The slow death of media credibility

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A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

It doesn’t. Or rather, it can’t because there is nowhere to turn to for an unbiased alternate view. And the last election showed what happens when social media becomes the prime conduit for ‘information:’ we get a fat-rich diet of opinions and disinformation, of unsupported allegations and rumour, even outright lies, but thin on actual news or facts. The voting public has no yardstick against which to measure the social media flotsam and jetsam. Incumbents no longer need to defend their actions or votes because local media doesn’t call them out for breaches of trust, egregious secrecy or blatant hypocrisy.

It’s not just the lack of local news and local analysis that is evident in the collapse of media credibility. it may be hurting our ability to think. An article in the Toronto Star last July asked,”Has the decline in newspaper reading led to a decline in intelligence?”

…IQ scores have been declining among people born since 1975, at the rate of seven less IQ points per generation. The IQ drops have been happening within families, with the IQ scores of sons lower than their fathers… The decline in newspaper reading seems to parallel the decline in IQ scores. There could well be a relationship. Reading skills were developed and maintained by newspaper reading more than by reading books. With the loss of easily accessible newspapers to read, reading skills have atrophied, and so has the development of the skills IQ tests are meant to measure.**

I recognize there’s a distinct irony in a TorStar piece lamenting the loss of newspaper readership barely a year after the Toronto Star and National Post made a deal to swap newspapers and close many community papers across the country – including more than 30 in Ontario – and killing almost 300 jobs.

Among those papers closed were seven dailies – including newspapers in Barrie and Orillia that had provided good, reliable local coverage for more than a century. Remaining in those markets were cookie-cutter Metroland weeklies like our own Collingwood Connection: basically ad wrappers with little actual news or local editorial analysis. Long gone, it seems, are the days when local media acted as watchdogs for the public over government or provided reliable, fulsome coverage of local issues.*

And with those dailies went more than just news – feature content such as movie and theatre reviews, cooking and wildlife columns, restaurant reviews, comics and letters to the editor also vanished. The weeklies cannot substitute for these losses. Local culture suffered a severe wound and these cities were impoverished by the closures.

Newspaper once helped build community. Weeklies just provide space to sell advertising. But the value of that space depends on the quality of the editorial – people ignore ads when they don’t read the paper, and they don’t read it if it’s irrelevant or mere editorial pablum. No one picks up a paper to read the ads: they are incidental, encountered while reading the editorial content (yes, there are those who get the weekly and remove the flyers to look for bargains, but throw away the wrapper).

Quick quiz: if you looked at the Connection this weekend, without opening it again name three prominent advertisers and what they were selling, plus the most important item on the town’s pages… right… it’s because we don’t read papers for their ads, and the less editorial content the less we see the advertising.

The New Republic piece has a dire warning:

Many digital publishers remain beholden to Facebook, Google, and other tech firms for page views, even while they report that those same companies’ algorithms reward fake news. With Silicon Valley holding the keys to online and on-demand video, cable and broadcast news will likely face a similar moment of reckoning as their TV viewers age out. A few elite American publications took an exit ramp from this highway to oblivion by launching paywalls: The New York Times; The Washington Post; and other prestige or hyper-focused brands among them. It’s likely that those in the middle of this continuum — local newspapers and other outlets that have made important contributions — will continue to fade away. The bifurcation has in some ways begun to resemble the dystopian media world of haves and have-nots…

David Uberti warns us in this piece that local newspapers and other (local) outlets will fade away. Well, we’ve seen that happening here already.

It didn’t begin with the closing of The Enterprise Bulletin – the only actual newspaper here -that was just a step along the way. It began several years earlier. Local radio station The Peak let its news director and only reporter go back around 2008 or ’09 and went to the format rip-and-read that most other radio stations here use.*** Around that time, the EB shrank to one issue a week (in the 1990s it had two a week, plus a weekend Huronia Sunday publication) and the number of pages per issue continued to dwindle. Political analysis programs that gave insight into local issues were dropped from the Rogers community channel.

