Lots of Media But Still a Lack of Understanding

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Journalism is in crisis. To survive, many newsrooms have completely removed the line that separates opinion from news; it may be giving the audience what it wants — sensational sound bites — but is it providing our democracy with what it needs?(Photo: alancleaver_2000 (flickr))
Journalism is in crisis. To survive, many newsrooms have completely removed the line that separates opinion from news; it may be giving the audience what it wants — sensational sound bites — but is it providing our democracy with what it needs?(Photo: alancleaver_2000 (flickr))

Journalism is in crisis. To survive, many newsrooms have completely removed the line that separates opinion from news; it may be giving the audience what it wants — sensational sound bites — but is it providing our democracy with what it needs?

With tightening competition for dwindling advertising revenues, along with greater competition from web-based media, temptation to take news sensationalism to the extreme couldn’t be higher – and apparently nothing is standing in the way.

Government regulation of broadcast media originates from the fact radio and TV stations are given permission to use the public’s airwaves. The rules were developed to foster competition and ensure that our democracy is safely in the hands of an educated electorate. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan struck down a key piece of this regulation called the Fairness Doctrine, which encouraged media outlets to act in a responsible, fair and balanced way. Since Reagan, media regulation has continued to be stripped away.

However, there is one place that regulation is still playing an effective role. This commentary aside, publicly funded media is one of the last places left to find balanced reporting.

This is because public media’s funding base demands such balance. Public media has to do two things. First it has to provide quality programming which attracts an audience that believes in it enough to donate. Second, a significant amount of funding comes from the taxpayers at-large; that funding is decided upon by our elected officials. So not only must the programming be quality, but it must be fair across the political spectrum — otherwise politicians will pull the funding plug.

Sadly, a market based approach is being pushed by some taxpayers who believe our government is already too big, and they want politicians to pull the plug regardless of concerns about balance.

And why does that matter?

Commercial media only needs to worry about earning shareholder’s dividends. They don’t have donors and taxpayers paying the bills there. For commercial media, the larger the audience the more advertisers are willing to spend. Without regulation, how do you attract larger audiences? Well, marketing gurus have figured it out — stir people’s emotions and be sensational!

Being sensational isn’t about being factual, or fair, and certainly not balanced. Sensationalism requires excitement and conflict — a lack of balance. Something that pulls at your heart strings and makes you choose sides. Because, once you’ve chosen a side, you don’t have to think critically about what you’re being told; you can just slip effortlessly into those opinions.

Are the Rachel Maddow’s and Bill O’Reily’s of the world exciting? Absolutely! Do you think you’re getting the whole story from them? You probably do if you subscribe to their opinion. But the other guy — well, they clearly don’t know what their talking about.

And there is the problem. How do we have a healthy democracy, educated on issues and voting on merit, when we only have to hear the side of the argument that is most pleasing and self-serving to us as individuals?

Andrew Miller is a local writer. You can find him at Andrew-Miller.com

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