The Fallibility of Journalism
The news is important. That’s a pretty blatantly obvious thing to say, but when you really consider it, it’s more than true. We rely on the news to know about the weather, things happening in our cities and neighborhoods, foreign events, criminal activity, the drudgery of elected officials and most importantly, juicy celebrity gossip. The system we use today is a culmination of centuries of human and technological innovation and helps effortlessly inform the world at large. Suffice to say, it’s kind of a big deal.
However, while the system may be revolutionary and cutting-edge, the people that comprise it are not. I’m not referring to your everyday media-consuming American when I say that; rather, I’m referring to the journalists that constitute the media organizations that produce the news. That might seem like a sort of self-effacing thing to say considering the fact that I myself am a budding, sparkly-eyed journalist, but I’m not trying to say that every journalist in existence is bad at their job (because really, who do I think I am?); instead, I’m saying that a pretty depressingly-sized group of them are, and that’s not good news.
What do I mean when I say that there’s “bad” journalism? I’m talking about content produced by news companies that’s just not … good. Articles that are prone to overgeneralizations. Articles that perpetuate racial stereotypes for no good reason. Articles that show a clear lack of basic research and have things like incorrect names. Articles that were hastily-written about recent topics just to be “the first;” there are plenty more but essentially, any news article guilty of any of the above sins exists within the devious realm of bad journalistic practices.
A pretty good example of this would be the way online media handled events immediately following the Boston Bombing back in 2013. The articles that collectively gushed forth from the spigot of the press following the explosions relied mostly on perfunctory observations from websites like Twitter and Reddit; the result was a whole slew of articles that either said nothing constructive or parroted known information and thus only served to fan the flames of public hysteria. They went as far as to publicize the names of multiple people completely unrelated to the bombings because they were considered suspects by amateur Internet detectives, indirectly showering innocent people with a deluge of death threats.
More poignant examples come from articles concerning more controversial topics like police brutality and sexual assault. Most poorly-written articles concerning police brutality tend to lazily summarize the incident and tend to use an unnecessarily gruff picture of the victim to represent the whole thing. An unsatisfactory majority low-quality articles about sexual assault like to point out the faults of the victims, as is routine and this ends up making the victim sound bad and incites wars in the comments section.
This is clearly not ideal. But why does it happen?
These problems are structural in nature. Almost every journalistic website in existence needs ad revenue like a blue whale needs krill and plankton. In order to keep everything running, the owners of these websites need people to navigate around as much as possible in order to generate the greatest amount of revenue.
However, as a result of this click-hungry system, the articles pumped out have to be specifically engineered to encourage people to click on them. This, thus, means that the articles produced have to either come out as soon as breaking news becomes available, cater specifically to what the audience wants, or say nothing iconoclastic to ensure that no toes are stepped on and people will keep returning to the website. Remember how the Casey Anthony trial kind of took over the media while it was happening? That’s because that’s what the public was most interested in, and was by proxy going to potentially make the most money. Anything more substantial or newsworthy wasn’t worth it.
These structural issues are pretty noticeable with the coverage of the Baltimore riots, too. For example, many articles were published about sudden gang activity in the city after the Crips and the Bloods took to the streets, but they completely misinterpreted the fact that these gang members were trying to calm the riots as opposed to inflaming them and instead published content claiming that gangs were now rioting as well. These articles needed to come out quickly to catch the most attention and were, thus, essentially trash in quality.
If there’s any sort of take-away you should get from this article, it’s that the news is not sacrosanct. While we may rely on news sources for a lot of important information, we must also remember that these self-same news sources are operated by real, fallible people capable of making mistakes or being plumb bad at their jobs. There’s no real way to majorly change a system that has existed in a state like this for such a long time, so instead of relying on these news companies to automagically better themselves and their content, try to be a little smarter when hearing about “the news,” because chances are, it’s not news worth hearing.
Evan Siegel is a first-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.