“There is a very fine line between loving life and being greedy for it.”
― Maya Angelou
We can all agree that in order to have a democratic system we must have a free press. But, what does “free” mean? Of course, we know it means free from government intrusion. That is part of our Constitution; a long-standing tradition in the U.S. It is so embedded into our culture that we don’t have a news organization owned and/or operated by the State (except for NASA TV).
Free also means unhampered by outside influence. This is where the conflict begins. The U.S. prides itself on being a capitalist society, a country built on free enterprise. Unfortunately this has led to an obsession with money, to the point of greed. One of the consequences of greed is that you always want more, and nowhere is this more evident than with our very own media conglomerates.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Nearly six-in-ten (56%) Americans earning $100,000 or more say they somewhat value wealth, compared with 35% of those making $20,000 or less. When those results are combined with the proportions who say being rich is very important to them, nearly two-thirds of the most affluent (65%) value wealth, compared with 57% of those who currently earned the least.” And news has become very profitable, just check out the table below of the top media conglomerates and their 2014 revenues.
So how does this pose a problem with our “free” press? Well, there are two issues: advertisers and headlines. I’ll address the advertisers first. When the news media’s purpose is to be profitable, they must rely on advertisers for their revenue; especially in this era of “no subscription” news. This poses an issue of control. How can a news organization be free and independent if they rely on advertisers to stay in business? If an advertiser, we’ll call them JP, Inc., is a big revenue stream for a newspaper, we’ll call it The Newspeak Post. How can we expect the owner of The Post, who is beholden to investors and a board of directors, to potentially sacrifice revenue by breaking a damaging story about JP, Inc.?
Let’s also imagine that the President of JP, Inc. walks into The Post to meet with the editor. Knowing that his staff relies on JP’s ads to continue their work, the editor takes the meeting. Now JP asks the editor to have one of his reporters to run a fluff piece about how great his company is. Does the editor throw him out of his office and maintain his journalistic integrity? Or does he run the piece knowing that the ad revenue will allow The Post to live to fight another day?
Next, let’s discuss headlines. Now, we – the consumers of news – are partly to blame for this issue as well. In order for a news organization to attract advertisers, we learned the issue that poses, they must attract viewers/listeners/readers. In an age of the internet and social media, page views, shares, retweets, and trends can attract major advertising revenues. So now, in order for a news organization to stay relevant they must break news quicker than anyone else. And we reward them for it, even if the information is incorrect.
Whenever there is a tragedy, news outlets scramble to bring up exclusive updates: who did it, what they used, why they did it, and so on. While discussing this with a friend, he brought up an excellent point, “Is the headline issue the chicken or the egg?” Do the news outlets push headlines therefore we consume them or do we consume headlines therefore push the news outlets to produce them?
We need to expect more from our news sources and we cannot retweet and share stories that have not been verified. Let’s support our local papers by subscribing to them. Further, let’s push our legislators to provide better public funding for such endeavors (such as NPR). By doing so we can lift their burden of having to depend on advertisers and help support journalistic integrity–it’ll be to our nation’s benefit to do so.