Few would argue that powerful figures, agencies, and political movements often use such resources to their advantage when pushing their own agenda. Crowds are, unfortunately, relatively easy to manipulate with access to the right avenues of influence. And, when it becomes observable that the public is not embracing a notion, movement, or legislation that leading powers desire to promote, often the solution can be as easy as tweaking the headlines or television programming to incite public response. When degenerate sources wish to create a certain large-scale reaction, all they must do is rock the proverbial boat. And, unfortunately, since the guidance of family or caregivers has waned across the years and digital preoccupation has taken its place, many people don’t have a philosophical or religious platform from which to pull and respond. Instead, modern generations have been conditioned to seek guidance from Internet memes, television programming, social media, and other sources of electronic information—or misinformation. And, since there are devious powers that would use these outlets to promote their own agenda rather than serve the public via earnest journalism, we risk falling prey to sensationalistic stories rather than insisting on obtaining truth. The result is zealous droves of impressionable young adults who embrace headlines enthusiastically—even when they lack the whole truth. On a large scale, this means that a few in power have the means to steer society with craftily spun stories.
Thus, the hand that previously rocked the cradle is replaced by a new hand—one that, instead, rocks the boat.
The news industry has changed vastly over the past century. There are several reasons for this, one of the primary being the emergence of the Internet. In fact, this single entity has revolutionized how nearly the entire world operates. Of course, its benefits have been obvious, from facilitating information-gathering and instant communication to enhancing corporate and industrial practices and simply making our personal lives run a little more smoothly. For example, the Internet has given us the ability to find just the right product, company, or service without limiting our options to what’s in our local phone book or nearby retail shops. And, during recent COVID-19 shutdowns, the World Wide Web seemed at times to be a lifeline for households in need of supplies amid pandemic-prompted shortages and brick-and-mortar store closures.
But, as with so many good things, there’s a dark side of the Web as well, one that, for example, fosters malevolent trade practices and adversely affects the reporting and circulation of news. With more and more people obtaining their news digitally, distribution costs have plummeted. The trend toward paperless distribution of news hasn’t only increased profit margins, but has also opened up opportunities for real-time reporting. In previous decades, newspaper reporters covered breaking stories by traveling to the location, researching events, conducting interviews, writing the articles, and seeing them published no sooner than the next morning’s paper. In contrast, today’s journalists can cover and write entire stories remotely from their desks in the newsroom or from their homes, often simply by gathering the facts from Internet sources.
Director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Emily Bell, commented on the way a new form of journalism emerged around the time of the September 11, 2001, World Trade Centers attack, stating:
Linear TV just could not deliver. People used the web to connect…in real time…then [posted] on [online] message boards and forums…[with] bits of information they knew themselves and aggregated it with links from elsewhere.[i]
With the speed at which technology can now provide updates, few people now have the patience to wait for a print article (where they’re even still available, as many newspapers have gone to online-only formats) in the next morning’s newspaper when they’re wanting more information on a hatching story. The Internet has afforded immediate connection to worldwide events as they happen.
Unfortunately, the down side of this instant news production is that it has become a breeding ground for misinformation, with little accountability for incorrect or false reporting. Blogs, vlogs (video blogs), user-edited sites (such as Wikipedia), social media, personally/privately contracted Internet domains (such as www.<anynamehere>.com), memes, and so many other currently available ways of moving information across the globe have given all individuals platforms by which they can present any information they want as news—with nearly no accountability.
During the days when all news was in print format, most information was vetted through editors and others who fact-checked and proofread stories. Granted, there was still the opportunity for agenda-influenced information (or downright lies) to be released, but those stories had to survive a selection and approval process before going to press. For example, if two newspapers in the same town told different versions of a story, readers could be aware that one of the journalists wasn’t telling the truth or that the whole story wasn’t being fully disclosed. Any corrections or updates could be printed in a subsequent edition (albeit, sometimes in an inconspicuous area where readers would likely overlook it; these corrections often seemed to be more of a token effort than a real one to publicly set the facts straight). However, all this aside, what the public had access to was multiple news sources printing stories as they saw them to be true, researched by reporters who often traveled to the source of the event or had trusted sources of information, and that were fact-checked and edited by news companies that hung their credibility on the notion that the public could and would expect trustworthy reporting. The Internet’s impact on the press today, however, has made it so that consumers often see reports with different or conflicting facts. For the average reader, true accounts become more difficult to discern with each passing day.
