I was going to write a post about renewable energy or saving the whales or some other laudable baloney, but I find myself, once again, distracted by cynicism. Cynicism about the irrelevance of what I write, not only because most of what I write isn’t very good, but also because virtually no one reads any of it. The two might be correlated. But I’m also increasingly cynical about the relevance of what passes as news and analysis, but mainly the latter. And cynicism about this begets cynicism about the broader state of rational discourse and the capacity to address the myriad of pressing problems that one is already cynical about.
Like most cynicism, mine is probably too cynical. I recognise that cynicism has to do more with outlook and attitude rather than a reasoned response to (mostly anecdotal) observations. There are certainly lots of things that I am optimistic about. Many of them are the same things that I am cynical about. And given that in other cases I have chosen hope over cynicism, I’ve probably just got a case of the winter blahs.
In any case, the philosophy and psychology of cynicism aside, let me outline some of the particular things that I have recently observed in the media that have been troubling me.
The first is a long-standing problem in journalism, that is, the restraints established by the daily news-cycle. There’s nothing inherently insidious about daily newspapers; indeed, it’s perfectly reasonable to want to communicate and hear about the news as part of a daily routine. But every journalist knows that with the daily news cycle comes pressure from deadlines, and this often means cutting corners. Journalists are taught how to write a story with the minimum amount of sources possible. The goal is typically to write expediently, not excellently. In other words, thoroughness is not high on the list of journalistic values. And especially when complex stories turn into analysis, the limitations of deadlines are exposed. It’s abundantly clear that when it comes to the analysis of a complicated issue of foreign policy, like the military occupation of Afghanistan, or divisive political questions, like gun control, or an irreducibly complex environmental issue, like climate change, a 1000-word opinion piece that some columnist concocted in a few hours to meet their deadline is not going to do such issues justice (though there may be rare exceptions).
But a thorough and thoughtful analysis is not really ever the goal anyway. The goal is to sell newspapers. I know this sounds over-simplistic and trite. I don’t mean to sound so cynical that I think that this is the only factor dictating everything that gets published. Of course different media sources have different values and goals that extend beyond mere profiteering. Of course many media sources strive for excellence in writing. Of course columnists are likely by and large an honest lot writing to the best of their ability and trying as best as they can to produce something meaningful. But they have also been conditioned to pursue these aspirations in a very circumscribed way, and as idealistic as they might be, they tend to succumb to the pragmatics of ensuring they continue to be asked to write columns. Furthermore, I am inclined to believe that such pragmatic strategies are on the rise, or at least exacerbated by the growing predominance of online news.
In this regard, to speak of “selling newspapers” is outdated. The real goal is to sell clicks. Prior to online newspapers (the very term is anachronistic), it would be difficult to quantify in any precise sense the impact value (to use a stupid term from academic publishing) of a particular story, much less an editorial. Really, the only way you could measure the popularity of a piece of writing, or a particular journal was by the letters one received. But physically writing a letter and sending it in the mail to the newspaper is burdensome, and so even for very popular stories, your metric would be pretty limited.
Today, virtually every online news-site has a ticker in the margin telling you the most-read, most-liked, and most-commented on story. If you are a fledgling online journalist, and you produce the most-read story on a site for a particular day or week, this would conceivably be a huge boost for your digital portfolio and CV.
Hypothetically, one way to write a widely-read piece is to do an excellent job – to write something original, sharp, thoughtful, and impeccably argued. But there are much more expedient ways to boost your numbers. Firstly, misleading, provocative, if not inflammatory titles. Extreme example:
Obviously Sun News is a caricatural case to use here. Sun newspapers shamelessly embrace tabloidism and yellow journalism. But the strategy also sells a ton of newspapers (the Toronto Sun’s average weekly circulation for the last 5 years is over a million). Arguably other, more reputable (at least a self-fashioned reputability) newspapers employ this strategy to varying degrees. Take this recent story by Rosie Dimanno, whose lead reads, “She lost a womb, but gained a penis.” I know, I know. Dimanno is another extreme and awful example. But she’s also one of the Toronto Star’s most prominently featured columnists. The Huffington Post is a major offender. Their online front page is always headed by a two or three word hyperbolic headline in all caps. When I’m writing this it actually isn’t awful, but still a little silly. It reads “SEVERELY UNAFFORDABLE. Want to buy a house here? Good luck,” referring to a report on housing affordability in Vancouver. (Incidentally, today when I am editing this the headline is “TYPICAL COLONIZED INDIAN A**HOLE,” presumably about Chief Theresa Spence’s views on Canadian Senator Patrick Brazeau).
Another strategy seemingly on the rise (though I could just be noticing it more now) is using misleading and/or provocative rhetorical questions as article titles. In place of a relevant and informative title, columnists ask provocative, often divisive, questions to which one group of ideologues would immediately answer in the affirmative, while another group will be offended that such a question was even asked. Typically the following piece will side with the offended side, thereby offending the first group, resulting in a enormous troll orgy in the comments section. And voila, one of the top read and top commented pieces on the site. A recent article related to the Idle No More protests was titled, “Attawapiskat: Why don’t they just leave?“. One of the Star’s top read stories asks, “Is New York’s supersized soda ban racist?”. The Globe and Mail ran a piece today, by one of their best rehashers and plagiarists, Margaret Wente, which now their second most popular article, entitled “What happened to Global Warming?” There are few surer ways to start a comment flame war by running a piece questioning climate change. These types of articles do nothing more than obstinately rehearse commonly-held, yet controversial opinions, which have of course been treated much more seriously and thoroughly elsewhere. In other words, columnists that resort to this, or similar, strategies are the professional version of trolls.
