When it comes to the media, Americans have generous expectations for what kind of content they read or hear. We expect news to be largely unbiased and informative. In most cases, we get our news from a few specific sources and expect to constantly be fed factual information. We figure that, sure, there can be bias, but that never impedes upon actual facts and reality.
Yet these expectations do not reflect the media today. Today, seemingly everyone has become disenfranchised from the media. Americans feel like journalists have universally betrayed their trust. Especially in the midst of such blatant dishonesty (fake news) infiltrating the media, Americans struggle to understand how to address the issue.
Each side also has its own individual grievances. For example, conservatives despise the media’s obvious liberal slant and hostility towards President Trump, while liberals detest how much of the right-wing media openly advocates for hatred and prejudice.
Unfortunately, many of these issues have been around for far longer than modern-day ‘fake news’.
Yellow Journalism and Clickbait
Yellow journalism has been around since the 1800’s, back when newspapers were commonly sold on street corners. News boys sold papers on the street by shouting out headlines and stories. Companies quickly learned that outrageous titles and abundant exaggeration sold them far more papers. How could a newspaper ever stand out with plain and dry factual headlines?
But what exactly is yellow journalism? Yellow journalism is the practice of using sensationalist and exaggerated headlines, traditionally in order to sell more newspapers. It has little, if any, basis in facts or research.
When subscription services for newspapers established a consistent customer base, newspapers no longer needed to sell stories. Instead, they sold themselves as a trustworthy, reliable news source. At the time, yellow journalism seemed to have died out.
However, today, yellow journalism has returned, manifesting itself in the form of clickbait and fake news. Interestingly, there is one striking similarity between yellow journalism of the 1800’s and today. In the Internet age, everything has to be free for consumers. Therefore, websites- both news sources and tabloids alike- get most of their revenue from advertisements. Ads appear when you click on the link; therefore, companies have no direct incentive to ensure the reader enjoys the content or even spends a certain threshold of time on the website beyond the initial click.
Like the sales of the newspaper boys of the past, companies only need to provide their audience with just enough curiosity to take the bait, whether that involves buying the paper or inviting the ad. Unfortunately, Americans’ gravitation towards “free” consumption has come with a cost. It has primed the Internet for the resurgence of yellow journalism and fake news.
The True Role of the Media
The Internet plays an increasingly important role in where Americans get their information, even for newspapers. In fact, a quarter of newspaper advertising revenue currently comes from online, a progressively increasing percentage. And with enough clicks, it’s easy to make a quick sum of money, regardless of the quality of the content. The amount of money one can make from manufacturing deceptive clickbait is nearly unfathomable. One fake news creator claimed, “I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.” This easily exploitable system has led to the rise of fake news and universal distrust of the media.
On the other hand, the problems with media extend beyond a few tabloids and clickbait sites with fake news. Americans are beginning to distrust the large corporations running the show- and often with good reason, too. Even large, generally trusted sources like ABC, Fox, and CNN are not immune to the criticisms. For example, ABC has been caught staging crime scene photos to make stories more attractive- multiple times. Fox is little better in this regard, and altered photos of New York Times reporters (presumably to make them look bad) back in 2008. And DNC chairwoman and CNN contributor Donna Brazile infamously gave debate questions in advance to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
In many ways, the media virtually entirely shapes our opinions. Our perception and understanding of events on the national and global scale basically reflect what we hear on the news. The media holds more power over us than we give it credit for, and that’s all the more reason I think it’s best to start considering the media in a different way.
It’s time to stop treating the media like a source of true news and objective fact, and instead as a variety of opinions and perspectives. Perhaps then we will not fall victim to the sensationalist headlines and blind overreliance on particular sites, and instead analyze a variety of sources to develop an educated opinion taking all sides into account.