The vehicle by which the public obtains its news has changed vastly across the decades as well. What began a century ago as a daily printed form of the news slowly evolved to include news broadcasts from radio stations, television networks, and finally to Internet sources, which are available through a variety of devices, including personal computers, tablets, and smart phones.[ii]
Each shift [of public news intake] rendered the prior form of media slightly more obsolete and identified a universal theme:…people…will embrace any technology that permits them to…[obtain news at greater speed and incrementalism].[iii]
Because the Internet is a resource that gives a platform to anyone who creates a social-media profile, composes emails, contracts a “www.<anynamehere>.com” website, has enough graphic arts skill to create the most rudimentary of memes, or generally knows how to type an opinion, it is daily flooded with stories that don’t benefit from the scrutiny print news underwent in eras gone by. Millions of opinions taint articles that appear to present credible investigations. Sources of “facts” are dubious and sometimes unverifiable.
Not only does the Internet itself create a forum wherein any users can post their version of news, but technology has also brought us to a place where nearly any story can be contrived by folks at home on a simple computer. Deepfake, Photoshop, graphic design, film editing, artificial intelligence, and other technology provide limitless possibilities for presenting any information, whether valid or not, as “real.” As stated before, truth has become a “buyer beware” market.
One meme floating around the Internet says, “‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.’—Abraham Lincoln.”[iv] This very image makes the point: It only takes a moment for most viewers to recognize that Lincoln never could have said this, since the Internet didn’t come on the scene until more than a century after his death. However, youngsters who are unaware of this chronological gap may accept the words as fact. (And, as we’ll discuss later, then they’ll repeat them to comrades as truth.) Herein lies yet another way the Internet has contributed to the public’s inability to trust the news. This newer vehicle for circulating news greatly complicates matters for readers looking for truth, because instead of having access to only a couple of news sources with an established journalistic process of ensuring reliability and scrutiny, we have at our fingertips thousands of versions of the same story—many of which are based on unprofessional journalistic practices, personal opinions and biases, secondhand information, rumors, and—at times—even outright lies.
With such a playground of false information available to anyone who chooses to report a story, and with no accountability for falsehoods or errors, a new problem emerges for professional news reporters. These, who once had daily deadlines for stories to be included in the following morning’s print newspapers, now find that the immediacy of the Internet, combined with its availability for any to report on, fosters a setting wherein they must work 24/7 to stay ahead of the continual feed of unreliable information posted. Reporting now happens around the clock, and the true professional must work tirelessly to stay ahead of the game, and they do so for reasons ranging from duty to true journalistic ideals in order to prevent public panic in response to published untruths. The flipside of this issue is that, while journalists now have access to much more information by which to feed their own stories via the Internet, they must scrutinize the information’s credibility before using it. And, the corporation that loses too much time to such analysis risks breaking stories “days after they’ve appeared on Twitter” as tweets from eyewitnesses who may not have full details of the event.[v] The resulting conundrum for the journalist becomes whether to publish a story before all details are verified or to run the article so late that the world has moved on and the content is no longer relevant. As a result of this dilemma, the quality of the news often suffers.[vi]
Remember the Abraham Lincoln meme mentioned earlier? It likely originated as a joke. This brings up another valid point regarding misinformation on the Net. Nearly any story, hoax, meme, or social media rant, removed from its context, can be (and often is) circulated and perceived by some as fact. In this way, reporters seeking to share true information are, again, vastly outnumbered by news that derives from false origins—whether intentionally or not.
From Journalism to Media Consolidation
We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.[vii]
Those who have attempted over the past centuries to share true and credible news with the public follow five core elements of good journalism. These should be followed by anyone presenting themselves as members of an honest press.
- Truth and reliability. Just as the oath one must take before giving a sworn testimony in a court of law, reporters should give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When they can’t verify information that seems relevant, its unconfirmed status should be relayed to the reader/viewer.
- Independence of agents. Those call themselves reliable sources shouldn’t operate on behalf of anyone who might gain financially or otherwise from the information being disseminated. Facts should be presented without sway by any “political, corporate, or cultural” conflict of interest.[viii] Affiliations with those who may profit should be made public.
