Hard, but not impossible. Last week, Forbes contributor and bubble-ologist Jesse Colombo wrote about New Zealand’s impending economic disaster. Interest rates are still too low, he says, and property prices too high. The finance sector represents too big a share of the economy and the country has a debt problem. Crisis looms.
He said, she said, so he had to say again. The New Zealand government promptly denounced Colombo’s analysis, and Fairfax columnist Pattrick Smellie tore apart Colombo’s modus operandi: “First, he predicts a bubble in [your country here], which will burst - at some stage. Then the local news media pick it up. Then it gets to social media and, if he's lucky, to national television news… [W]ithin a week, a follow-up post crows about the official denial along with web traffic statistics, the number of times the article was shared, and in many cases the TV appearance.”
Smellie goes on to question Colombo’s motive: “The reason [Colombo] can count those web stats so accurately is that the Forbes.com business model rewards contributors on a per unique view basis, and pays 10 times more for repeat visits. While some editorial vetting occurs to try and ensure quality, Forbes.com is an experiment in ‘incentive-based entrepreneurial journalism.’”
And therein lies the rub. Believe whatever you want about New Zealand’s economy, the fact is that Colombo is incentivized not to provide accurate reporting but to garner page visits.
Yes, this is extremely obvious. And, no, Forbes is not in any way alone here. Fox News (come on, you knew they were going to enter into this sooner or later) officially came under the "entertainment" category when News Corp split in two last year. They are not in the business of educating people. They are in the business of getting people to tune in.
Of course, one hopes is that there is some correlation between the quality of news reporting and the size of the audience. But it increasingly seems a vain hope, and locking individual compensation to popularity will make it vainer still. If the powers that be are pressuring journalists to be more shocking, more vulgar, or more titillating, a principled journalist can always resist, or take measures to ensure the veracity of the reporting. But if online journalists only get paid when people look at their posts, those principles are not likely to stand for long.
This is not to say informative and nuanced content ought to be boring; far from it. But the compensation scheme for news should be skewed towards that which is both compelling and meaningful. If you only reward one, the other will wither on the vine.
The bigger problem is that the news companies themselves have no motivation to provide meaningful content. They answer to shareholders and the answer is always money. Forbes, Fox, and others do not earn money by educating the populace. Any increase in public knowledge or understanding is merely a byproduct.
But clearly a more knowledgeable public serves the greater good, which is why organizations like NPR and TED play such a vital role. The increasing complexity of the world creates an increasing need for an informed citizenry, without which democracy is impossible. But it’s up to us to put the content we consume into perspective instead of swallowing it whole. If we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.