Jon M. Du Pre (’85), anchor of ABC’s KTBS 3 in Shreveport, Louisiana, used to pass a day creating stories for the 6 and the 10 o’clock news. Now it’s the 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10 o’clock—plus posting on five digital platforms and Facebook Live-ing throughout the gathering process.
“It’s sometimes physically impossible to . . . feed all those beasts,” he says. It’s the hardest job he’s had in 32 years in TV.
Gone is the production cycle where a reporter would work on a story all day, turn it in, and see it published the next morning. Event coverage has to be up immediately, even if it’s just three paragraphs, the rest written via updates.
Accuracy—or, at the very least, thoroughness—has become a casualty, contends Lewis. “You cannot have your news instantly and have it well done,” he says. “More content created by fewer people makes the likelihood for mistakes and problems greater.”
That’s the story at the news organizations that still exist. Countless others have been forced to close.
The hardest hit: local news, the most important news, in Campbell’s eyes. “That’s where we need watchdogs,” he says—most government money is spent locally.
“We’ve moved from deathwatch to life support,” Campbell says of the local-news survivors. Yet the equation remains: “To do in-depth—to give it context, to really understand a community—costs money.” The budgets for watchdogging, more and more, don’t exist.
And then there’s lost turf. A majority of Americans now get news from Facebook and the like, making social-media giants the new gatekeepers and distributors. In addition, the boundaries of the journalism profession are blurring: anyone with a Twitter account can disseminate news, and institutions of all sorts now post their own articles rather than leave their narratives to the press.
Lewis says this leaves consumers wading through an overabundance of sources. “News now populates spaces you might not have expected, and we haven’t really understood how to interpret news we see in those places. This has led a lot of people to throw up their hands and tune out, to say, ‘Because I can’t trust much of what I see, therefore I can’t trust anything.’”
Americans once took in news by appointment—making time for it at the breakfast table or watching the evening newscast before bed. Appointment reading fostered breadth—maybe a baseball story caught your eye, but you got bits on Iran and EPA regulation along the way.
“That used to be a great function of newspapers, the serendipity of falling into something,” says Edward L. Carter (BA ’96, JD ’03), director of the BYU School of Communications.
News consumption now is largely incidental. We seek it out less; our attention span for it is shorter. On a given day, it may be reduced to what pieces of journalism are trending in our social media streams. “And the stories that catch on social media are different,” says Sarah Cannon Weaver (BA ’94), editor of the Church News.
Incidental consumption online pits the news against the juggernauts of Internet clicks: cute babies, cat videos, and all the other stuff Facebook has deemed “news” to you. There have always been things competing for our attention—but never so many on one screen at one time.
In the fight to be heard, journalists now turn to search-engine optimization (SEO)—tagging every story with its most trend-worthy terms. They bend stories into clickbait.
It’s a trend that can’t be ignored, says D. Hunter Schwarz (BA ’12), coauthor of CNN’s Coverline, a politics–pop culture mash-up. “Your average person is not watching a bill progress,” says Schwarz. And so his newsletter and podcast weave Britney Spears and the Kardashians into the political coverage.
Because of the all-mighty click, story selection and presentation are changing: newsrooms are increasingly chasing the stuff we like.
“It’s eye-candy journalism,” says Campbell: sports, “list-icles,” the slideshow of 10 things. “The eyes stay with them a long time. They make money.”
It’s celebrity anything, says alumna Marti Johnson, a freelance reporter for the Associated Press and a C-SPAN announcer. “[Americans] just hoover up information on celebrities.”
Whatever it is, it represents a seismic shift in journalism. “We’ve gone from where news editors selected what they wanted the public to see to where now the public says, ‘No, this isn’t what I want to read about,’” says Weaver. “You can’t make people interested in city council. . . . We can’t thrust it upon them the way we used to.”
Further complicating the news mix: the fact that most traditional news outlets are now owned by publicly held corporations—companies that answer to stockholders. “They care about profit,” says journalism professor Dale L. Cressman (BA ’85, MA ’89), “not news.”
Advertisers can see in real time exactly what catches the audience’s eye, putting the press at the public’s mercy.
There’s no other way to say it, says Campbell: “SEO and analytics are driving a stake into the heart of journalism.”
Suspend the question of media bias for a moment (we’ll get there) and allow the journalists to turn the table:
“Are the consumers of the products we produce biased?” asks Du Pre.
At least on this point—in an America more polarized politically than at any point in recent history—the answer is clearly yes.
Du Pre says that no matter how straight the attempt, there is no longer a news topic that isn’t a lightning rod. “You do a story on crime, it turns into a political debate,” he says. “The environment? Political debate. Health? Somehow, it turns into a political debate.”
Meanwhile, for news outlets desperate for traffic to translate into ad revenue, polarization creates tempting target audiences.
“Some practitioners of journalism . . . have taken to an entirely different business model,” says Du Pre. “And that is ‘Which audience do we want to seek out?’”
Fox News, for example, set up shop as an alternative to mainstream media. A slew of outlets have taken root on the left and right. Where there used to be just a handful of TV and radio broadcasts, newspapers, and magazines driving the national news agenda, there are now scores of websites, each trying to carve out a niche and then pander to it relentlessly. For Fox and MSNBC, it seems to pay the bills.
This model is reinforced by—and fuels—another internet phenomenon: the echo chamber. The term describes how, in our online worlds, we are interacting more with the information we like and less with information that challenges us.
McKay A. Coppins (’10), who covers politics for the Atlantic, says many aren’t even seeking truth anymore—they’re seeking confirmation of their beliefs. “They can kind of ensconce themselves in an information and media bubble where that’s all they hear,” he says. “Whatever little media bubble you’re in is telling you the rest of the media is wrong.”
Some of this selective credulity is deliberate: readers tend to pick media teams and loyally drown out other news sources. Some of it, however, comes courtesy of social media and search engines, which get to know you better with every click. Based on your interests, views, and likes, Facebook algorithms serve up your Daily Me.
On your streams there is no equal airtime for different views. “These systems we interact with really have no function for saying, ‘Maybe that’s enough extremism for you today,’” says Lewis.
Research is digging into the effects of the social media echo chamber: we share stories without reading more than a headline, place more trust in who is sharing the story than who produced it, and clearly give our time to stories that reinforce our own views. …