Thursday, January 07, 2016

Do people reporting the news get this distinction?

This is a piece from 11 years ago, so itself is definitely not news.  But I think it is useful in helping people consider a message delivered, which might be thought of as news but otherwise might be viewed as gossip, and whether the person delivering the message should be judged harshly or benignly based on that distinction.

Fox News is mentioned explicitly by Randy Cohen in this NPR segment.  Though you can't see his face when he says this, it is not hard to imagine that he was rolling his eyes at the time.  Fox News has a reputation for blurring the distinction between gossip and news.  (My friends reading the previous sentence will likely say to themselves, "that is the understatement of all time.")  But what of other news organizations?  Do they err in this dimension as well?

Let me separate PBS news from the rest for the moment, to make the following argument.  The remaining news organizations operate in a for profit environment.  Many people are attracted by gossip.  The profitability of any one news organization is proportional to the size of its audience.   While a news organization's credibility is tied to the accuracy of its news reports and presumably in the long term the size of the audience will depend on accuracy in reporting,  in the near term there is pressure to expand the audience beyond its long run equilibrium level.  That pressure encourages the news organization to run gossipy pieces and/or to include gossip within otherwise straight news articles.

The story with PBS is a little different, though they are certainly not immune from the type of pressure mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Given the mixed funding model they operate under  (grants from the Federal government, gifts from non-government organizations, and gifts from individuals) they must give the appearance in their reporting of being balanced, meaning not favoring either political party.  This mandate for balance gives cover to politicians who can then manipulate the story in ways they deem beneficial.  In other words, an unintended consequence of the need for balance is to sometimes produce lack of objectivity in the reporting.

My argument here is that for commercial news, a different unintended consequence is that the news has become more and more gossipy.  This gives the politicians and their spin doctors a different way to manipulate the story.

In theory, the market for news breaks up into segments, partly along a left-right dimension and partly along a difficulty level in the reading/viewing of the news, with the easier access outlets lacking subtlety in how their stories are reported.  The easier access outlets are more prone to conflate gossip and news.  Given that, it is possible to imagine some segments of the market that refrain from gossip altogether.  When I was a kid and the Herald Tribune was a viable competitor to the New York Times as morning papers in New York City, that was my impression of each of them.  I had the same impression of the Sunday morning news shows, which I watched with regularity.

Things change.  I will mention only the more obvious changes.  Many viewers now utilize entertainment/satirical programming, e.g., Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Daily Show, as their sole source of news.  The ethical constraints with which I led off this piece don't apply to such programming for, after all, these shows are meant as entertainment.  There is, in addition, the consequence of social networks, which on the one hand can be viewed as crowd sourced generation of the news and on the other hand can be viewed as crowd sourced diffusion of the news from other sources.  Social networks do the same things for gossip.  And then there is a third, generational and/or cultural change, where when I was a kid reading the newspaper was considered an important social obligation.  Now it is not.

The news organizations had to adjust to the environment or fade into extinction.  I recall when Clay Shirky's piece Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable came out that it caused quite a stir.  It seemed then that newspapers would die out as a species.  That was eight years ago.  Many big newspapers then are still around.  Ask yourself, what adjustments have been made to the reporting itself in those news organizations that enabled them not to fail (in a commercial sense)?  Has one of those adjustments happened along the gossip-news dimension, in favor of treating more gossip as news?

I have tried to write this piece in a flat way, not picking on either party or mentioning any one politician's name.   The reason for doing that is to ask the following questions.   Is there a kind of market failure for news, where gossip crowds out real news, something akin to Gresham's law or The Market for Lemons?  If there is such a market failure for news,  is our politics degrading a necessary consequence of this market failure getting worse, as a consequence of the changes mentioned above?

Doing the ethical thing can be commercial suicide.  It would be nice if it were otherwise in this case, but suppose not.  What then?

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