Lately, there has been a lot of “news” about the media. The storm began after the CNBC Republican Debate and has continued for over a week. It's my belief that it may all stem from ambiguity over the nature of media.

What's the problem?

Most of our television news sources nowadays are commercial organizations that have to be commercially viable. As a result, they have to rely on advertisers and audience size as a means of measuring success. Because of this and the 24-hour news cycle that now exists, they have to make their product offering “sexy” enough that people will tune in.

There have been two fundamental developments that have played a major role here:

  • Remember when MTV used to actually play music videos all day long? Sometime after the turn of the century, they decided to fill their programming schedule with reality television shows to maintain viewers that were able to watch all the music videos that they wanted online. Similarly, Cable News Network (CNN), as an example, now has shows with Anthony Bourdain and Mike Rowe that are not news-based. The sheer fact that the news is now interspersed with other options, like reality shows, begins to blur the lines between news and entertainment. Taking it a step further, the very news anchors that we depend on for their journalistic integrity must perform double-duty as New Year’s Eve hosts and the like to help draw audiences. Perhaps they can compartmentalize what they do, but is the audience capable of discerning the line between news and entertainment when these people jump back and forth? It’s easy to say yes, but are journalists morally obligated to make it clear that the truth is clearly separated from fiction?
  • The other major development was the advent of talk radio and its push into television. Everyone has an opinion and everyone loves to share their opinion. That was the premise of talk radio and most hosts would pull in an expert or insider who could help to keep the conversation going. The concept started with sports and then spread to politics. The news outlets followed suit and began bringing in these so-called experts to provide some insight and help deliver a better product than their competitors. So as a result, there are waves after waves of talking heads that began appearing on news shows for the purpose of delivering their opinion on a story. It’s gotten to the point that just about every story needs to be discussed with some “expert” who usually has no specific knowledge of the facts of the story, but is there to just share their thoughts. The problem is that often these opinions almost seem like they are the truth; they’re being delivered with such fervent passion or verisimilitude that the average person takes it as truth.

In sandwiching the facts between reality shows and expert opinions, isn’t the media subtly shaping the opinions of the viewer?

In sensationalizing their headlines and taking material out of context, aren't they making it difficult for someone to be able to make up their own mind?

It is most likely not being done purposely, but it is happening. You can see it and hear it in the interactions you have with people every day.

Shouldn’t the news outlets simply put the facts out there and allow people to interpret those facts for themselves?

And it’s not purely on television; the Internet is no better. Because of the nature of the beast that is the Internet, it is practically impossible to tell if something you find online is fact or opinion. Many news outlets pick up and run with online stories that may not have reliable sources or may not be completely true. Even articles written by journalists from the major news organizations have opinions blended in with the story. This makes it understandably difficult for someone to distinguish the truth.

The fact is that a lot of these problems stem from the accessibility to information that we have in this modern age. We can pull up information on our computers, phones, and tablets that was previously unavailable except from legitimately vetted static sources like encyclopedias. But that accessibility has also made us lazy. Many of us rely on the first piece of information we find and we trust that our media sources are giving us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And this is only going to get worse as technology makes it even easier and faster to access even more information.

A Proposed Solution

So how do we deal with this before it becomes an even bigger issue? We need to make some changes and here are a few suggestions:

  1. All the major news organizations should put together, either in concert or independently, a pledge stating their compact with their audience and they should make it available publicly.
    1. Somehow, there needs to be a way to separate the news/facts from opinions and entertainment. One such way is to leave the news reporting to the journalists and have experts appear on separate shows that are clearly identified as forums for opinions and speculation.
  2. All journalists that intend to deliver the news should take a pledge like the Constitutional Journalist’s Pledge, if they haven’t already done so, and be open to being held accountable to that pledge. This means they need to make sure they are clearly delivering the facts in whatever medium they operate.
  3. Similar measures have to be taken on the Internet.
    1. A certificate should be developed that identifies a site as a source of reliable factual information. Information should be identified as having come from someone with the credentials to be a reliable source of factual information and not just someone delivering their opinion.
    2. Search engines should be tweaked to provide listings from certified factual sites separately from all other sources of information.
    3. Browsers should include settings so users can decide a “veracity level” for their browsing so that they can choose to browse sites that they can rely on for the information that they want.

Debate Protocol

And while we’re discussing the media, let’s discuss the recent debates that started this conversation.

The purpose of a presidential debate is to ascertain the differences between the candidates on their views and plans for the country. In a traditional debate, the moderator’s only job is to ask the questions and enforce the rules. For some reason, moderators are now engaging the participants in a debate, which makes the moderator a focus of attention and takes away from the debate itself.

Additionally, the topic of “gotcha” questions has created a lot of conversation recently and many people seem to misunderstand what that means. In the CNBC Republican Debate, many of the questions were intended to get a candidate to speak negatively about another participant or to defend themselves over some issue that was uncovered through some investigative piece.

Firstly, getting them to call each other names isn’t going to make it any clearer to the public what their stances are on the issues that matter to us. We need to see them debate each other on these issues and clarify their positions. These types of combative questions are better left for Survivor or some other reality television show and not for a Presidential Debate.

Secondly, save the investigative smearing for the rest of the news cycle. You have all the time in the world and all the resources at your disposal to talk about that piece of info that was dug up from someone’s high school years outside of the debate. We’re depending on the press to do their job and address these details in the normal course of their daily work. But we need the debates to help us differentiate between the candidates and their positions on the big issues.

And just because someone is a great news anchor doesn’t make them a great debate moderator. Find a high school speech & debate coach and ask them to moderate it! It’s not about the celebrity judges like it is on American Idol; it’s about the candidates.

If we really want to make America great, rather than continuing with the status quo, we should look at what’s going on with our media and the influx of information, and take steps as a country to make sure that we are all free to get the unfiltered facts so we can grow and do our business as a nation.

- A concerned citizen (11/10/2015)