Of the most threatening challenges to Western democracies is the crisis of fake news, but who is to blame for the fake news dilemma – the news publications, or their readers?
This International Press Day, the conversation is ripe around U.S politics, media coverage, and the ongoing fight for free press around the world. Several countries, even more, modern nations within the European Union, still rank harrowingly low on the World Press Freedom Index. The U.S. itself, largely considered the global pioneer of democracy and freedom, has fallen to 48th place on this list. Free press and democracy are intrinsically linked, and free press is one of, if not the most, important pillar of democracy. So why do some of the world’s greatest democracies rank so poorly when it comes to the free press? The fake news crisis is why.
What is the ‘fake news’ crisis?
A term coined by U.S. President Donald Trump to refer to liberal media outlets that hypercritical of him and his election following 2016, ‘fake news’ refers to biased, untrustworthy, or sensationalist news sources. Although Trump mainly uses the term to refer to CNN or any journalist or publication that openly criticizes him, the term has gained traction in Western societies as public dissatisfaction with the quality of reporting has grown.
Some people consider the term ‘fake news’ to be inflammatory and unnecessarily antagonistic towards the press. Not to say that these are not valid concerns, as journalists face existential threats in some societies, and in others still have to work very hard to relay the truth to the public. However, some found solace in the term ‘fake news’ and considered a valid criticism on news publications that were growing more similar to tabloids by the day.
The ‘fake news’ crisis is a combination of concern for journalists whose work is being demeaned, as well as a criticism of publications for feeding into ‘clicktivism’ reporting by producing more content that is catchy than is well-researched and founded on fact.
However, this crisis begs the question – whose fault is it? Is it the media publications who prefer Facebook clicks to substantive engagement? Or is it the readers who themselves are more likely to click a catchy sensationalist title than a more nuanced one? Alternatively, what role do politicians play in contributing to this crisis of media – are they shaping the media’s tactics or being influenced by them?
Corporate Media Needs to be More Media, Less Corporate
The media arena is dominated by larger, corporate-backed news publications, like CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC. These companies, have in recent years, grown in popularity thanks to the social media age of journalism. Their audience has effectively transferred from cable news to digital engagement, and as such, these companies hold a great deal of influence over large reader-based in the U.S. especially.
Corporations are not independent news platforms. They are owned and operated by corporate interests, so they do not serve the public interest as many of them claim, but the corporate interest. So much of the ‘fake news’ crisis can be attributed to corporate media outlets putting financial interest above the public interest. However, they would not be successful if there was not demand for their common sensationalist reporting.
Public Demand for Fake News is High
Rationalist perceptions of media argue that news is good, and where there is public demand for certain types or certain styles of news, news publications will adhere to the public demand for it and produce that type or style of news. It allegedly functions as a basic supply-demand chain, where the public decides the characteristics of the news being produced.
In this regard, the public is to blame for the fake news crisis as well. Surely corporations would stop producing clickbait articles if we stopped reading them, right? In part, this is due to the changing medium of how we intake news to begin with. Over the past decade, we have overwhelmingly switched to digital news from paper news, and as we acclimatize ourselves to this new medium of news, we all need to start being more critical of what we are reading and where we are reading it.
We’re all to blame
There is no one entity or group solely responsible for the news crisis we are currently experiencing. Corporate media produces sensationalist news because we (readers) are more likely to read it, and politicians feed into this system on both sides by making more sensationalist statements and simultaneously being more critical of the press.
We all owe a responsibility to protect and improve the quality of our press. Press is a fundamental pillar of free societies and democracies, and we cannot keep turning the other cheek to the problems plaguing it. This International Press Day, ask yourself how you get your news and what forces are at play in creating it – asking critical questions and engaging with news is the best way to push it towards more responsible reporting.