Media Fails As Watchdog; Correction: It’s Your Fault, Too

Have we backed the media into the corner, forcing journalists’ hand to cast the traditional code of ethics away as an afterthought?

It feels like eons ago when the morning paper actually broke news, objective reporting was celebrated, and reporting the facts was simply enough. The unprecedented access this digital age grants the average American has forced the traditional newsroom to reimagine journalism, whether it be through Vox’s explanatory style or FiveThirtyEight’s data journalism. We, the people, are no longer satisfied with just breaking news. Our favorite newsrooms are now first on the story–but also shape the story . Today, we want the sources that are leading the conversation. Put simply, our demand for the sexiest story has affected the content we receive, with many questioning whether it is for the better or worse.

Former PBS News Anchor Jim Lehrer speculated about the future tilt of journalism. “There are fewer and fewer serious journalists, unless you like entertainment, weather, or sports. Real journalists have a responsibility to report stories – and for important stories, not just once, but twice, three times. It takes time, energy, and commitment to keep information from falling through the cracks,” Lehrer said.

There might not be room for the time and energy Lehrer speaks about in the face of the 24/7 news cycle, and further, with the mounting pressure to engage news consumers. Ann Oldenburg, Professor of Digital News at Georgetown University and former USA Today reporter echoed that the future of news rests on the importance of producing “original content. Something that shines a light on something.”

In order to shine this light, however, many reporters have found themselves entangled in a web strewed by the pressures of timeliness and shock value. While recent investigations have highlighted the power of the media to maintain accountability, such as the breaking of the Panama Papers, the accountability of the media itself has come under fire.

While the public is demanding both information and entertainment, we are also wary of what we receive. Most Americans actually place more trust in social media watchdogs than the press according to a Pew Research Center poll. It concluded that as of 2015, 59% of college students have little to no trust in the press to report news fairly and accurately, and would most likely seek an alternative news source such as social media or Buzzfeed.

Ann Curry, former Today anchor spoke with Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times about the public relationship with the media, and how the current Presidential race stands to mend this. “Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he is the motherload. He stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at the moment when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”

While there is the financial incentive for engagement, there is also pressure to be the leading voice on social issues. The 2014 Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” proved to be an example of journalistic failure in quest of spearheading the nationwide conversation about sexual assault. This article prompted an investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review, which noted that writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors’ hope that “their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better,” overshadowed the basics of reporting. Instead of leading the charge on campus culture, the report suggests that the magazine’s failure may help perpetuate the myth that many women invent rape allegations, when the percentage of false reports is between 2-8%.

A culture war is being waged on the inside of newsrooms about how exactly the media will shape important conversations in the future. The media has the power to help or hurt; be objective or advocate — or simply compete to produce the most captivating story when in reality, sometimes objectivity isn’t the most interesting story to read.

But, content is increasingly driven by the consumer appetite. And so far, we’re hungry for the most entertaining story.