Much of the media is going through tough financial times. The danger here, particularly when it comes to hard news and investigative reporting, is if real news continues to lose ground to sensationalism and entertainment. Taking the lead ofsensationalistic blogs and reality TV, the mainstream media seems to be responding with a “give the audience what they want” approach. That might be well and good as a way to generate revenue, but news and true journalism has never been about giving people what they want. Its primary objective was and is to educate, and inform. Once we start replacing investigative journalism with celebrity scandals and reality TV train wrecks, we are in a very real sense giving away thekeys to an informed public and a strong democracy.
The knee jerk reaction is understandable, because these are tough times for the media. According to The State of theNews Media (http://www.stateofthemedia.org), in 2009, newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall 26% duringthe year, which brings the total loss over the last three years to 41%. Local television ad revenue fell 24% in the same time frame. Radio dropped 18%. And ad pages dropped 19%, network TV 7% (and news alone probably more). Online ad revenue over all fell about 5%, and revenue to news sites most likely also fared much worse. Only cable news among thecommercial news sectors did not suffer declining revenue last year.
Panicking media outlets are changing the rules of the game. Of course it’s important to entertain. It’s essential. But offering entertainment 24/7 will result in a numbed and uninformed public. Americans don’t want to be uninformed, but they don’t know what they don’t know. Unless there is true quality journalism that is bringing stories of corruption and malfeasance to light, they will never know these stories exist.
We are replacing news with controversy and entertainment. Learning that a sports star had a number of affairs is not news its sensationalism. More outlets is not the answer if it only results in more of the same. According to the Pew Research Center (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1523/state-of–the-news-media-2010), their analysis of more than a million blogs and social media sites, finds that 80% of the links are to U.S. legacy media. The only old media sector with growing audience numbers is cable, a place where the lion’s share of resources is spent on opinionated hosts.
There are some encouraging and exciting things happening in the online media world, from former journalists creating specialty news sites and community sites, to citizen journalists covering neighborhoods, local blogs and social media. In 2009, Twitter and other social media showed how they could disseminate information, as well as how they could mobilize people to act and react. The collective power of these sites was able to evade the censors in Iran and communicate from Haiti after the devastating earthquake.
Still, that is no substitute for the traditional work of the mainstream media. Media’s challenge now is to make a profit and deliver news. But, it is not media’s challenge alone. It is ours. If, due to economic constraints the media fails to uncover stories of corruption both in government and the private sector, we become the biggest losers.
Copyright © Anthony Mora 2010