The news media is frequently referred to as the “fourth estate,” meaning it acts as a fourth branch of government that can play a role in keeping the other three branches in check. It carries out this function through watchdog journalism, or the reporting of government affairs. This helps keep officials accountable and ensures that the government is serving the people in the way that it should.
However, the mainstream news media has received heavy criticism for its coverage of the 2016 election cycle. Viewers have accused the news media of spending too much time covering candidate “drama,” such as Donald Trump’s frequent Twitter rampages, and not enough on policy proposals. This complaint isn’t without grounds: A report by tyndallreport.com reveals that since the beginning of 2016, the weekday nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC spent a combined total of 32 minutes reporting on issues coverage in the campaign. This has decreased substantially since 1988, when the combined total was 117 minutes.
Why would news organizations shy away from covering policy? The disintegration of quality news is rooted in the collapse of the funding model for legacy news outlets. As news has moved online, it’s disrupted the advertising model that used to pay the bills for the news media. Both print and television news are losing readers and viewers to online platforms. But moving online isn’t exactly an easy fix - the reality is that online advertising doesn’t pay as well as print advertising does, and online news sources have struggled to find a way to monetize online platforms. There are two important effects of this decline in funding. First, news outlets are more desperate for readers and viewers than ever. This means that a dramatic, unsubstantial story that will garner a large audience is much more attractive than a dry but important story. (Cue lots of airtime dedicated to Trump’s tweets.) Second, many news outlets simply can’t afford to do good journalism anymore. Investigative journalism is expensive – think reporter salary, travel costs, production, equipment, and more. Overall, the disruption of the funding model for news media has led to a decrease in the quality of reporting.
Living in the twenty-first century, we’re used to having media content easily available online, and for free. It’s annoying and feels unfair when we’re asked to pay for music, movies, and TV. But the news is something that we can’t afford not to pay for. No matter your political affiliation, it’s beneficial for all citizens to have a functioning press that can effectively report on the government. And the press is struggling. One way we can help is by actually paying for our news. We can’t complain about poor quality journalism while we have ad blockers on and are using three different web browsers to exploit our “ten free articles a month.” We need to help fund the reporting that we’re asking for.
Now, this isn’t to say that throwing money at news organizations will automatically result in perfect journalism. There will always be imperfections in reporting. But effective reporting certainly can’t happen without funding. So throw down that credit card and spring for a paid subscription to a news outlet of your choice. Most are just a few dollars a month, and some offer student rates. It’s well worth it.