The Media Broke Our Information Ecosystem

To fix it, the media has some soul-searching to do.

It is often forgotten that while the internet has vastly accelerated the pace at which information travels between individual members of society, its quality remains largely a function of the media environment responsible for its existence. A for-profit business in freefall, the media is struggling to create the conditions under which healthy public discourse can thrive–since it is unaccountable to any democratic institutions, informing the public only plays second fiddle to maximizing shareholder value.

Even before the coronavirus started hitting media with its worst wave of economic hardship to date, it’s been readily understood that for-profit incentives perverted the nobility of purpose that media likes to often self-project–if the betterment of the people is misaligned with the pursuit of profit, then there’s very little leeway journalists can be afforded to break the mold and instead do what is morally sound. In the rare instance that they do, they’re met with undue scold, nabbing them and potential allies all will to swim against the current.

What further spoils the pot is media’s inability to reckon with what harm it might’ve inadvertently caused even with the best of intentions–Whitney Phillips, Assistant Professor in Communications and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University, likened this phenomenon to live pollution. “Pushing back against falsehood is not the same thing as being the source of that falsehood. None of these tweeters and journalists intend to pollute. The information ecology, however, doesn’t give a shit about anyone’s intentions,” she writes for WIRED. “What matters most is consequence. And the consequence of those retweets, litanies, and articles is to spread the pollution further.”

Ideally, when the media falters, a sense of accountability should steer things the correct way. Charlie Warzel, frequent information wars chronicler for the New York Times, thinks the media has yet to develop the necessary self-correctional faculties to cope with the consequences of blunder, however unintentional it may be. “There is a huge issue with not enough consequences to be wrong–it’s a huge issue with punditry in general,” Warzel tells Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein. “What scares me right now, is I’m starting to see this same sort of defensiveness that I think is wrong-headed in the media about being wrong.”

As convenient as it would be to pin all these problems on the media itself, a crucial underpinning of all conversations surrounding its reform has to do with the way that social media creates an incentive structure in which bad journalism is rewarded at the expense of tact and level-headedness. Some have proposed that major aggregators of information online — namely Google and Facebook — pay back which they’ve spent years taking away from media companies–Victor Pickard, Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has an even more radical solution. “The underlying economics are simple, if often obscured. Advertising long provided what was essentially a subsidy for local journalism, a public good that typically can’t pay for itself. It was a lucrative arrangement for many publishers until news moved online, where digital ads pay only fractions of print advertising revenues, thus killing newspapers’ business model,” he writes for Jacobin. “To lose the local newspaper is to lose an institution that’s vitally important to the health, culture, and democratic promise of our towns and cities. They are a social necessity, and we must rescue them from the ravages of the market.”

Of the few outlets that managed to outlive this current pandemic without significant damage, they’ve given up any pretense to pursuing the truth and are instead preoccupied with platforming as many perspectives as possible in the interest of false balance. This effort was spearheaded by the American right-wing in the latter decades of the Cold War as Becca Lewis, researcher on the politics of technology and media at Stanford University, notes. “The push for “balance” has been a crucial right-wing strategy since then. Think of Fox News’s mantra “fair and balanced,” which is laughable for its inaccuracy, but which is actually also an effective strategy,” she says. “They argue they provide “balance” to the “liberal media,” spend a lot of time attacking that media, and then the mainstream shifts to the right in their coverage in order to prove they’re not biased. It’s brilliant.”

What the confluence of all these factors amounts to, is an information ecosystem that is not only broken, but incredibly hard to reform. If the media were to secure survival following this pandemic, it won’t only have to rely on financial aid to do so–it has to completely rethink its role in public society lest it becomes an ivory tower of impenetrable prestige where every criticism is viewed as a sign of hostility rather than the invitation to self-introspection it often is.

The foundational belief of media is that its readers are ignorant masses to be educated–but what if the readers it long depended on to exist deserve more than to be figures on an analytics page to be farmed for revenue? If we extended the same courtesy to readers that we do to the words of pseudo-intellectuals to be uncritically broadcast on the precious space of our news outlets, we may be on the cusp of a healthy equilibrium. But barring any will to imagine a better future for media, it will remain stuck in a perpetual cycle of doom until solutions are implemented in place.

The fact that this very platform offers a breadth of perspectives comparable to traditional press with the absence of enticing financial incentives may be an indication that we do indeed desire to consume and produce good information regardless of the underlying structure behind. What we’re afflicted by to consider any viable alternative is the absence of any will to reconsider present dynamics–that aversion to change, will be the downfall of our information ecosystem unless we act quickly and swiftly to prevent it.