The Decline of Fact-Based News

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I’ve been a relentless critic of the mainstream media, which I believe is infected with a liberal bias and has done great damage to this country with its one-sided narratives. But at least the media’s ideological biases are tempered by a journalistic ethos that stresses the need for objectivity, checking “the other side” of the story, and ascertaining the facts. The media may be guilty of cherry picking the evidence, but rarely do reporters make stuff up from whole cloth.

The media’s ability to live up to its journalistic credo is increasingly in jeopardy. According to Elaine C. Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele with the Brookings Institution, total newsroom employment has declined from 43,000 nationally in 1978 (when I was embarking upon my journalistic career) to 32,900 by 2015 — a decline of 26% — even as society was becoming more complex. There still is serious journalism going on, but much of it resides behind paywalls accessible only to elite audiences that can afford the hefty subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the general public relies less upon traditional gumshoe-journalism outlets for their “news” and more upon digital content increasingly imbued with entertainment, such as Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show. Even those programs, as biased as they are, are at least tethered to reality by a reliance upon video and news clips generated by the mainstream media for source material.

What is especially concerning is the proliferation of unmediated content on email and social media. I can’t count the number of right-wing rants about Obama’s faked birth certificate or some other paranoid obsession that some gullible correspondent has forwarded to me. Distorted information and outrageous lies propagate on the left wing of the ideological spectrum as well.

Social media has accelerated the metabolism of rumor-mongering to a speed faster even than email, often with profoundly negative consequences. A recent comment by Spike Lee, who is promoting a new movie about the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, struck a chord. Gangsters respond to unfiltered, unmediated Instagram, Twitter and Facebook posts “not by typing something on their phones but by bang, bang, bang,” Lee told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

With email and social media, people create insular networks of like-minded people who rarely question one another’s biases and assumptions. There are no fact-checking intermediaries in social media. The nature of social, cultural, economic and political reality is so complex that anyone can put a plausible-sounding but profoundly wrong spin on just about any issue. Everyone believes what they want to believe, and society schisms into mutually uncomprehending factions.

I don’t see how it ends well.

— JAB

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14 responses to “The Decline of Fact-Based News

  1. I would argue that these days there is an avalanche of information – and the idea of journalistic (and other) …”gate-keepers” has radically changed.

    people are not only changing history – they are changing realities… to suit their personal beliefs even when those things are totally contradicted… if it suit their politics.. it becomes an article of faith… to “believe”.

    I would assert that many today – actually do not want facts. they purposely eschew data coming from one part of the govt – even as they are using data from another part of the govt! It’s totally loony!

  2. The arrival of the Internet cracked the MSM’s stranglehold on defining what is news. Couple that with the same institution’s desire to write for itself, rather than an audience that is more and more diverse in what it wants and believes and the descent began. The Internet also brought the public with access to news sources from around the nation and around the world.

    I get most of my news from sources on the Internet. Some traditional; others not. I read a variety of sources, including primary ones.

    At the same time, I worked with a number of journalists over the years. And there are still some that try to write an article that explores complex issues and gives a variety of view points. I like reporters.

    And then there is the Post’s editorial board. It would be easier to trust Joe Stalin’s propaganda office than the editorialists at the Post.

  3. one of the most important things to do with the internet is to VETT your source – AND to guard against it appealing to your own biases by purposely looking for other sources – credible sources that replicate the facts claimed.

    the idea of “believing” – “trusted sources” which turn out to be the opposite version of the MSM – that doesn’t do anything other than prove people will believe – what appeals to their own biases.

    no one should ever believe one reporter or one news source much less individuals and personalities…

    in the age of the internet – you have to do your own due diligence… if you are serious about gathering information upon which to formulate opinion, positions, and votes…

    Jim apparently believes that if the organization link has a ” .gov ” at the end – that they are no better than obvious industry lobby groups.

    and then he blogs it – as if it’s true… lordy

  4. I have a much different opinion than most about this topic. I’m not convinced it’s either fully technological or fully ideological.

    I think it’s much more about the hollowing out of the middle class and its values.

