A Brief History
News Media has always served as a tool to keep a population informed. However, over time, due to competition and profitability concerns there is an emergence of sensationalism and drama in News. This Article will attempt to track the role of news media over time and will also show how increasingly, the burden of responsibility to research and be informed has shifted from the news media on to the public.
Prior to the emergence of a News Media sector, a monopoly of information was maintained by the governments of the time. Only information they deemed necessary got out to the public. This was inevitably used to the benefit of the governments. The raise of journalism as an industry disrupted the society as there was no longer a wall of secrecy between the government and its citizens. Information was valuable, and the newspaper was the new way to distribute that information. Due to this disruption of the information monopoly, governments used censorship and laws to try and maintain their monopoly on the information. In 1798, for example, the United States government passed ‘The Sedition Act’, which forbad the printing, writing or uttering that;
“any false, scandalous and malicious writing … against the government of the United States, or president of the United States, with intent to defame said government” or “bring them into contempt or disrepute”.
One might argue that banning ‘fake’, ‘scandalous’ and ‘malicious’ information was a good move by the government. However, one must recognise that ‘fake’ can be anything that the government disagrees with. ‘Scandalous’ and ‘malicious’ can also be defined by the government in similar ways, as any reports of misbehaviour or corruption within the government could be considered ‘Scandalous’ and result in fines and arrests. In fact, about 25 people were arrested by use of this act.
Censorship was also adopted by more authoritative governments. In recent history, the governments of Russia, China and authoritative Japan implemented this policy (Japan was effectively a dictatorship until the end of World War 2). When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote the Gulag Archipelago series; which can be considered as news, as it brought out the factual atrocities conducted by the Russian government of the time towards its own and foreign citizens, it was banned from Russia and so were all his writings. Japan has and continue to censor information about the massacre of Nanjing, where in 1937 about 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were raped, tortured and killed by the Japanese Army. Government intervention in the content of news is one way in which new media has changed. Over the past few decades censorship laws have decreased thereby, enabling the news media to gain some leverage in ‘speaking truth to power’.
The Big Three And The Raise Of Opinion Journalism
Up until the 1980s, there were only three major news networks that dominated the information distribution market in North America, they were ABC, NBC and CBS. These companies, up until early 1970s, did not make much profit and never aimed to make a profit. News was under the oligopoly of these three networks. In 1968 presidential election, in an effort to boost its ratings, ABC news introduced debates between William F Buckley and Gore Vidal. This decision by the network inevitably led to the popularisation and sensationalisation of opinion journalism. A series of debates and commentaries during the 1968 Presidential were broadcasted by ABC news which led to huge raise in popularity of the network, Buckley and Vidal. It also led to a famous feud which lasted years between Buckley and Vidal, creating an awe around television pundits and more importantly setting a blueprint for boosting ratings and profitability for news networks.
The growth of cable TV helped make these media companies profitable. In the early 1970s only 8% of American households had a basic cable connection to their television. However, as the industry of media content (both news and other entertainment content) grew, the need for owing basic cable also grew. By 1980 around 23% of the American households owned basic cable, and it continued to grow, by 1984 it had been owned by 60% of the American households. News, now with live reactions of the anchors and live unfolding of events made news instantaneous and created a sense of attachment between the viewers and the anchors. This change in the media landscape meant that the big three news networks could finally make profits from broadcasting new and not subsidise their news by producing other content. In the late 1970s, about 60% of a networks profits were from news. This provided an incentive for others to invest in broadcasting news, which was increasingly becoming an independent industry.
Competition And Profit
The staggering amount of profit being made by news media companies helped establish an incentive structure for new companies to disrupt the market. Enter CNN. On June 1st, 1980 CNN was officially launched after nearly four years in development. Although the network initially saw losses, even being dubbed as “the Chicken Noddle Network” the founder Ted Turner continued to invest into the company. By 1986, CNN overtook the three major networks due to its quick and live coverage of events such as, the Persian Gulf War, the launching of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the acquiring of dynamic and risk-taking reporters such as Christiane Amanpour who herself went into war zones to report on news.
Due to the increasing market and potential profitability in the Buckley Vs. Vidal model and the overall news media, opinion news networks were launched. NBC in 1996 launched a left-wing offshoot called MSNBC into cable news, in response, a conservative, Fox News was also launched the same year. These news channels featured hour long journalism and commentary based on the days news. One network (MSNBC) would provide a left-wing view point on the issues and debate whereas, Fox News would provide a more conservative view point on the subject. This beginning of opinion journalism and its repackaging as news, pulled in more views and generated more profit as people could now choose their source and enjoy that programme over their evening. This also, unfortunately, triggered a series of events that led to only specific news items being picked up by specific networks in order to satisfy and maintain their core audience.