There was no single event that identifies the closing of the curtain on local news coverage or engaged dialogue; it was a stream of seemingly unrelated events that helped bring us to the situation we find ourselves in today.

To be fair, Collingwood Today – an online-only outlet – is attempting somewhat to make up for the failure of traditional media by proving more coverage and more depth in some areas. But it too has outside content – advertorials – presented as articles. If you look closely, you’ll see it identified by “This Content is made possible by our Sponsor; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff.” (sic – the ungrammatical capitalization is in the original…) However the actual sponsor is not identified and you have to click a link to discover the source. For example, the piece titled, “Spotlight: Win the holidays with 5 ‘WOW’ gifts for him under $100” has links that all lead back to Amazon.ca. At least to me, the lack of clear identification of the commercial sources erodes credibility in the outlet.****

It’s not fantasy to imagine Canada without print newspapers, or at least without the smaller ones, and very soon. The Washington Post reported in June of 2018:

Most of the country’s newspapers are owned by just two companies: Postmedia, which owns more than 70 newspapers, magazines and associated news sites; and Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, the country’s largest daily, plus scores of smaller local newspapers. Both companies have been hemorrhaging money trying to shrink themselves into survival by laying off hundreds of journalists and cutting content; Postmedia was recently frighteningly close to bankruptcy. Since 2010, 30 percent of all journalism jobs have been lost in Canada, and 27 dailies have ceased publishing. Over the same period, advertising revenue has fallen from around $2.9 billion to $1.75 billion.

No one will be surprised if either corporation closes more local outlets to help staunch the bleeding.  The Shattered Mirror, a report about Canadian media prepared for the federal government last year, it noted:

The digital revolution has made for a more open and diverse news ecosystem–and a meaner and less trustworthy one. It has also upended the model of journalistic “boots on the ground” backed up by a second platoon in the office upholding such hallowed standards as verification and balance. Established news organizations have been left gasping, while native digital alternatives have failed to develop journalistic mass, especially in local news.

It asks, “Does the deteriorating state of traditional media, particularly but not exclusively newspapers, put at risk the civic function of journalism and media and therefore the health of our democracy?”

To which I must answer: yes. In 1950, there were 102 newspaper sold per 100 households in Canada. In 2018 there are 15 – less than one in five. By 2030, the number is predicted to be two. Anyone in print media who doesn’t stress over this trend is blind. But it also affects other media because it’s not just ad sales and circulation that are collapsing: it’s public trust in all media.

Perhaps my approach to media and journalism is terribly anachronistic. After all, my views on media and reporting, on credibility and responsibility, were formed in the heady days when print media was respected and powerful, and social media had not yet tainted the well (in the Shattered Mirror report, it notes, “there is no reason why Canadians, or anyone else, should be subjected to an Internet filled with polluted rivers of information.” Too late…).

Perhaps my beliefs in the ethics of journalism and keeping a separation between those whom reporters cover and the reporters themselves are old-fashioned and out of date in the era of Facebook and Twitter. But I also believe local media could – and SHOULD – do better if it wants to stay relevant. Or perhaps to regain some lost relevancy. As Edward Greenspon, President & CEO of the Public Policy Forum said,

Journalism’s main job is to keep watch over the powerful precincts of society–to challenge, cajole, educate, pester–and furnish an ongoing, trustworthy account of events that informs democratic choice and strengthens common purpose. That’s not to be treated lightly.

