They gamed the system. It’s time for us to take back control.
Most Americans don’t trust the media. That doesn’t stop us, however, from consuming more content than we ever have. We complain about being bombarded with meaningless updates… but we don’t stop using Twitter. We decry the partisanship of journalism… but our eyes remain glued to cable news. Despite every article telling us that we “WILL NEVER BELIEVE” it, we flip through the pages religiously.
The problem is misaligned incentives. We want our media to tell us about the world. We receive news constantly — through friends, social platforms, television, newspapers, blogs. All of it informs our perspective. We hope the information is clear, concise, and truthful. It usually isn’t.
Publishers don’t share our goals. Their objective is to make money: generating clicks, accruing subscriptions, stopping viewers from changing the channel. Our objective is to understand the world. It isn’t just that those goals are different: they’re fundamentally opposed.
Platforms need to push out constant, exciting content. Their videos and blogs and posts have to grab us quickly and stand out in a sea of similar options. More importantly, they have to ensure that we’ll come back for more. The unfortunate reality is that the truth isn’t always captivating. Not every news story can be world-ending. Especially in politics and economics, the flow of information is… pretty boring.
“Pretty boring” doesn’t work for media giants. Boring doesn’t keep a viewer watching. Boring doesn’t pay the bills. Engagement over the internet is driven by powerful emotion. A heartbreaking news story is more likely to draw us in than a straightforward one. A headline that infuriates us will keep us reading more than one that makes us hopeful. The information we receive is being twisted and mangled to keep us interested in it.
Consider the Trump era. We’re constantly checking Twitter for the latest deranged update like trained dogs hoping for our next treat. That unending interest turns into ad revenue for FOX, more subscribers for the Washington Post, and billions of clicks across Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Our engagement immediately turns into cash. We are co-signing the checks that pay for the spread of false and misleading information.
To be fair, not all media is bad. There are plenty of reputable publishers who find revenue models that allow them to deliver news in an honest way. We can’t forget, though, that every media company is inherently biased. By their definition, they are capitalist enterprises that exist to make money. That will never be the goal of their consumers.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls to us. Media isn’t changing for the better. It’s our job to be intelligent consumers. We have to seek out sources that we trust. We have to explore dissenting viewpoints and be wary of information that conveniently comports with our beliefs. We have to ask questions.
For every headline, we have to wonder: “Why is it phrased like this?”
For every video, we have to think: “How is this edited to make me feel excited or angry or sad?”
For every post, we have to ask: “What do they want from me?”
This is our reality. We have to hold the media accountable by holding ourselves accountable. Otherwise, we help manipulative and dishonest media publishers grow with each click we give them. We are the problem. And, we are the solution.