Featured Image: npr.org
As we enter into the second year of a “post-truth” world, the wary grow weary of consuming their every bite of media with a grain of salt. Between the internet’s informational flood —now available at our fingertips— the corporatization of traditional media, the consolidation of said corporations, hyper partisan clickbait, pseudoscientific clickbait, the outrage radio industry, the 24 hour news cycle, native advertising, personalized search result “filter bubbles”, and a White House administration that’s taken the unprecedented step of labelling the press as opposition, anyone looking to find true information must be constantly monitoring their own biases to ensure they do not end up simply consuming ads for their designated echo chambers.
The story of how our modern media environment came to be is a fascinating tale, parts of which I’ve attempted to tell before, but behind this very human drama is a mechanical explanation. To put it simply, the biggest driver behind current media is profit, and the only ways to make profit from a free product are through advertisements and donations. In television, this need is manifested through ratings, which are demographically segmented television consumption metrics. For web pages, which allow more user interaction, money is made both by displaying ads within the webpage, and from user engagement with those ads. In either one of these situations, content creators are incentivized to expand their audience size- and as this monetizing potential is exhausted, it is feared these companies will only grow more and more desperate in their attempts to do so. Online content is free to focus on as narrow a niche and on as generic a body of content as its producers wish, while the price of an ad is so much smaller than its televised counterpart that virtually any product can be advertised, and, conversely, any website can find advertisers.
As digital media becomes as influential as televised media, what appears to be an unstoppable epidemic of misinformation becomes a natural product of the medium. Instead of a media establishment that seeks to be authoritative, and results in a more fact-checked but a less diverse range of acceptable opinions, we are transitioning to a more demagogic media system that values freedom over rigor- blowing the Overton window wide open. These differing needs offer different sets of biases through which information is filtered, but ultimately they all fall under the spectrum of commercial interests, which represents a common bias that is inextricable from this form of media.
In this commercial environment where the only measure of value is audience size, the potential for content to be educational, informative, or rigorous is hampered by a need to be entertaining. With these limitations in mind, state funded, non-commercial media is more important than ever. While the concept of state media might be seen as a threatening form of propaganda to leftists and conservatives alike, the mere fact that it allows content to be produced without being dependent on viewership for survival means that content creators can focus on quality without a need to pander.
On a wider scale, state funded media isn’t desirable because it is unbiased, but because it is biased in a different way. While it is unlikely state media will show you views explicitly opposed to some aspects of government policy, it is much more likely to showcase important but unglamorous journalism in other respects. For example, in an election year in which it was much more profitable to report on the candidate’s characters and their controversies, government funded PBS had three times as many segments devoted to important policy questions such as climate change.
Beyond simply extended coverage on policy issues, public media has the advantage of being able to target demographics that are typically not profitable to target. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), for example, spends over $445 million budget supporting local television and radio shows that would be too unprofitable to exist on their own. Without local journalism, which is the lifeblood of corporate and political accountability, the power of investigative journalism would be seriously neutered.
If there is one lesson to learn from the role of the media in 2016, it is that labelling a source as biased does little more than segment audiences into media fitting their preferred narrative. Instead, we should understand that all news analysis is predicated on the value judgements intrinsic to some ideological base, and attempt to nurture a media ecosystem wherein different biases can play off each other, such that the ever-elusive truth can be approximated- not by looking for the holy grail of unbiased reporting, but by triangulation via a variety of those biased sources. For this strategy to work, however, there must exist forms of media that have fundamentally distinct motivations to exist. Without non-commercial media, we lose one of the last safeguards against the complete cultural conversion of citizens to consumers.