Unfit to Print?: The Media Is Losing Its Focus in an Increasingly Digital Society

IBy Peter Camporeale ’18

In this digital age, online news outlets have become prolific sources of information. As web-based media increasingly becomes the norm, streams of online articles are constantly published to keep the modern audience engaged. The American Press Institute notes that the rise of digital media has caused a generational shift in which 18- to 34-year-olds subscribe to online news at a higher percentage than any other demographic. As a result, media outlets are now gearing their news coverage towards the fast-paced modern consumer who demands minute-by-minute updates of even the smallest details – and this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

As the value of the print media industry has decreased by an average of approximately $1 billion annually since 2011, the revenue from digital advertisements through news websites has increased by an average of 20% per year to a recorded value of $59.6 billion in 2015 (as indicated by an extensive Pew Research Center study). Traditional ad revenue, on the other hand, now sits just under $30 billion.

As communications have become almost instantaneous, control of the news has been taken from the hands of journalists and big-time media corporations, as there is a much larger degree of public participation in media coverage than ever before. In fact, research by the University of Southern California notes that “[fewer] people are actually watching the broadcast journalism firsthand; instead, they are hearing about it through social media.” In other words, during this digital age, a trend towards reliance on second-hand information has developed.

The past year or so has been witness to a storm of “fake news” circulating online. For example, a story about Pope Francis’ supposed endorsement of Donald Trump for the presidency spread like wildfire on social media, garnering nearly one million Facebook views. And it certainly got people talking – even at school. Many people accepted the report as accurate, at least to some extent, without ever checking other sources about the pope’s remarks. Pope Francis later explained that as the Bishop of Rome, he is to stay impartial regarding political elections. The website “WTOE 5” had originally published the story about the false endorsement, which was nothing more than a fantasy. According to a Buzzfeed News report, WTOE 5 – although it has been shut down following this and a few other inaccurate reports – was just one of at least 43 sites in a network responsible for 750 recent articles containing substantial inaccuracies.

Similarly, in an article published by The Political Insider (a name that could make a website or publication sound like it’s trustworthy), Hillary Clinton was accused of selling arms to ISIS in Libya, and controversy exploded on social media as a result. However, the original story explained that the State Department under Clinton had sold arms to Libyan rebels during the 2011 insurrection which took place in the country. (By nature of the political instability of Libya, the same weapons managed to make their way into the hands of members of the Islamic State.) For whatever reason – be it a desire for more page views, flat-out carelessness, or political motives – an inaccurate story was spread far too wide.

While the duty of a journalist has historically been to report important stories as accurately as possible, the modern journalist now has the added obligation to ensure that a story remains factual during its circulation. It is amazing how easily we can communicate these days, but verity should not be disregarded to facilitate quick dissemination of stories. At the same time, readers shouldn’t assume what they are reading is correct unless that have good reason to be making such an assumption. This is not to say that passivity has been the media’s only problem in recent years. Even those who do not rely on this second-hand news are nevertheless at the whim of various media biases from various outlets.

The most popular stories of a given day are often showcased in a “Trending” section on news sites, and these stories tend to quickly gain traction. Such articles, however, are promoted based on their page views, not necessarily their merit. Thanks to online advertising, clicks are directly proportional to revenue – the aim of every viable company. While the most popular stories, by definition, draw the most traffic and money, how an online news outlet decides to cultivate this popularity can cause some questions to arise.

Many members of the media strayed from ethical principles and capitalized on the sudden boom in ratings leading up to the most recent presidential election, continually harping on relatively trivial matters like some of President Trump’s impromptu comments or Hillary Clinton’s faux pas of labeling his supporters as “deplorables.” Reporters blowing things out of proportion isn’t anything new in and of itself. However, in many cases, social media posts were made within a couple of hours (and sometimes even minutes) of these occurrences. Intense debates were initiated all over social media, yet people barely had the time to seriously reflect on what had happened. Journalists are certainly free to support a political party or candidate privately, but in the quest for revenue, the border between criticism and pure sensationalism is becoming increasingly blurred.

Without a trained eye and research savvy, uncovering inaccuracies or fabrications can be an elusive task for many people. The problem is that digital news develops at such a fast pace that it often lacks balance; the sheer volume of online posts satisfies the basic human condition of relating volume to verity. However, we shouldn’t be so quick to accept any story we read, even if it is enticing or well-written. It’s healthy for us to question what we read in search of the truth; we shouldn’t settle for ignorance, even if it is often most convenient. Sometimes, the whole story might not even lie within just one report, so why shouldn’t we, as informed readers, keep searching until we have the full picture?

The rise of digital media has brought with it an immense amount of potential – but with it comes far greater responsibility on the part of both the journalists and the public. The time has come for both parties to start living up to it.