- Lack of bias. When stories are relayed as factual, they should include all details and events, not only those that skew the article to sway readers’ opinions in one direction or another. Opinion pieces should be disclosed as such.
- Objectivity. False reporting can lead (as we’ve often seen) to impassioned responses from the public that can escalate into all types of problematic behavior. If journalists seek to carry out a public service, then it’s necessary to present fact-based, objective reporting that doesn’t manipulate the public’s emotions.
- Accountability. This is to be done with professionalism, the willingness to correct any errors, and the motivation of building—and keeping—the public’s trust.[ix]
Some of the obstacles standing in the way of honest journalism have been outlined. It has been asserted that there is a powerful hand that rocks the boat society rides in. But, if this is the case, then precisely whose hand is it that reaches out to shake up the public’s mindset? A couple of decades back, we began to see a shift in the answer to this question.
In returning to our earlier example of two newspapers in the same town, there was a time several decades ago when it would have been legally mandated for the two entities to be separately owned. In fact, several laws were in place that regulated and limited ownership of television stations, news outlets, and radio stations. As a general rule, in most markets, only one could be owned at a time per region. Cross-ownership, meaning proprietorship of multiple types of companies, was also usually prohibited. Such laws were set into place by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to avoid biased reporting and over-conglomeration of news. In the late 1990s, however, some within the industry began to fight these rules (more on this in a bit). In June of 2003, the FCC updated its rules to allow television broadcasters to expand ownership to reach “a combined 45 percent of the national audience,” allowing news sources to extend their reach beyond the previously held 35 percent cap.[x] Simultaneously, guidelines were updated to allow cross-ownership of multiple forms of media outlets—television, radio, newspaper, etc. Additionally, companies whose reach was previously limited to only one station were now permitted to own multiple, depending on the size and spread of their market and the ratings of each outlet under same proprietorship.[xi] In simpler terms, this extended reach from one outlet, capped at 35 percent of national audience, to multiple and various means of broadcasters, who were then each allowed to obtain 45 percent of the national audience. The overlap potential within same-possession allowed conglomerates nearly unlimited scope.
Some among the FCC expressed concern over this legislative overhaul, worried that “the changes would concentrate ownership in the hands of a few, reduce the diversity of viewpoints and stifle reporting of local news.”[xii] (“Local news” includes much more than reporting stories that occur in one’s hometown; it also refers to the representation of small group points of view, localized political or economic issues, lesser-known political candidates, and even the assurance that special-interest concerns—such as “consumer advocates, civil rights and religious groups, small broadcasters, writers, musicians, academicians and the National Rifle Association”[xiii] just to name a few—are not replaced with generic, nationalized rhetoric.)
The heart of the issue was this: The previously held policies existed to keep news diversified, independent, and competitive. With these qualities in mind, each station would be held accountable—by both its consumers and opponents—to provide true, vetted, and well-researched news. By limiting cross-ownership (the holding of television, radio, and newspaper outlets simultaneously) sources were, again, forced to do diligent reporting or be eliminated by more responsible contenders. Those who challenged these rules did so on the grounds that many of the laws were several decades old—seemingly archaic in light of such new innovations as cable TV, satellite, and even a newly budding World Wide Web.[xiv] Existing laws, instated between 1941 and 1975, were set in place specifically to “encourage competition and prevent monopoly control of the media;”[xv] but were declared by many to be outdated in light of these newer information vehicles. Essentially, networks retaining only the remaining audiences of analog television claimed that the era of a few major networks, paired with small, localized channels, was in the past, rapidly being outpaced by newer ways of consumers selectively acquiring programming in the home (such as those just mentioned). As a result, companies that had been disallowed to pursue expansion of their audience beyond the 35 percent cap—and who likewise claimed that they barely turned profits as is—claimed they were being pigeonholed into continual financial struggles.[xvi]
For this reason, in 1996, a law was instated that forced the FCC to revise and restructure older legislation that was no longer deemed to be in the public’s best interest every two years.[xvii] While larger networks sought to remove the 35 percent audience cap completely, smaller stations prophetically claimed that this would “allow the networks to gobble up [smaller] stations and take away control of programming.”[xviii]
In fact, Commissioner Michael Copps’ apprehension of the changes was so severe that he stated that, under the new laws, “America’s new media elite [has been given] unacceptable levels of influence over the ideas and information upon which our society and democracy depend.”[xix]
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Ironically, many of the outlets that made a case for necessary expansion are still the largest media outlets controlling the market today: ViacomCBS, Newscorp, Fox, Disney, ABC, General Electric, NBC, AOL, Time Warner, CNN/Money, and Warner Bros.[xx] (More on specific media companies in the upcoming pages.) Suffice it to say, despite whatever economic “threat” these felt that they were facing prior to 2003, they actually weathered the storm quite well.
