Stop Blaming Just the Media: Why Audiences Contribute to Low-Quality News

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life’s event, Great Conversations: Our Shared Responsibility as Citizens of Democracy. The event asked participants to “reflect on our role in defining, living, and spreading civic values such as education and participation in a public arena that is too often marred by incivility, gridlock and distrust.”

Great Conversations had a straightforward goal in mind--facilitate great political conversations. Participants were sat at round tables, and they were expected to either have group conversations based on the table leader’s topics or questions posed by cards on the tables.

My table leader didn’t show up, so every person at my table picked a card with a question that most interested them, and we led discussions by taking turns asking our chosen questions.

At one point, Samantha Fuchs, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, expressed that she was concerned about money in politics and how money impacted the news, as well. Unsurprisingly, our group discussion started to revolve around the media and issues with reporting.

The last few years have been an interesting time for news organizations. From fake news to journalistic bias to corporations that are financially affiliated with news organizations, it seems like America is consistently having a conversation about how individuals report and operate in the news business.

The participants at my table continued in this tradition. One woman, who I think was named Chloe, asked the two journalists at our table if they saw a problem for the media, and how journalists responded to this problem. She was interested in hearing how journalists thought the problems could be solved.

When I introduced myself to the table, I did not call myself a journalist. No one turned to me to weigh in on how to solve the problems facing and posed by journalists. By no means did anyone think of me as an authority figure on these issues (Mind you, I’m not an authority figure).

However, I’ve been called a journalist before.

When someone first referred to me as a journalist, I thought the term was not applied well. I wasn’t trained as a journalist, nor do I immediately think that my past experiences associate me with journalists.

However, when I stopped to actually think about why I might have been identified as a journalist, the term wasn’t as misused as I first thought. I interned for an online media organization and studied public opinion on media one summer a couple of years ago, I wrote congressional bill summaries for public consumption for a year, I created articles for Her Campus Texas two years now, I’ve pursued more journalistic opportunities for articles this past semester especially, and I am the editor for my chapter for this school year.

Maybe there’s a reason why my ears perk up whenever there’s a conversation about the media going on nearby. While I don’t portray myself as a journalist, I have been involved with the media for a while.

I think this is also why I offer a particularly interesting opinion on media-related affairs. I’m not an insider, per se. At best, I’m an economist and philosopher by trade. However, I do have an idea how journalists and media organizations operate because I’ve seen their processes for writing and targeting audiences.

When Chloe targeted the two journalists at our table, they offered solutions that have been offered again and again whenever these topics come up: offer more citations, double source material, look for bias in the stories, make more edits, etc.

Everyone at the table seemed pleased with their answers. I think the easy acceptance of the journalists’ answers and even the posing of the questions suggest a large-scale misunderstanding of the inner workings of media organizations and news media-audience relationships.

When people typically voice concern about fake news, polarizing media, money in the media, etc., they blame the media--this is the media’s problem, and journalists and news organizations are the ones to blame for the propagation of news of poor quality.

The skepticism against the veracity of news stories and sources can be summed up well by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

Chomsky and Herman claimed that mass media communications “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion, by means of the propaganda model of communication.”

Thus the media is the problem, and they should be the ones to fix it, right?

Chomsky and Herman’s book is a fantastic read, especially if one has never considered the curious role the media plays in either informing or brainwashing (or both) the public. But just like any other critique of information spreading in the modern 21st century I’ve heard, Manufacturing Consent offers an incomplete story.

Simply, how do you have a conversation about the political economy by only considering how the producer affects the consumer, but not vice versa? There’s two sides to the story, and the public opinion conveniently wants to consider one.

Ask any economist and she will remind you that you always must consider how demand affects a market.

And the mass media market is a market like any other. There’s the producers (the journalists and media companies), consumers (the audiences), and products (the news stories), and there’s no reason to believe that the mass media market does not operate like traditional markets. Supply meets demand, after all.

Therefore, why are consumers not being held accountable for demanding higher quality news from more unbiased sources?

I contend that posing a continuous problem with the content being produced by the media is just as much a failure on the consumers’ part as it on the producers’ part precisely because supply meets demand.

News organizations are incentivized to create content that audiences want. If audiences want low quality stories with little to no facts and sources and that affirm their biases, then producers will meet that demand by creating that content. If the insurrection of fake news floods the news market, then we can reasonably deduce that the public’s demand for high quality news with great levels of journalistic integrity has drastically decreased.

Thinking that news organizations meet audiences’ demands is not far-fetched, either. News organizations are entirely worried about how they are engaging with their audiences, and whether the content that they produce is being received by their audiences.

When I briefly worked on the Texas Media and Society Survey for the Engaging News Project, findings were packaged so that news organizations would better understand what the public’s opinion was on how the media operates and how the public engages with the media. Ultimately, my time with the survey reflected a concern for the prevailing public distrust of the media, and the media attempting to understand why.

Additionally, news organizations hire journalists and package news in such a way that they expect news audiences want. When audiences do not tune into the news, organizations take the lack of an audience as a sign that the news they are producing and/or journalists they are using are not meeting public demand. The employment of those types of news and journalists become terminated as a consequence.

