Why we need Mainstream Media
And we need a better way to consume them
Blogging and the creator economy cannot replace newspapers
Journalism is a painstakingly expensive and complex operation, with reporters, publishers, editors, fact-checkers, webmasters, designers, correspondents, and marketers. There is a journalist code of ethics that certain papers vow to adhere to. The disaggregation of mainstream media into individual content creators lacks core components of journalism. A single-person reporter, such as Matt Yglesias, Noah Smith, or Bari Weiss, is working from the context of leaving legacy media, with specific interests and perspectives. If we multiply these bloggers by 100x and add in the variety of each of their interests and skills, we do not reliably substitute a healthy functioning of a newspaper.
However, when it comes to getting news, with a quick view of the country or the world, mainstream media is our best shot. They view themselves as news producers and we have come to expect that from them. Creators, such as Joe Rogan and Hasan Abi, command vast numbers of followers and thus have extraordinary influence. While they do comment on current events, they do not hold themselves responsible to report “the news”. Their audiences don’t expect them to either. So from whom should we get the news?
Mainstream Media is still alive and kicking
We still trust and rely on a few organizations in mainstream media more than we’d like to admit. From a 2020 Pew Report, 60% of Republicans turn to Fox News for political news and 53% of Democrats turn to CNN. In terms of distrust, the story is flipped - Democrats tend to distrust Fox and Republicans tend to distrust CNN. This distrust is growing deeper.
While the constitution was ratified to enable freedom of speech and freedom of the press, there is no law that specifically holds folks accountable to the truth. Instead, there are business incentives; readership leads to more advertising revenue or subscription revenue. Readership is seeded by factors such as demographics, worldviews, religion, and politics. Even beyond that, there is the most powerful incentive of being able to influence public opinion and discourse. “Let me tell you what to think and how to talk about it”. Engagement, comfort, fear, events, facts, and truth all play parts on the stage of news creation.
In a fascinating multi-part essay on the History of Journalism, Micaela Ricaforte wrote about how Benjamin Franklin, the founding father of journalism, warned about how dangerous an unchecked press can be:
The press executes these judgements without being "governed by any of the rules of common courts of law” because it is not part of an official legal system bound to evidence and precedent.” … Franklin urged citizens to be zealous in keeping the press in check to abuses of press freedoms
So here’s what we know:
Mainstream media is alive and relevant, with lots of readership
Mainstream media is bifurcated politically, sowing distrust, and
Benjamin Franklin warned us about this, before the internet and social media.
So instead of trying to abandon mainstream media, the journalistic process, and institutions, what if we hold them accountable? What if we could zoom out to see the bigger picture of their reporting coverage? What if we could easily compare and contrast how different sources report on a given topic? What if we could draw our own conclusions more confidently?
How does this work?
The inspiration comes from the following quote by Ashley Rindsberg in The Gray Lady Winked.:
Instead of understanding journalism as either a collection of neutral entities who process unassailable fact into truth or as partisan operators hacking away at an agenda, we should see the endeavor as encompassing a spectrum of ideas and opinions that approximate or come as close as possible to the truth.
We do our best by putting in place processes that rely on a multitude of perspectives that come as close as possible to the truth.
I will use two basic ideas and run them through the sandboxed set of mainstream media (Fox, CNN, WSJ, NYTimes, etc.).
Coverage - how much attention a publication puts on a story
Bias - how a publication uses spin, slant, sensationalism, or omission to write a story
For a given set of topics and events, how much are they covered by each source? Are they covered at all? Are they banner stories or nestled away at the bottom of their front page?
Attention scores use a custom-formula based on how far a headline ranks on each source's front page. Think the higher it ranks at the top, the higher the attention score.
Top ranked banner headline has an attention score ~1
Half way through (10th ranked headline) has an attention score of ~0.5
Towards the bottom (30th ranked headline) has an attention score of <0.05
If three stories on Event A are ranked half way through on source X and one story on Event A is ranked at the top of source Y, then Source X will still have a higher attention score for source X since we add up all three attention scores (0.5 + 0.5 + 0.5) > 1.0.
Here’s an example of what this may look like, using the topic of Roe v. Wade and its potential to be overturned.
Let’s take a recent that has skewed coverage and is likely to be a split topic, such as Disney and the Florida “Parental Rights in Education” Bill. Here are some of the headlines from different outlets (Emphasis is mine).
[Fox] DeSantis appears open to revoking Disney’s ‘special privileges’ as battle rages against woke corporations
[CNN] DeSantis signals support for stripping Disney of special self-governing status
[NYTimes] The Right’s Disney Freakout
Aligning all of these hot-takes together could enable someone to see how their own preferred source may be pressing the thumb on the scales and could make them curious how another source is reporting on it. It allows us to see multiple perspectives. When a goal in soccer is scored, analysts and commentators will take different angles: the abject failure of the keeper to do better, the miscommunication of the backline, the alacrity of the striker, and brilliant strategy of the manager. Seeing of them side-by-side, with the amount of focus on each one, consistently over time, is a key way to both understand the goal and understand the folks reporting them.
I plan to do this for news, primarily in the US every week.
Thanks for joining me.