In June, 2003, CNN Money reported:
The…[FDC] approved new media ownership rules…allowing television broadcasters to expand their reach, despite fears the move may reduce the variety of viewpoints available to consumers.[xxi]
Since these changes began, perpetual consolidation of media ownership has become more of an issue. Before this occurred, higher numbers of media outlets were locally owned or owned by a greater number of sources, meaning that viewpoints represented had influence from a more level “playing field,” and that news was better primed for its own viewer locale and was better customized to its location/demographic.
Many experts who weighed in on the changes in June of 2003 voiced forewarning fears in response to the changes. Those who saw the imminence of bias in reporting, diminishment of small-group viewpoints, and over-conglomeration of coverage—particularly as it pertains to political commentary—have been proven right nearly two decades later. Perhaps one of the most alarming remarks given was by executive director for the Center for Public Integrity, Charles Lewis, who immediately expressed concern regarding how the mainstreaming of media would be abused politically:
The most powerful special interest in America is the media…if you’re a politician, they control whether your face and your voice is on the airwaves. That’s power. If you’re not on the airwaves, backed with constituencies, you’re going to lose.[xxii]
Critics of media consolidation express several concerns. One is that when competition is consolidated, the lack of rivalry erodes the drive to remain truthful in reporting, to offer edgy information represented in full factual objectivity, and the diversity of small-groups’ voices becomes lost amongst a larger rhetoric. Additionally, when news outlets focus solely on reporting, those who seek coverage do so intentionally. When stories are presented between modes of entertainment, viewers perceive themselves to be informed, but their intake has been passive—randomly interspersed amid what they are otherwise doing. Since they don’t go looking for updates, they aren’t in an active mindset to objectively take in the information that may be lined with bias, and they’re only presented with the stance that merely floats across the screen. Naturally then, they haven’t heard both sides of a story. But, because they aren’t seeking out news coverage in the first place, it’s unlikely they will research to find the truth.
Another element of conglomeration is that media is often represented with one homogenized voice. Why does that matter? We’ll explain in the next entry.
UP NEXT: SOMETHING DARK IS OPERATING BEHIND BIG MEDIA
[i] Aleks Krotoski, “What Effect Has the Internet Had on Journalism?” The Guardian, February 19, 2011. Last accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/feb/20/what-effect-internet-on-journalism.
[ii] “How the Internet Has Changed News Media Outlets,” Google Sites. Last accessed March 3, 2021. https://sites.google.com/site/newsoutletsandtheinternet/.
[iv] “Don’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet,” KnowYourMeme, TrollQuotes. Last accessed March 3, 2021. https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1201185-troll-quotes.
[v] Krotoski, “What Effect Has the Internet Had on Journalism?”
[vi] “How the Internet Has Changed News Media Outlets.”
[vii] Orwell, 1984, 207.
[viii] “The 5 Principles of Ethical Journalism.” EthicalJournalismNetwork.org. Last accessed March 3, 2021. https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/who-we-are/5-principles-of-journalism.
[x] “FCC Adopts Media Ownership Rules,” CNN Money News, June 2, 2003, Last accessed February, 18, 2021. https://money.cnn.com/2003/06/02/news/companies/fcc_rules/.
[xiii] Associated Press, “F.C.C. Votes to Relax Rules Limiting Media Ownership.” New York Times, June 2, 2003. Last accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/02/business/fcc-votes-to-relax-rules-limiting-media-ownership-20030602418873791.html.
[xvi] “FCC Adopts Media Ownership Rules.”
[xvii] Associated Press, “F.C.C. Votes to Relax Rules.”
[xix] “FCC adopts Media Ownership Rules.”
[xxii] Way Back, “Why Is Media Consolidation Bad? Media Ownership Concentration in Markets (2003),” October 10, 2015. YouTube Video, 59:21. Last accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj6V3YA0j7o.