When NBC hired Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News journalist, with a $69 million contract, they expected to draw in larger audiences during the “Today” show hour. However, during the past few months, Kelly’s rating have declined, causing skepticism over the longevity of her show.

Joe Flint’s article in the Wall Street Journal also suggests that Kelly has had to change her journalistic approaches in order to appeal to audiences.

Flint writes, “Ms. Kelly has yet to find a tone that makes sense for viewers, and she has said she wants to be less reliant on politics. At times, in her evening program, she is a tough newscaster interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin about election tampering. In her morning show, she can be found doing a Dr. Phil-esque segment asking “throuples”—three people in a relationship—about whether they all fit in a king-size bed.”

Even though Kelly balances finding a broadcasting style that she and her audience are both comfortable with, she still demonstrates how appealing to audiences is a major concern for her and NBC at large.

Greta Van Susteren, another former Fox News top anchor, and her MSNBC show showcase the media’s efforts to forecast and meet audience’s demand. After six months of being on air, MSNBC terminated Van Susteren’s show after failing attempts to cure the show’s low performance.

Ultimately, even I can attest to media analyzing audience’s demands and attempting to meet those. Her Campus chapters receive weekly statistics detailing the number of views our home page and top 10 articles receive. I keep track of the statistics and analyze trends given the viewership numbers. I hold editorial workshops based on the insights I learn from the trends, and I suggest topics that consistently do well with our audiences.

Even though media organizations might have certain visions for the news they report on and what their audiences will learn, these organizations participating in the media industry recognize that they cannot inform their audiences of anything if the audience does not exist.

Personally, my goals for Her Campus Texas over the past year included publishing more serious journalistic and op-ed pieces. While I think HC Texas achieved this over the past year, I also recognize that HC Texas has a large audience with various interests. For example, beauty product reviews do extremely well on our website. If I wanted to publish 6 or 7 articles a week covering Texas politics, HC Texas would be alienating a large portion of our audience.

Instead of bombarding our audience with pieces that do not interest everyone, HC Texas varies the content we put out, reaching bigger audiences. Most importantly, by not alienating our previous audiences, we also stand a better chance at educating people when we do report on more journalistic and op-ed topics. We implement scaffolding, an educational technique that attempts to bridge educational gaps, by remaining cognizant of how diverse our readership is, and how vast their knowledge sets might be.

If we were not cognizant of what our audience wanted, though, HC Texas wouldn’t be able to successfully elevate the quality of content we product. All other media organizations operate in the same manner. They give their audiences what they want--within reason, of course.

Once customers start demanding higher quality journalism, then they should expect to not only trust their media sources more, but to be given higher quality journalism.

However, demanding that audiences solve problems with journalism begs a question. How do audiences demand higher quality journalism? Perhaps the answer is really simple: be a better consumer of the media.

How audiences interact with the media is extremely unsettling. People expect the media to inform them immediately, in as little detail as possible, and requiring no work on the consumer’s end.

Reuters reports that about ⅔ of people get their news from social media, and the phenomenon of people sharing content on social media without reading the articles has been well-remarked in studies and by journalist alike.

Such a phenomenon has made “clickbait” headlines a legitimate tactic used to encourage potential readers to read an article. However, even if an individual actively clicks on an article, an average viewer will only spend 15 seconds on a page. (HC Texas averages 45 seconds per article this past semester.)

Not all journalists expect audiences to be conscious consumers of the media, either. One journalist for Reason, a libertarian magazine, told me that as a journalist, she has to be careful what she posts online. If the information she tweets is corrected, only a fraction of the people who liked or shared her tweet will also like or share the corrected tweet.

Particularly because most people do not read the articles or double source the information they read on social media, the incorrect tweet has a larger reach than the correct tweet, misinforming more people than not. Simply, the journalist cannot expect her audience to share the correct information.

Audiences can be conscious consumers of the media by practicing the same techniques they expect journalists to practice when writing and publishing their pieces: read the articles they reference, double source the information they read, look for biases in their sources, find credibility in the journalists they use, share corrected information when they see that it has been corrected, etc.

One woman, a environmentalist lobbyist, at my Great Conversations table thought the idea of holding consumers of the media liable for better journalism was great in theory, but she disagreed with implementing consumer liability in practice. She was concerned that audiences would not actually take the time to do the work that would make them conscious consumers.

I think holding a paternalistic view on how audiences interact with the media borders too close to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If journalists treat audiences like they will not double source materials and be conscious consumers, then audiences will not act as if they are conscious consumers. If you want someone to develop their rational capabilities, then you should believe in her ability to be rational and encourage her to employ her rationality. Audiences are (hopefully) filled with rationally people who should be encouraged to develop conscious consumption of news.

Steve Kornacki, a National Political Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, claimed at the 2016 Texas Tribune Festival that he was an apologist for the media. Maybe I’m an apologist for the media, too. But as I see it, the media isn’t just the problem, in terms of fake news, money in the media, propaganda, etc. We need to start questioning our standards of the media as consumers, and how well our interactions with the media reflect our standards.