Social ‘News’ Media
The boom of news media and the raise in opinion journalism represented one major thing, individuals could now access media that could pick up stories would re-enforce their opinion. A example of the coverage of the Iraq war shows that; about 60% of Fox coverage was Pro-war with the network spending a total 14+ hours covering the war with about 328 stories in the first month of the war. In contrast ABC was very anti-war, with about 66% of its coverage backing that position. CBS was more Pro-war than Fox with about 74% of their coverage backing that position. NBC had the most balanced coverage with about 53% of it being pro-war and about 47% of it anti-war. This level of difference in coverage on a single issue and the differences in opinion of by the T.V networks when they are expected to simply give an objective representation of the news, it simply not their initial purpose. However, this boosted their viewership and in turn their profits.
One thing that lacked about the media then was that, the general public could not give their opinion on the news. News would very often flow one way and the T.V networks would almost always have experts from various fields to discuss issues. This made one’s opinion only available to their immediate friends and family. Social media and the boom of the internet soon changed this. They presented a platform for anyone, almost anywhere (as long as they had an internet connection) to post their views on social media. Soon media giants such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter emerged. According to the Pew Research Center, as of late 2017 around 2/3 of Americans gets their news from social media. Social media brought with it a new wave of uncertainty in news media. Whereas before, news media could choose on what to report on, the underlying information had to be verified as true.
Therefore, it was perfectly acceptable for news media to take a position, such as ‘Obama is a bad or good president’ and keep reporting on one side of this position, as long as their underlying information was true. However, with the raise of YouTube, Facebook, twitter and other online media, faking information became easier. With a post getting more popular because of other people endorsing it (sharing or retweeting) and not because of its factualness, it has become increasingly popular and easy to spread fake news. An MIT research study found that fake news is 70% more likely to be endorsed (shared or retweeted) by others than real news. The research also shows that to reach 1500 people, real news takes 6 times more time than fake news.
The Politics of Fake news
Fake news and its spreading has always existed in politics. Famously, Lyndon Johnson while running in Texas in the 1940s, created a rumor accusing his opponent of bestiality. When his campaign manager protested saying it was false, Lyndon Johnson allegedly replied,
“I know, but let’s make the sonofab****h deny it.”
In modern times, fake news (or fake information) has been used by politicians from both sides alike. Obama famously promised voters, in an effort to increase public approval of Obama-Care, that if someone liked their doctor, they could keep them. This was a blatant lie. Trump has take this to a whole new level, stating fake news in an attempt to pass it off as the truth, one of the most famous being that his election was the biggest election victory since Reagan. Even ‘News’ Media has increasingly become partisan. A PunditFact report shows that almost 78% of the statements made by Fox news were either half-true or false with another 12% being mostly true. On the other hand, another report showed that about 47% of the statements made on CNN were either half-true or false with an additional 37% being Mostly True.
This increasing use and spreading of fake news has led to the election of president Donald Trump. An individual whose important campaign message was everything anti-mainstream. Many individuals, who criticize Donald Trump, fail to recognise that Trump commanded a large base because his underlying stance (that the news was fake and the government was filled with ethically compromised people) had a certain degree of truth to it.
This spread of partisan media and fake news, has also led to governments passing legislation that limits Free Speech and Freedom of Expression rights. Recently, the Malaysian government passed a bill that criminalises spreading on fake news, with fines up to $123,000 and a jail term of up to six years. However, determining what is ‘fake’ is not a power that the government must wield. This law can be effectively used to crack down any view that opposes the government. The same outlet reported that a deputy minister stated that any news on 1MDB, (a scandal involving stolen government funds) which is not verified by the government, is fake. Laws such as this could become the norm if fake news continues to control the national narrative.
People As A Filter
News media, whether it be print, digital or cable news always as a certain bias. As humans, it is natural to have bias. This bias must be recognised and even publicised. For example, over the past few years, two prominent opinionated news outlets have emerged. Self admittingly liberal outlet ‘The Young Turks’ and self admittingly conservative news outlet ‘Daily Wire’. The chief editor of the ‘Daily Wire’, Ben Shapiro gets about 10 million downloads a month of his show, ‘The Ben Shapiro Show’. On the other hand, The Young Turks has about 3 million viewers. This way the online partisan news outlets, with fully disclosing their personal views, attract followers and further encourage these followers to get their news from various sources.
This sprit of getting news from partisan outlets but, also consuming news from different outlets, will allow an individual to be informed about events and learn about the opinions of both sides of the political spectrum. The burden of responsibility has, at this stage, fallen on the public to consume and verify news because in this partisan fight over ‘fake news’ there is only one victim, the common individual. The public must be responsible now because the consequences of not doing so could result in either a government that takes away free speech rights of its citizens or an unstable leader/movement that can rise to sudden political prominence by using fake and dishonest news.