Issue 45: Why everyone hates the mainstream media

Judgements about status are embedded in almost everything aspect of the news. To read the news is to be insulted -- which is why people are fleeing the mainstream media in droves

Today’s briefing is by Andrew Potter (AP), the former Editor in Chief of the Ottawa Citizen. He is currently an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.

1. A NAIVE VIEW

News is about providing readers with information. The opinion section is about providing readers with arguments. Readers use the information to become more informed, and better able to understand, respond to, disagree with, or otherwise digest the arguments. This process makes them better citizens. Journalism thus plays a very important civic function.

Unfortunately, only the last line in that paragraph is true.

When I became managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen in 2011, I started to have a lot of contact with readers — emails, phone calls, and a surprising number of handwritten letters. It was through this contact that I began to get a sense of what our readers really cared about, and what they valued in their subscription. Two things surprised me.

The first was how deeply readers cared about things like comics and puzzles, the daily weather map, horoscopes, and the TV listings. Somedays it seemed like we could have put a picture on A1 of the prime minister consorting with alien space prostitutes, but if we also printed the Sudoku upside down or got the “On this date in weather history” wrong, that is all I would hear about.

The second was that readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet. This baffled me at first. If you already know the story, why are you angry at us for not covering it? But I soon realized they weren’t angry because they had been left uninformed, they were angry because we had, in one way or another, let them down.

The lesson I took from this is that for a great many readers, consuming the news is not about gaining information. Instead, it is about routine (hence the calls about the messed up horoscopes and crosswords) and identity (hence the anger about missing stories they knew about). People don’t pick up a daily newspaper to learn new things. They do it to have their habits, lifestyles, values, and identities validated and reinforced.

If there is one thing the current media maelstrom has emphasized yet again, it’s that hatred for the mainstream media is something you find across the partisan spectrum. Understanding the role of identity in news consumption is the key to understanding why this is the case.

In a recent blog post, the economist Tyler Cowen got it exactly right when he wrote “the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status… The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.”

These implicit status rankings are baked into almost every aspect of how journalism, from how a lede is written to who to quote and in what order, photo selection, headlines, font size, you name it. Print media is particularly prone to this, since the geography of a newspaper is essentially one big status playground. (I’ll never forget the time I got an angry call from a reader for burying a story above the fold on the front page. The sin was that the story he thought deserved more play was lined down the rightmost column of the page, while another (lesser) story ran across the top three columns.)

The result is that it is basically impossible to read the news without being presented with a steady parade of decisions or judgments about the relative status of events, individuals, corporations, politicians, and so on. And because we all care a lot about status, and because a newspaper editor’s status judgments are never going to align with yours, you end up resenting the media. To read a newspaper essentially involves being insulted on a regular basis.

What can be done about this? Unfortunately, if what we want is effective journalism that actually informs and argues, holds power to account, comforts the afflicted, or otherwise do whatever self-important journalistic catch-phrase you like, then it is hard to see how things could be otherwise.

2. INFORMATION FOR ADVERSARIES

The news is no more about information for journalists than it is for readers. Reporters, columnists, and editors, are just as concerned about status as readers are.

The most obvious way this plays out is with “scoops” — getting something before the competition, or better, having a story no one else could even get. It is through the competitive drive for scoops that journalists establish their status hierarchy, and it is through how they play their scoops that editors establish their paper’s identity.

That is why the front page of a major newspaper is best understood not as a guide to what news events or stories the paper thinks are most important to its readers. It is a guide to how the editors are positioning the paper in the context of a status competition with its competition.

A good relatively recent example of this is the play the Globe and Mail gave to its stories that became known as the SNC Lavalin affair. It was an important story that was the outcome of a large amount of hard work. As a result, the paper continued to play the story as its line on A1 for days, even as advances in the story became incremental and the competition started matching it.

Why did it do this? Because it was a story the Globe “owned”, and the editors would be damned if they were going to let it go. We did the same thing at the Citizen with our big scoops, most notably the 2012 “Robocalls” investigation by Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, which won them the biggest journalism awards in the country that year.

And the trick of course is to do the reverse with your competition’s big stories: If your competitor gets a scoop, even if you manage to match it there is no way you can put it on the front page. You have to bury it somewhere inside, to show your disdain for their cute little scooplet.

Is this honourable? Not particularly. And you can see why it would confuse or even seriously annoy readers who don’t share the status rankings implied by the stories that are played so prominently in the paper.

But is it effective? Absolutely. Compare it with the adversarial legal system. Neither the prosecution nor the defence are interested in “justice” — they are interested in portraying their case in the starkest possible terms. The accused is a violent sadist who should be locked away for years. No, he’s an innocent victim of circumstance. The outcome of this process is what we call justice.

Or another good analogy is with the parliamentary system of responsible government, in particular question period. It’s not a coincidence that lawyers, journalists, and politicians are routinely ranked as the most disliked professions in the world. It’s because the law is not about justice, politics is not about democracy, and the news is not about information. But in each case, that is what emerges, by harnessing the status-conscious competitive natures of the participants.

Like politics and law, the news isn’t a pretty system, but it worked well enough for most of the 20th century and a big chunk of the current one. But the mainstream media has lost a lot of its power and authority, as readers have taken full advantage of the enormous choice on offer. There’s no room here to discuss the full effect of that, but one obvious result has been that the news business has become more partisan and more polarized. And those organizations that still try to maintain a semblance of objectivity and impartiality just find themselves loathed by all sides. (AP)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca. If you liked this, why not share it?

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