hard to be entirely objective. Human nature also makes that hard.

Is your “trusted source” of news a nonprofit? If not, your favorite online news source, paper or magazine, channel, or site needs to turn a profit to continue providing you news. It’s worth considering how your own preferences and biases affect the kind of news your favorite sources provide you and the way they present it. It might be comforting to think that someone else is responsible for the level of dislike we have for those with whom we disagree, but considering the business model of news distribution, that’s probably not (with apologies to the late, great anchorman Walter Cronkite) “the way it is.”

5 links worth your time

  1. News Media Viewed as Biased but Crucial to Democracy, Gallup –  New polling results show that most Americans believe “news media is ‘critical’ to democracy,” and a majority also believe there is a “great deal” or “fair amount” of political bias in coverage. 84% of respondents believe the media “bears ‘a great deal’ or ‘a moderate amount’ of blame for political division in this country.”

  2. Media Bias Ratings, AllSides – Supported by a mix of subscriber revenue and nonprofit funding, the mission of AllSides is to “Strengthen our democratic republic by freeing people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world—and each other.” Their “Media Bias Chart” rates outlets based on multi-partisan, scientific analysis. To date, they have rated over 800 sources, and their ratings methods are explained in detail.

  3. How objectivity in journalism became a matter of opinion, The Economist – Despite what many of us believe, “Objectivity hasn’t always been a journalistic ideal.” As Marshall Kosloff mentions in our podcast, “clickbait” had an early twentieth-century predecessor in yellow journalism.

  4. How Can the Press Best Serve a Democratic Society?, The New Yorker – Michael Luo recounts the activities of the Hutchins Commission, a group of academics who met in the early and mid-1940s to consider the challenge of “establishing and maintaining a free and responsible press.” Luo suggests that the committee’s deliberations and conclusions are still vitally relevant to us today.

  5. The Constitution Doesn’t Work Without Local News, The Atlantic – Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post, reminds us that the Founders “understood just how important local news would be to the success of their ambitious American experiment.” She worries that the loss of local-news outlets because of the changing media landscape presents a significant challenge to that vision.

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