Monday, July 25, 2016

Vital Media

It has been said that accurate, timely, appropriately contextualized and publicly relevant information is what is required for democracy. The problem that will always dog the media in this is that as far as the public is concerned, there is a fifth criterion - the information presented must also be interesting, desirable or otherwise PERSONALLY relevant, and that can often trump the other four. There isn't a central group or organization that shells out journalists salaries to make sure that information is made available for its own sake. Therefore, the media's daily bread depends to a large degree on their ability to present information that people are willing to pay and/or endure advertising for. (Before you hold up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio et al, as exceptions, two words: pledge drives.)

Whether the job of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Saint Petersburg Times, American Broadcasting Company, Chicago Tribune, WFAA or the Independent is to inform the public about the community and the world around them in such a way that they can be informed and active members of the community or to make money is not for me to say. And while there's nothing that says that the two are mutually exclusive, nothing prevents them from being in conflict. My personal impression is that, like any other business, many media outlets are most interested in the bottom line. And that means that, sometimes, stories that are useful to the working of democracy are bumped in favor of stories that are useful in attracting readers and advertisers. And it can also mean avoiding stories that might cause a backlash against the outlet.

To the degree that I understand that Media critics feel the media's flaw is a tendency to allow the needs of business to trump the needs of democracy (or republicanism, if you feel the need to be precise), I wouldn't say that's a flaw with the media. Businesses that fold because they ignored the desires of their customers aren't any help to civil society either. Despite the complaints of activists, the warm fuzzies that come from knowing that you've done your part to advance the free world don't pay the bills or buy food or clothing. And I also doubt that the activist assumption that accurate, timely, appropriately contextualized and publicly relevant information would, by it's very nature also be interesting, desirable and/or personally relevant.

Once the prevailing attitude among the general public becomes that the media's flaw is that they are unready, unwilling and/or unable to provide information that reliably meets ANY of the criteria, formal media outlets become irrelevant to everyday life, they will be considered vital to nothing, save perhaps some special interest somewhere. Then people who want information will turn to what they consider to be more reliable sources, be those weblogs, conversations with neighbors and friends or press releases from organizations with more credibility.

While it is an adage in business that the customer gets what the customer wants, activists tend to see business has having an obligation to look out for the public and provide what the activists feel the public needs, regardless of the business viability of such a tactic. I'm not sure that the assertion that one does a valuable service in attempting to be a jack of both trades rings true to me, given that it's fairly easy to find masters of one discipline or the other.

People on both sides of the political continuum like to complain that the media's tendency to look out for its bottom line as being both an attack on the truth (since the truth would obviously favor them) and the ability of the public to meaningfully participate in government (since objective reporting would reveal the wisdom and/or efficacy of their candidates and policies). But they don't then answer the question of how else one builds a viable business - or keeps "public-interest" reporting from being ignored in favor of what people want to know.

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