I wrote a while back that the news are dying. This isn’t a judgment, or even a prediction: it’s an observation. The news business industrialized information, and turned a tidy profit thereby. With the advent of digitized communications, however, information has become overabundant — the problem, which used to be how to access information, is now how to filter out noise and irrelevance.
When the market value of information approaches zero, it’s hard to see what business model can keep the news manufacturers afloat.
Of course, the latter insist that avoiding the news is some sort of catastrophe for democracy — that, first, only an informed electorate can make sane choices at the voting booth, and second, only news makers can provide the right kind of information to the voters. They also insist that they are the filter we are all looking for.
Read your newspaper and news weeklies, watch the seven o’clock news from the networks, pay attention to CNN — ignore those instruments of the devil, the bloggers, the online social networks, the text messages on your cell phone — pretend we live in 1979, and all will be well.
Alas, the results of a study of the four “quality” British newspapers plus the Daily Mail, commissioned by Nick Davies, have been reported in the one of the aforementioned quality rags, the Guardian. The title of the piece sums up Davies’ findings: “Our media have become mass producers of distortion.”
Here’s what the researchers learned after analyzing 2,000 newspaper stories:
First, when they tried to trace the origins of their “facts”, they discovered that only 12% of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With 8% of the stories, they just couldn’t be sure. The remaining 80%, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry. Second, when they looked for evidence that these “facts” had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.
Part of the problem, the researchers found, is that journalists today are expected to fill up triple the space that was asked of them in 1985. “In other words, as a crude average, they have only one-third of the time that they used to have to do their jobs,” Davies writes. “Generally, they don’t find their own stories, or check their content, because they simply don’t have the time.”
Maybe so. I’d like to have someone analyze newspaper stories from 1985, and find out whether the business had any more integrity then than it does today — or just fewer studies conducted to test that integrity.
In any case, it would be rather alarming if voters were to lean on these sources for their choices, and it would be rather foolish for anyone to mistake for an information filter the noisy “distortion” of the news. Not that I’m worried. The economics of the matter are such that every day, in every way, fewer people will get exposed to the news.
(HT: EU Referendum.)