Thursday, February 18, 2016

Is journalism today worse?

I've been thinking about writing a post titled "The sloppy state of journalism," to discuss the dearth or lack of proper editing and vetting of news stories these days, which often results in typos, errors, and worse.

Then I saw this post on a friend's Facebook page:
Quick poll: Do you think that online news articles (and their headlines) are meant to objectively inform and educate, or to subjectively incite and impel greater site traffic and interaction?
The overwhelming response was the latter, which got me thinking, again, about the current state of journalism, online and in general. And this is the comment I left:
Headlines have always been written to compel people to read the article. That is not new. Newspapers and magazines make their money from advertising (and, to a lesser extent, subscriptions). And their job is to sell papers, or magazines. In the past you had yellow (or sensational) journalism. Today you have click bait. The goal is pretty much the same.

THAT SAID, plenty of news organizations try to inform and educate readers -- and use headlines designed to grab readers' attention. "Click bait" and "journalism that informs or educates" are not mutually exclusive. Today, as in years past, you need an eye-catching headline if you want people to read at all. The idea that there was some Golden Age of journalism where the media's sole or main desire was to educate and inform is erroneous.
Indeed, people often forget (or don't know) that until relatively recently, newspapers, even so-called respectable ones, would print titillating, sensational, or salacious stories, often thin or devoid of facts, for the sole purpose of getting eyeballs and driving up circulation.

As explained by the Office of the Historian for the U.S. Department of State:
Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. During its heyday in the late 19th century it was one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States.
As to the question of whether the Internet and social media and the rise of the 24/7 news cycle has degraded the quality of journalism, I would say that the need to "be first" has definitely taken a toll.

Most blogs and many news organizations do not fact check, copyedit, and/or proofread articles before they are published these days -- or editors are so overwhelmed or inexperienced that they often miss or introduce errors or typos. (As a journalist and editor for over 30 years, I know, and I can cite more than one instance where The New York Times and other "reliable news sources" have gotten something wrong.) This has resulted in what I call sloppy journalism. And there is a lot of it out there.

However, there is also a lot of great, or very good, articles out there, many of which are published on non-traditional news sites and blogs. There are even articles that are deemed "click bait," pieces with headlines designed to get readers to click to read the full articles, that are educational and informative. Indeed, I would argue that the reason there is so much click bait right now (though again, baiting the reader is nothing new) is because people have such short attention spans and don't take the time, or have the patience, to read unless given a good reason to do so -- and publications have just adjusted to this new reality.

So, is journalism today truly worse than it was 50 or 100 or 150 years ago? If you objectively look at the history of journalism (keeping in mind that gossip sheets have been around for over 200 years), I'm not so sure.


Dave S. said...

That is indeed a tough question. What has certainly changed is the sheer quantity of news sources, from major media outlets (beginning with the expansion of cable news) to aggregators to self-published individuals, and the availability of that news via the Internet. Whether the "overall" or "average" quality is up or down is obscured by the sheer quantity of "news" out there.

At the same time we are seeing the self-selection of news sources by people, largely based on political/social outlook. Compare this to the golden age of network news, when the great majority of news consumers agreed or disagreed with a few news sources; now we have (and seem increasingly to take) the option to only read news with which we are pretty sure will meet our pre-formed opinions.

Regarding the decline in copy-editing at the major media outlets, I think it's the result of cost-cutting.

Finally, the "need to be first" has often claimed victims.

J. said...

Excellent points, @Dave S. Thanks for commenting.

Anna said...

I found your quote about yellow journalism influencing policy very interesting. That is what I find particularly scary, especially given that many government leaders feel compelled to react quickly in times of crisis, with their policy led by the outcry of yellow journalism-educated masses.

I agree with Dave about readers only reading news that agrees with their own mindset. I think it's far more interesting and educational to find out what the "other side" is saying. I always like looking at op-ed pages with differing opinions on the same topic.

I recently found an interesting website (I'll find it later) that showed a chart of newspapers/websites based on their left/right leaning tendencies. The Christian Science Monitor was the only one smack dab in the middle. I've been reading it since, and find that they do have a well balanced approach to stories (although it tends to make them a bit dry, because they're not sensationalistic). [HELP EDITOR J.! Do I put the period before or after the last parenthesis; I can't remember ! ]

Furbo said...

Arguably the old days were worse because there was far less oversight/regulation. In the pre-Teddy Roosevelt era, lies were thick when it came to products, and monster businesses/trust were able to hide and get away with lies and deception, and journalists went along with it.

J. said...

@Anna, the period goes after the closing parenthesis in that sentence. (You did it correctly. :-))