Local media should heed his words. Media credibility is waning everywhere and it needs personal effort and a return to ethics to be restored. Local journalists and editors have to take responsibility to make it happen here. Cruise control is no longer an acceptable way to go forward.

~~~~~
* A rough analysis of the Dec. 13 issue of the Collingwood Connection:

  • 36 pages with six columns of 11.5 inches = 2,484 total inches of space. Of that:
  • Total news, features, opinion, editorial, events (inc. photographs and editorial cartoon)= 484.5 inches or 19.5% of the total space.
  • Total photo, cutline and cartoon space: 123.25 inches, or 5% of total space and a full 25% of the entire editorial space;
  • Total written text including that copied from social media, and contributed copy: 361.25 inches or 14.% of total space;
  • Total news content specifically about Collingwood: 17.25 inches or 0.7% of total space and only 3.6% of the total editorial space;
  • Total local editorial, opinion, analysis, or commentary: 0 inches (the entire “opinion” page is the definition of editorial pablum);
  • Total local (Collingwood) commentary copied and pasted from social media: 0 inches;
  • Everything else (80% of the total space) is advertising (including self-promoting ads);
  • The Town of Collingwood bought three full-colour pages or 207 inches of space: twelve times the amount of space the paper dedicated to news about Collingwood and 43% of the space dedicated to all editorial content including cartoon and photos;
  • The longest story is about eggnog: 52.5 inches including photograph;
  • There are seven pages of full-page ads that separate items of editorial text (pages 10-16 inclusive);
  • Two columns of text in the Connection are approx. 3.5 inches wide. The typical paperback book text is 3.5 x 6 inches, or a little more than 12 column inches in the Connection (paperback text is single column, so there is no gutter). If this week’s paper were reduced to the size of a paperback book, it would be about 207 pages long, of which 167 would be advertising and ten would be photographs and editorial cartoon. Just under a page-and-a-half would be Collingwood news.

** The falling statistics of newspaper reading is likely only one of many causes of a reduced IQ. A 2017 U of Texas study showed smartphones also reduce cognitive ability:

The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand…participants who were the most dependent on their smartphones performed worse compared with their less-dependent peers…

And a study by the UK’s National Literacy Trust found “… young children and adolescents who read printed books (either exclusively or in addition to reading on screens) were 68% more likely to have above-average reading skills than those who read only on screens.”

*** Rip and read refers to using copy from printed sources including newspapers and news services rather than generating your own news. Newscript.com tells us, “The name comes from the days when wire-service stories came into the newsroom on a bulky, teletype machine that spat out the stories onto a large roll of paper. An anchor would rip the story off the roll and read it on the air.”

Losing local coverage hurt the credibility of local radio in part because radio then depended on dwindling content and increasingly biased local print media to provide the content. Radio without reporters cannot provide a credible alternate voice or opinion because they base everything on someone else’s views. And with less content in the paper to rip-and-read from, the audience hears less and less local news. “Local” radio news soon sounds just like every other radio news across the province.

The website also notes:

The credibility of news operations in music-heavy formats is not particularly high to begin with, but credibility is fundamental to all-news and news-talk formats. Listeners quickly perceive when stories sound the same, not only between newscasts on one particular station, but also between the news reports on different stations as these listeners punch the buttons on their car radios. When listeners face the same words telling the same story over and over again, they come to believe that there’s no news on the radio, and so there’s no need to listen to news-based formats.
“Rip ‘n’ read” can be deadly to a radio news operation. Kill “rip ‘n’ read” at your station before “rip ‘n’ read” kills you.

**** One of the ergonomic design problems in many online media outlets parallels that in the print version of some weeklies: each story (aside from the landing or front page) is separate (for example, in the Connection you rarely find more than one story per page). One of the benefits of reading a proper newspaper like the Globe & Mail or Toronto Star is that you see multiple stories on a page. As I recently wrote about dictionaries, when reading them, your eyes naturally fall on other items places beside or near the piece you are reading. thus readers get a broader view of the world. You become more educated with little effort. When isolated to one story per page, the reader’s focus is limited, and thus their education and engagement suffers. To its credit, the Connection’s online format is marginally better in presenting links to related material closer to (or within) the body of text, while Collingwood Today’s related links are too far below the body for most readers to discover. However, to better engage readers, more than one item per page should be evident.

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