Also ostensibly increasing are the number of fluff pieces about celebrities, diets, fads, etc. While these have always been a facet of even relatively reputable newspapers, the physical structure of papers allowed these to be relegated to a less central section of the paper, while thereby not conspicuously cheapening the news section. This is still true to some extent with online sites, as they will have demarcated sections, but the homepage layout usually allows these “stories” to be featured more prominently, alongside the most important news-stories. Further, because online papers are not restricted by size, these newspapers can produce a vastly disproportionate amount of these pieces inconspicuously. If you picked up a physical paper and the entertainment section was twice the size of the news section, one would grow suspicious. In online newspapers, one can produce as much vacuous gossip pieces as possible, and people who would be turned off by such things won’t necessarily notice. But, the site manages to generate an enormous amount of traffic by attracting those that are interested in whether Beyoncé lip-synched or not. In glancing at most-read lists, you will notice a preponderance of these kinds of stories, which suggests that they are responsible for a good portion of the readership.
The Huffington Post is a leading offender in this regard. I recently had to unsubscribe from their RSS feed due to the sheer number of inane pieces that would appear in my Google Reader. The three most popular articles of the day are, in order: “BABY GOT BACK: Woman Boasts World’s Largest Hips,” “Rough Day For Alleged Violent Naked Pooping Masturbator,” and “Selena Gomez Is Barely Recognizable Without Makeup.” Meanwhile the Toronto Star’s “must-reads” include “Tiger Woods dating Lindsey Vonn?” and “Get the Downton Abbey look.” Even the Globe and Mail, which is a relatively serious paper, features on their home page, as the leading article in the “Arts” (those are ironic quotation marks) section, “Idol Releases footage of Nicky Minaj’s Blow-up” (again, also featured on the National Post online).
(It turns out that there is a tumblr dedicated to documenting the preposterousness of the Huffington Post’s sensationalism.)
I suspect there is a substantial rise in the total number of news stories, analysis, op-ed pieces, etc. being produced in general. Of course, this isn’t necessarily bad. In best case scenarios it could mean that marginalized or specialized topics that couldn’t find their way past traditional news filters are now given a showing, since they don’t have to jockey for space. So, the news could be more demographic specific, and present a more robust range of issues then previously. But it also apparently means an increase in patently inane celebrity gossip articles.
Overall, I’m inclined to think that the overall quality of news has actually decreased as quantity has gone up. That’s because no longer do we have a daily-news cycle, but essentially a up-to-the-second news cycle. If I refresh my Google Reader after reading a few stories, dozens of new stories will have appeared. By the end of the day, the stories that I was reading in the morning are several pages of refreshes later. Literally a hundred new articles will have appeared, and my feed list isn’t really all that extensive. Who’s writing this abundance of news? Lots of authors are unpaid or barely paid, especially those who write associated blogs for particular news-sites (which nevertheless often get featured as news-stories). On that note, the blurring of blogs and “legitimate” news sources has, again, ostensibly had a net negative effect on quality (though the average blog may well be better than a few years ago). A general push for increased content expectedly has a advertising-dollar incentive. Constant content means more traffic, more page views, more comments, a better metric for advertisers.
Obviously I’m picking on a very small sample of online newspapers, which arguably shouldn’t be taken to be representative of any broader trends in news analysis. Is it really fair to base a pessimistic attitude towards journalism on the Huffington Post? How’s that for a rhetorical question? Or that? Or that? Of course this is all anecdotal, based on particular ways I’ve been interacting with online media. Based on this, it’s completely unclear if tabloidism, for example, is on the rise. That would be an interesting study, though, which perhaps I’ll pursue someday. On that note, I recently read this study on the rise of 24-hour “breaking news” channels, that resonates with some of my misgivings here. This study finds the majority of news on such channels is relatively banal and inconsequential, since most things that happen are uninteresting and unimportant. Yeah, so one study doesn’t really say anything, either. It’s more rigorous than what I’ve done here, though.
I’m now aware, as are any of you who have read this far, that this post is substantially longer than the average word-count for typically news-stories, so it’s probably a good time for some conclusions.
I realise, ironically, that this post hardly goes beyond the hackneyed and mostly baseless rants that I am criticizing. Of course much news analysis leaves much to be desired. This is hardly surprising. Many reasonable people are aware of the limitations of the media and would probably offer the following response to my concerns: stop reading the Huffington Post and Rosie Dimanno. The slightly less banal concern (though of course hardly novel) is what all this says about the possibilities for constructive, sincere, informed, and critical public debate. I know there has never been a shortage of people complaining about the dismal state of public discourse – what could be more trite than that? And yet, here I am, complaining about the state of public discourse, which probably explains why I’m so cynical.