And you thought our parliament was toxic. Trying consuming our mainstream media. James Rose looks at the decline of progressive ideas in a fetid sea of sensationalism.
Many are looking with trepidation across a world which seems filled with hate and self-loathing, a dangerous place not fit for sensible people.
While we can make our judgements on the merits of such fears, what can be said is that today’s news media is central to the range and tone of the narratives around which we base our reality. And today’s news media is being gamed for the benefit of violent, regressive, rights-averse and downright daft agendas.
Skewed movements from ISIS to Donald Trump’s campaign, and misinformation around issues like Brexit and migration are leaning us all towards the wrong side of history. As these arguments gather speed in an altered news culture, progressive ideas are missing out.
The new media revolution – web 2.0 etc – was supposed to invert models of mass media domination and omnipotence. Clearly, this hasn’t happened.
For starters, the promised shift towards more ‘citizen oriented’ journalism in the online news media world has been still-born, as old media quickly colonised the new online and app-driven media space.
Among the top 15 global news sites, the feeds at Yahoo and Google – the two most popular – are largely curated editions from largely mainstream media.
The remaining 13 are all either American or British mainstream media outlets and almost all were founded well before the internet.
The top 15 news sites globally today would likely have appeared in a similar list from 50 years ago.
While we get more news, it’s from more or less the same source as it was decades ago. But, with new technology, its format has changed.
Mainstream media appears to have seen off the challenge from alternative media sources and ideas. The rise of Trump-like popularism and the failure of progressive or alternative narratives to gain traction, is evidence.
While mainstream mass media has been accused of dumbing down the news of the day for some time, online news media has both refined the process and intensified its progress.
In a survey into the concentration of news stories between 2008 and 2011, the US-based Pew Research Center found that news topic concentration among leading online news outlets increased 50 per cent in that four-year period.
Other media formats studied – newspapers, network TV, cable TV and radio – all recorded relatively static story concentration in the same period.
The sense that online news is driving a less polychromatic vision of the world is suggested in the annual survey of world journalism known as the State of the News Media, a data crunch of news coverage in the US also conducted by the Pew Research Center.
The 2012 edition noted that the year could be considered, “The Year of the Mega Story.” The report says, “Five different times during the year, a news event filled more than half of all the newshole studied in a given week, a rarity in our years of charting news coverage.
In fact, says the report, this is “the first time… we have seen more than one story break the threshold of filling a majority of the news in a week.”
This strongly suggests that greater news concentration is being driven by new news media as it takes a more central role in news and ideas dissemination.
This concentration acts to push other, worthy, news stories into the margins. Major news stories become behemoths of time and space, as new news media works ever harder to compete within a narrowing range of news issues.
Online news media does this, for one, because it has to. Cost savings are generated by a narrower news bandwidth. Also, competition with other online outlets to cover the “big stories” most immediately and flashily ensures visuals, verbal grabs and drama become the most valuable currency of news coverage.
Online media also narrows the range of news because it can. No longer obliged to fill set numbers of news print or defined air time, online news can shorthand the world, packaging the news into ever smaller and ever more eye-catching screen-sized bytes.
Being able to constantly churn items also allows for the appearance of a moving story, even if the new copy is just, well, a copy of what’s been run already.
The overall effect is an echo chamber that constantly works to make news fit into smaller and more defined spaces.
This poses problems for progressive ideas. New news media lacks the capacity and the will to disentangle the threads of context, detail, idea development and debate to capture the essence of alternative or progressive narratives.
Without a sturdy infrastructure, reliable spokespersons and sharp points with which to create adversarial battlegrounds, new news media is left without its default narrative structure.
Digital media culture, like the very technology on which it is based, tends towards binary decision-making and can be said to operate on Game Theory principles. Debate, in this sense, becomes a zero-sum game where ideals are trotted into the Colosseum of public discourse framed by mass media and made to battle to the death in an either/or end game. Media both encourages and benefits from the spectacle.
It is, of course, an unfair fight. Violent, de-contextualised, over-the-top or adversarial ideas are more likely to gain attention because the mainstream media has programmed news consumers to react not reflect, to be turned on to propaganda, not process.
The crazies out there are like mace-wielding giants against the 90-pound stripling that is progressive idealism, at least in narrative terms. They get the most grabs and dominate access.
Put simply, the forces of hate and violence, of denial and ignorance have no scruples about lying, spinning and even killing to invade media space. This puts those they attack at a disadvantage.
Progressive alternatives to the above are almost, by definition, seeking to eradicate spin and manipulation. Part of the alternative pitch is that we need to broaden and deepen public policy discourse and so its own discourse needs to reflect that.
Such ideas struggle to compete because they cannot avoid having to make their case and arguing in detail. This opens them not only to attack, but to something more dreaded; not fitting mainstream media’s packaging.
Progressive ideas – pro-peace, human rights-based, respectful and morally referenced – tend to carry the ultimate curse for the digital news age in that they are not entertaining enough.
Media academic Professor Brian McNair wrote recently that digital media must adapt to provide a counter in this “phase transition” into complete global chaos that appears to be looming. As the “long peace” looks likely to be coming to its conclusion he correctly suggests that we must use new media to sell the light of humanity “with the same confidence and commitment as the other side engages in their jihads and nationalistic hate-mongering and fascistic gatherings.”
True. But how? Given the format of new news media, this is, as I have argued, difficult if not impossible in the majority of cases.
As media professionals, we must work harder to fashion a new news media that reflects the best of humanity to which most of us still aspire.
We are losing the narrative. Journalists and editors, academics, PRs, marketers, communications experts all, have to find ways to reshape digital media to give prominence to such vital components as context, fact, truth and open-mindedness.
Then, we may begin to win the narrative and deny it to those who bring only horror stories that will end badly for all of us.
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