    I have an experiment…go around and see how many upper middle class and upper class folks you know who “don’t read the news.” I guarantee that either digitally or paper…they read WSJ, NYT, WaPo, FT, etc. Some may even subscribe to the local paper.

    But “news” is simply no longer a middle class interest. I am completely astonished at the amount of people under 40 that I meet on a weekly basis who literally know nothing about current events: local, state, or federal. They couldn’t tell you about ISIS. I doubt they could tell you who the Governor is…I’m sure that if they could, they couldn’t name the LG or AG. And I am damn sure that 90% of them could not name one member of their city council or BOS or even tell you how much they pay in local taxes every year. These aren’t illiterate or cognitively challenged people. These are teachers, small business owners, accountants, etc. who are bright. They simply couldn’t care less about a city council meeting or about a new neighborhood development (so long as it isn’t right next to them) or about a new company in town (so long as they’re not working for it). They just don’t care.

    Go “way back” in your time machine to the 1980s. I would have been hard pressed to meet middle class people who didn’t “take the paper” and at least kept up with the basics of current events. People back then wanted to know about programs in schools or a new business in town or a garbage fee under consideration. They’d want to know about a new road being built.

    I think this is much more about “values” and how somehow the middle class just quit caring about knowing the latest in current events. I don’t think it’s because the “news” isn’t there or it’s “biased”, I just don’t believe that younger people care about it.

    • I think I agree with you largely… but if you ask FOX and company – they’ll claim it’s the liberals who are clueless.. they even have a segment on O’Reilly where they go around asking the same questions you pose and get mostly wrong or dumb answers.

      and judging from elections where I spend time watching voters – a good many are panicky while standing in line – pouring over the “sample ballots” handed out.. they’re mostly wanting to know who is R and who is D!!!

      but yes – the average person has no clue how health care works… nor education or transportation, social security, – even their car and cell phone and TV/cable remote…

      but worse than that – they have no desire to learn – to understand – either unless it’s to figure out how to post pictures to social media and the like..

      not sure it’s just the middle class….

      they take PEW polls on major issues and it’s spread across the demographics..

      and yes – the whole idea of a “vibrant” – “Democracy” where folks pick their leaders has come into question – judging from the current crop of POTUS candidates…

    • “I am completely astonished at the amount of people under 40 that I meet on a weekly basis who literally know nothing about current events: local, state, or federal.” Cville, you are onto something.

      My own grown children will protest that they read the news on-line, but what they read is in silos of their own choosing, niche updates of narrow topics of interest, often techie stuff, not “world news” broadly intended to educate. My urging to read newspapers or at least watch a network or PBS news hour is greeted with a blank stare. Watching the Candidate Debates is at best amusing, not an opportunity to critique future leadership. As for local issues, they don’t even know where their voting precincts are located. My sense is, they are jaded consumers who assume that politics is all a product of special interests and money, and that their own views won’t influence any outcome. My sense is, they care, and even feel guilty for not participating more, but don’t feel their opinions matter.

      So what would get them to watch the national and local news on TV again? I suspect it would have to be its shock or entertainment value, not the news itself.

      Given that experience writ large, it’s not surprising the networks no longer want to pay for a large staff to prepare news broadcasts that no one watches and advertisers won’t pay for.

      • You wanna think about something really depressing:

        The Times Dispatch said turnout for this year’s elections was 26% statewide. I’d bet at least half of those voters were over 60.

        I honestly believe we’re heading right back for the days when a political scientist described Virginia as a “political antique piece” due to its extremely low voter turnout.

        Give it about 15 years and let a significant chunk of Boomers die off (and the last of the WW2 generation). I could foresee the “off off year” election in 2031 drawing 12 or 14 percent of the voting age population. We’ll really be back to the Byrd Machine days again.

        • How do you know someones’ politics are on the right or left? I don’t have TV or watch movies, etc. I don’t read a lot of news and don’t get newspapers. The only one I buy is this blog.

