In the past few years, news media outlets of all sorts have come under increased attack concerning their reliability. Viewers and readers of the news on both the left and the right accuse the other side of presenting “fake news” which increases our suspicion of what is actually real or not. Of course, a lot of the responsibility for this perception lies at the feet of Donald Trump, who still regularly accuses media of trafficking in falsehoods and attacks the credibility of respected journalists. “Do your own research” has become the mantra of both the fringe left and right as trust in the mainstream media has waned and alternative sources on the internet, including blogs and podcasts have risen to fill the vacuum.
Who is to Blame?
To be clear, a lot of the blame for these developments also belongs to the mainstream media itself. The advent of the 24-hour news cycle in the 1990’s introduced a level of competition for audiences and advertisers that had previously been unseen. Media outlets felt compelled to offer Hollywood style production values and increased commentary and speculation to capture and hold the attention of viewers. At the same time, the rise of the internet with its smorgasbord of unvetted news has allowed media consumers to create their own a-la-carte echo chambers. Clearly, neither of these developments has been ideal.
Education is Key
My personal concern is that we not throw the baby out with the bathwater in rejecting mainstream media. Education is key in learning to separate fact from opinion and discerning between state or corporate-sponsored media sources and freer more independent voices. To paraphrase the words of Justice Potter Stewart in his 1964 landmark ruling on obscenity, ‘We might not be able to define good journalism, but we know it when we see it.’ Sometimes it is hard to tell though, and viewers of Fox News programs might be forgiven if they are not informed well enough to know the difference between real news and the bombastic disinformation of characters like Tucker Carlson, who has no formal education as a journalist. Ideally, journalists and news reporters are trained to a high degree of professional ability and held to ethical standards, with their work fact-checked and vetted by lawyers within the parent corporation. Classically, the job of the Fourth Estate is to hold the feet of the powerful to the fire to ensure transparency in business and government. It may not always reach these ideals and is often guilty of being hijacked by its allegiance to these masters, but it remains a great and democratic aspiration.