How Journalism's undermining degrades democracy
In the 1970s, more than 70 percent of Americans trusted the news they got from television sources such as CBS and NBC News and from their local newspapers. However, today, most Americans no longer have a high amount of trust in the media, with recent Gallup polling showing that only around 40 percent of Americans trust traditional media sources. Much of this distrust in American media can be blamed on the rise of the Internet and social media, the increasing competitiveness of cable television in the 1990s and the polarization of politics as we move towards the present. With journalism being critical in ensuring a democratic government, it is important that the majority of the people have a well-earned faith in the news. However, as news becomes increasingly corporate, built to solidify existing opinions and to advance political agendas rather than to disseminate true information, it undermines the press and democracy.
The Fairness Doctrine, originally created in 1949 as an attempt to require broadcasters to present controversial issues in a balanced and fair manner, was repealed in 1987 during the Reagan Administration. It is often cited that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine by the FCC led to the rise of more partisan informational networks on both radio and television. These emerging news sources framed political commentary to favor one political party rather than telling the truth in an honest and impartial manner. The rise of the Internet in the 1990s and the increasing competition in 24 hour news made journalism far more corporate and personalized with more visually oriented content. According to a study done by the RAND corporation, a non-profit that helps to create policy, “Before 2000, broadcast news segments were more likely to include relatively complex academic and precise language, as well as complex reasoning. After 2000, broadcast news became less pre-planned as on-air personalities and guests engaged in conversations about news” (Kavanaugh X). The same study explains that
“When comparing newspapers to digital outlets, researchers were able to identify significant differences. Newspapers have changed the least over time, with content slightly shifting from a more academic style to one that is more narrative. As for digital journalism, the report found that online content is more personal and direct, narrating key social and policy issues through personal points of view and subjective references.”
(Kavanaugh X). The problem with having more personalized and opinionated news is that it eventually leads to truth decay, as news that is objective and true is overwhelmed by opinionated, subjective content that blurs the line between fact and opinion.
As a result of personalization algorithms and the subsequent creation of informational echo chambers, the internet and social media play significant roles in undermining journalism’s credibility. On the internet, what makes news reports successful is virality. But, viral reports rely on visuals and eye-catching titles instead of detailed and factual reporting. Many popular sites, like Google, Facebook and Twitter, use personalized algorithms based on the activities, interests and behaviors of an individual user to cater their services to accommodate the user’s preferences. This personalization allows the user to see only what he or she “wants” to see. A 2019 PBS article on algorithms used by social media companies, describes the algorithms by stating:
“To your garden variety recommendation algorithm, your first dive into a website might
present something of a tabula rasa. With nothing to guide its suggestions, a platform will spit out a little of everything: sports, politics, science, kittens. Whatever you do with that content will inform the algorithm’s next move. Over time, as it stockpiles behaviors ranging from the types of articles you share to the amount of time you spend watching a video, the algorithm will start to refine its recommendations. The goal, of course, is to keep you coming back—to keep turning profits. That means filtering out anything you might deem a waste of time until the algorithm has effectively personalized your experience of a platform, showing you, in theory, only the things you’d want to see”
(Wu X). Over time, the user may end up seeing more extremist content without even realizing it, which can even lead to a person becoming radicalized and committing acts of violence.
In recent years, governments and political movements around the world as well as those with political intent have weaponized social media to advance political agendas and to spread misinformation and undermine the integrity of the democratic system. Much information on social media is difficult for users to verify as reliable and accurate. Because most viewers do not have the time nor inclination nor skills to verify this information, it is easy for disinformation, lies and conspiracy theories to proliferate on social media. The Freedom House Organization, a U.S. government-funded non-profit that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, advocacy and human rights, reported that “Unlike more direct methods of censorship, such as website blocking or arrests for internet activity, online content manipulation is difficult to detect. It is also more difficult to combat, given its dispersed nature and the sheer number of people and bots employed for this purpose … The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside. And by bolstering the false perception that most citizens stand with them, authorities are able to justify crackdowns on the political opposition and advance antidemocratic changes to laws and institutions without a proper debate.” (Kelly X). When a democratically elected government undermines a fair and unbiased press by attacking or attempting to silence news organizations and journalists critical of the sitting government and the democratically elected, and when it engages in systematic disinformation campaigns on platforms such as social media, this weakens the ability of the press to report the news faithfully. This is the start of a process known as democratic backsliding which weakens the institutions that make a functioning democracy and can eventually lead to a country becoming an autocracy or dictatorship. In Poland, the populist right-leaning ruling party, Law and Justice, led by Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, has actively undermined the independence of the free press by using its legislative powers to impose an ad tax on independent media which has been said by critics to be a heavy burden on the media. The government has also used the state broadcaster Telewizja Polska (TVP) or to actively broadcast misinformation around the country. In the Philippines, disinformation campaigns launched on social media helped elect the country’s populist President, Rodrigo Duterte. Even after taking office, Duterte’s aides have used social media to slander Duterte’s critics and to support his policies, including the controversial war on drugs which has led to the deaths of thousands since its implementation in 2016. The Duterte government has undermined the free press by actively silencing journalists or networks critical of the sitting government. Maria Ressa, an award winning journalist and founder and CEO of the news site Rappler, has had her site’s reporting condemned by Duterte as “fake news” and has been convicted of cyber libel, charges which Duterte’s critics have claimed are politically motivated. In May 2020, ABS-CBN, the Philippine’s largest network was shut down when the network’s broadcasting license expired. In July 2020, the House Committee on Legislative Franchises denied ABS-CBN its request to renew its broadcasting franchise. Duterte had previously criticized the network for showing bias against him and had threatened then not to allow the renewal of the network’s license. As a fair and unbiased press is integral to maintaining democracies all over the world, it is important for a country’s media outlets to maintain a high degree of standards with regards to accuracy and impartiality, especially when a government is attempting to weaken its credibility. The purpose of journalism, the reporting of news in an objective manner, is undermined when objective reporting is overwhelmed by opinionated and fake news, when that impartial report is only seen by a certain set of people due to algorithms, and when a government systematically attempts to discredit a journalist or news organization critical of that government. When media markets become more personalized and more focused on visuals and opinion rather than fact, a majority of the public loses trust in the media and where there is a deliberate campaign to discredit it whether from governments or people with political intent, democracy is in grave danger of falling. In order for the American people to preserve the values and rights they cherish, as embodied by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the American people must be able to trust their news sources. Credibility is critical in informing the public of democratic overreaching and in ensuring that people can make the decisions they believe are right when casting their ballots.
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