Have you heard? The days of quality journalism are behind us. The Fourth Estate is in trouble. Newspapers are dying, and have been for some time. TV news has been overrun by phone hackers and idealogues. The need for speed is not only killing your company, it is destroying any standards of accuracy and integrity that remain, resulting in, for example, media outlets publishing reports on Supreme Court decisions before said Court has even finished reading said decision.
These problems are generally attributed to a set of factors that propagate the continual degeneration of journalistic principles: the 24-hour news cycle, our ever-shortening attention spans, the reclassification of news as “entertainment.” Altimeter Group analyst and generally ahead-of-the-curve Internet guy Jeremiah Owyang described the issue as follows: “…the way today’s world is set up is that 1) whoever publishes first (whether it's accurate or not) 2) whoever is the most interesting (and thereby gets the most social shares and rewarded by Google) wins… the only way for journalism to focus on fact checking and accuracy is to change the business model, and if the two requirements listed above (fast and interesting) get page views (and thereby ad dollars)… this will only persist.”
I don’t know if Owyang will appreciate the comparison, but his words were echoed by none other than Bill O’Reilly, at his Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium debate with Jon Stewart: “The problem with [the political discourse] is capitalism… You can make a lot of money by being an assassin… Doesn’t matter if it’s right-wing or left-wing. You go in and you’re a hater, radio, cable, in print, whatever, you’ll get paid. And there are people who do that. They go in, they don’t even believe half the stuff they say. And they just rip it up. And they get paid a lot of money. And that has coarsened everything. They’re phonies. And capitalism drives that… It’s not coming back, either. It’s not going to get better. But we have to live with it, freedom of speech.”
Owyang and O’Reilly’s descriptions get to the heart of just how intractable this problem is. We are evolutionarily hard-wired to be more concerned with new, different, aggressive things, and equally hard-wired to be less concerned with accuracy.
My friend Carl once explained the three fundamental questions we automatically ask ourselves whenever we encounter something new: can I eat it (or will it eat me), can I have sex with it (or will it have sex with me), and have I seen it before. Daniel Kahneman, referencing the work of Robert Zajonc, makes a similar point in ”Thinking Fast and Slow”: “To survive in a frequently dangerous world, an organism should react cautiously to a novel stimulus, with withdrawal and fear. Survival prospects are poor for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty.” If a shape is coming your way out of the bushes, it is better to assume it is a lion and be mistaken than to assume it is not a lion and be mistaken.
But our frontal lobes are eternally valiant in their fight against our lizard brains, and so a new breed of start-ups are seeking to transform the structure of news reporting so that quality and accuracy become viable business propositions.
Take The Conversation, started by Andrew Jaspan in Australia: an initiative to pair trusted journalists with working academics, openly funded, ad-free. (Andrew detailed the initiative in a recent talk at TEDxCanberra.
Avaaz.org, the “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere,” has also entered the fray, receiving donations from more than 20,000 people to launch the Avaaz Daily Briefing. In their words, “Old media is beholden to corporate owners and advertisers and its news is often cynical and disempowering. The Daily Briefing will be owned by us and driven by us -- people-powered media for a better world.”
These initiatives will undoubtedly supply a higher quality journalistic product than that which is currently on offer. The question is, will we as a people want it? Or will our lizard brains continue to respond exclusively to the shiny and the dramatic? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or via that most integrity-filled of channels, Twitter.