There has been increased attention being paid to journalists and news outlets over the past 18 months, and as a result, the quality of discourse in our nation is deteriorating.
There are two components to journalism. The first is the collection and dissemination of facts in an attemptedly objective way. This is what we properly call news. It is accomplished by monitoring, investigating, researching, and interviewing, and distributed through established channels.
The second component of journalism is analysis. This is done in the form of op-eds and on-air appearances, where people provide commentary and varying points of view. More subtly, this is also done through the editorial process of deciding which issues deserve coverage.
This second component of journalism comes under considerably less scrutiny than the first. Whereas someone writing news must be subjected to editorial oversight, lest they have to issue a correction or retract a story, people who are professedly expressing ‘opinions’ do not feel such pressure, and as a result, the quality of commentary is on the decline.
Pew Research released a study on July 20, 2017, that reveals 52% of people polled are paying more attention to politics since the 2016 election.This statistic also represents an increase in attention paid to adjacent topics, such as culture. This underscores why journalists must act responsibly. It is they who are the stewards of our national conversation, so the decreasing quality of discussion in the media is worrying.
This is most clearly seen on the 24-hour cable news cycle. Guests are brought on and given short intervals of time to debate their points of view. Squeezed in between commercial breaks, these commentators end up barely touching the substance of the topic, and in some cases, just resort to hurling personal attacks on each other.
The theatrics of these confrontations are designed to attract viewers, and not showcase thoughts and ideas. Coverage of these on-air verbal fights overshadow the substance of the points they are trying to debate, and there are now whole online communities devoted to watching these heated arguments.
This sort of behavior is incredibly counterproductive. We must learn from each other to progress as a society and move ideas forward, and the only way to do that is through reasoned discussion. This is supposed to be where we encounter ideas that challenge our intuitions, but leads us toward a space of mutual agreement and progress.
One may contend that the motivation behind creating such encounters is exactly, that — creating a space where people of opposing views can converse. But too often sparks fly, and when conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones are invited on television, it serves as a reminder that this is not the intent of most shows, and cable news is a business where revenue drives decision making. The whole mechanism is a poor system for fostering constructive dialogue.
An equally harming, yet more seemingly innocuous issue is when television hosts cling too tightly to their own ideological partners, and only invite guests who agree with them and buttress their points of view. Everyone should be suspicious of consensus — if there is such agreement on a topic, why is a conversation about it news worthy?
Having several isolated environments of perfect agreement, where there lacks any diversity of opinion or perspective, does the most harm to our collective identity. As a nation, we need to be engaged in a mutual conversation. Subsisting in ideological corners only prevents further dialog by eroding any previously existing common understandings.
This demonstrates how delicate the balance is for news agencies and journalists. They must occupy a razor’s edge. It is difficult work, but in the past several months we have witnessed a sharp decline in effort.
This is not to say all TV commentary is doomed. For example, “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS is perhaps the best example of how television can be used to foster thoughtful conversation about a myriad of topics, but exemplars such as this are increasingly hard to come by.
Another outlet which has contributed to the decline of commentary and analysis is social media. Preferencing speed and brevity, it is increasingly difficult to find fact-based analysis from various perspectives. Twitter enforces a character limit, encouraging people to express the first thing that comes to mind, even though our first ideas are often our worst. To quote Scott Pelley, “In this online world everyone’s a publisher, but no one is an editor.”
In a Slate article from Jan. 2016, Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, said the news which shows up on one’s newsfeed is determined by algorithms which are designed to show people what they want to see, and not show them what they don’t want to see. For the passive news consumers of Facebook, they are now unwittingly living in a deliberately designed echo chamber, furthering divides in the nation.
In this way, social media has failed to foster an environment conducive to substantive conversation. Even when links to longer pieces are shared, just the reading titles suffice, and most scroll by. It is common practice for Facebook and Twitter users to share and disseminate content which they haven’t even evaluated themselves, as long as it seems supportive of their own point of view. Pew Research found that people who end up on a news site via Facebook spend only a third of the average time there, compared to normal users.
Additionally, on social media, the more inflammatory and confrontational the commentary is, the more popular it gets. This has given rise to a new breed of public commentators, such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Linda Sarsour, who oftentimes try to provoke, rather than engage in real conversation. This makes the discussion of important topics in any setting, even at a college and among family, more difficult, because it wraps them in a veneer of contention and taboo.
The last refuge for constructive dialogue about contentious topics has to be the newspaper. This is a medium where there is space enough for thoughts to be fully developed and expressed, and where different perspectives and points of view can be debated responsibly.
In a newspaper, authors are held responsible for what they write and editors are held accountable for what they print. The scrutiny and collaboration of the editorial process, although it may appear outdated, is necessary, and raises the level of discourse, making the pieces stronger, and more fact based.
This editorial process is more important now than ever before. Whether it be fact checking, asking probative questions, or ensuring the opinions expressed are honest and well-intentioned, the paper is where one can escape from the hysteria.
It is for that reason we here at The Campus encourage everyone — students, faculty, administration, alumni, staff, or community members — to submit opinion pieces about issues they care about and think are important. We cannot promise they will all appear in print or online, but we will do our part to represent a variety of thoughtfully articulated opinions that span the spectrum, and foster constructive and honest conversation.
We need a robust press that can cultivate honest, sober, and well intentioned dialogue now more than ever, and so far as we can do anything to contribute to that, we will do our best.