I’m tempted to use a lot of heavy language here. Pseudo-buzzwords like deluge, underpinnings, fundamental, seismic, and quite significant come to mind when faced with a topic like the foundational shift that journalism is currently undergoing.
The thing is though, we’ve known about all of these things for a while. Particularly if you’re familiar with journalism or if you work in the journalism industry, you could see this happening years ago. The seismic shifts and the demolition of the underpinnings of traditional journalism started as soon as the Internet gained popularity in the ’90s.
Far from the golden ages of Kronkite, Woodward and Bernstein, or even Zola, today’s journalism is now…well it’s not really journalism anymore. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
Today, newspapers are seen as outdated and excruciatingly slow at the best of times, when a century ago their influence was so great that even small towns had multiple publications printing off one or two editions per day.
TV news hasn’t fared much better: network news is all but a thing of the past thanks to the prevalence of 24-hour cable news.
And radio? Unless you have a long commute or you appreciate NPR, forget about it.
But on the internet, news has taken an entirely new form. Like a snowball thrown against a brick wall, journalism has become practically the inverse of itself. Once a clearly-defined, organized entity, it’s now a mutated, chaotic, fragmented mess stuck somewhere it doesn’t belong.
Think about websites like Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, or Gawker. What kind of content do you most commonly see on those sites? (Or, what content do you see from them on your Facebook news feed?) It’s attention-grabbing, emotion-stirring, and too often, false.
While this probably isn’t close to the worst thing happening in the world at the moment, it is concerning. It’s the old “boy who cried ‘wolf'” reaction: after hearing a string of falsehoods from the same source, we naturally start to second-guess it.
However, the new journalism isn’t as concerned with the truth as people are inclined to be. They care about views, about clicks, and above all, about advertising revenue.
In this business, if something gets seen, it can be shared. If it can be shared, it can create more views. And the more views you get, the more you can charge for ads. Do this a couple million times and you have a serious amount of cash flowing in.
With that kind of fundamental change in mission and intent, the burden of proof is no longer on the reporting agency—it’s on us. Buzzfeed and Gawker don’t have time to fact-check if they want to get their content published first, and at the end of the day they probably don’t care. After all, they’re only sharing something they saw, and they’ll get views when they report that it was false.
Luckily, the furthest-flung edges of the smashed snowball tend to melt the quickest, leaving us with something we can more easily recognize. While industries based on people’s attention aren’t inherently bad, we may have to wait a while until some kind of integrity develops.