  5. well in terms of the Candidates for POTUS – on the major issues of our time like budget, immigration, health care, my metric is to look for their proposals to address these – and to this point – those proposals are not exactly much more than the continuing inability to address – realities and instead pandering of things totally not real but I digress…..

    on the other issue of the goal of an informed electorate – the Candidates for POTUS – KNOW just how ill informed the electorate IS – including the younger who are clueless and whose focus in largely on trendy techie AND who ASSUME things like infrastructure and services – especially those provided by govt – ARE givens.

    and yes…. last election 1000 folks out of 3000 registered at one precinct showed up to vote and that 3000 represents less than half of those who COULD register to vote – however a cynic might say – given the current level of knowledge of many – not voting is as much a benefit as not voting!

    for the networks – why pay for journalists when : A. – they are perceived to be biased liberals and B – you can get all the stuff tailored to your own views whether trendy techie or political philosophy from whatever “SILO” you care to drink from!

    the ability to drink from whatever SILO best appeals to you – has led to intellectual herding… mono-cultures.

    😉

    by the way – if there is such a dearth of “conservative” news and such a plethora of “liberal” – why don’t the conservatives generate more of what they want that they say is lacking? They seem to have done that with talk radio – right?

  6. Jim, I do think you are missing the many years that newspapers openly favored one political party or the other. Most towns of decent size had a Democratic paper and a Republican paper. My hometown of St. Paul had the Dispatch as the GOP paper and the Globe as the Democratic. Maybe we’ve gone back to the future.

  7. There are not a lot of thinking people out there. If they started listening to some decent news, they’d see the drivel they were fed. Govt. wants a stupid populace: same with corporations.

    • don’t blame the govt and don’t blame the media. The information is there for the folks who want it. Anyone who wants it spoon-fed is going to deserve what they get. That’s in fact the problem with the folks who prefer sound bite info. they’ll blame the govt, blame the media and suck down the most atrocious propaganda and disinformation.. and… believe it.

      • I’m not sure I agree with that. I couldnt get fact based anything out of Fox, CNN, MSN, etc. Even some of the independants can’t give both sides and provoke the reader to think of as many facets and avenues from different perspectives.

        Do you have any of them that do?

        Yes, blaming the govt. because the govt. can be a way to “fix” the problem. Media should be raising the bar on investigative type journalism, not pandering to the lowest common denominator.

  8. you know – the media is a private enterprise. – corporations if you will.

    I’m always amused when folks “blame” the media for not doing what they think the media should be doing or for doing what one does not like them doing.

    so we “blame’ the media, for instance, for “not reporting” or for “not doing good investigations” or for – oh GOD – “biased” reporting!

    and now of course – the big kahuna – there is MORE “liberal” media than “Conservative” media – even though there appears to be an almost insatiable demand for “non-liberal” news.

    you’d think such demand – in a free market – would lead to more supply – right?

    we should be overrun with Conservative media ….

    oh wait!!! on the internet and talk radio – we have a cornucopia of numbers and choices!

    on TV – FOX news braggs several times every night that they are the top cable programs – “15 years and counting”.

    Anyone who watches FOX News KNOWs that anyone and everyone who exists in the Conservative world is on FOX – almost in endless parade starting with “Special Report” , then “On the Record”, ”
    The O’Reilly Factor”, “The Kelly File” and “Hannity”.

    “Fair and Balanced” they say – over and over

    “We report, you decide” when they are not saying “Fair and Balanced”.

    truth be known – I watch FOX religiously – If one wants to know who the folks are in the Conservative world and their views of the world – there is no better place to learn.

    yes.. every so often – I switch to Rachel Maddow for some relief -…because there are some non-Conservative politicos who refuse to be on FOX ( and vice versa)….

    but the rest of the CLOWNs on MSN don’t really merit time … they just blather on and on about really left wing stuff…. and fawn over Obama and Clinton… disgusting….

    So I’m really puzzled about the endless whining coming from the right about the dearth of conservative media… it’s sort of like complaining that Apple or Amazon or WalMart have no real competitors…

    and FACT-based? sorry – you can’t have it all… be happy

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