This article first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s June 2021 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:
The newspapers shout a new style is growing
But it don’t know if it’s coming or going
There is fashion, there is fad
Some is good, some is bad
And the joke is rather sad
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating
~ Propellorheads, History Repeating
I am supposed to be writing a story about all the ways journalism has changed. In the 20-plus years I’ve worked in the industry — both as a staff reporter and freelancer — journalism has gone through numerous changes. The thing is, while there definitely are changes happening today, the more I explore journalism’s current state of affairs — the more it seems we’ve been here before.
In the late 1890s sensationalized headlines splashed across the pages of the New York Journal and the New York Word, as newspaper titans William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled it out to attract readers as they competed for sales during the lead up to the Spanish-American War. Both publications included stories filled with fake interviews and false or twisted facts — sound familiar?
Yellow journalism, with its sensational, exploitative style, exaggerated headlines is well and alive today. The problem with modern-day yellow journalism is that while stories filled with false facts do exist, accusations of fake news are often thrown about to denounce stories that, while true, do not align with personal viewpoints. There is a significant difference between news reports that are partially or entirely made up, and stories that are politically aligned, one-sided or contain biased reporting.
Media bias and the problem with advertiser-supported media
I’m going to let you in on a secret: most journalists are aware of the biases they hold. A good journalist makes an active effort to ensure the stories they write are balanced. Sure, there are also journalists who hold unconscious biases, and that’s problematic, but media bias is much more complex than personal viewpoints making their way into a story. Delving into all the different types of media bias requires more space than this story allows, so I’ll just touch on the two I believe are most problematic: corporate and advertiser bias.
With corporate bias, journalists and editors are often strongly encouraged to pick stories that are agreeable to, or align with the beliefs and viewpoints of, the owners of a media publication or network. Much like corporate bias, advertiser bias can also impact how and what does or doesn’t go into a story. While that’s a really simple analysis, in the end what it really boils down to is money: The corporate owners and advertisers are the ones paying for the publication to reach the public, and they often not only want to control what goes into the ads they pay for, but also what does and doesn’t get published.
Early on in my journalism career, I worked as a staff reporter for a newspaper in an Alberta community where Big Oil reigned supreme. They provided corporate sponsorships for pretty much any and every community-based group you can think of and were also the biggest advertiser for the publication I worked for. I didn’t truly understand the clout they held until I was called into the publisher’s office to discuss a story I’d written the week before. I don’t recall the specifics of the story, but I do know that it was a community event sponsored by Big Oil, and at that event there was a woman who had given a speech. In the story I wrote, I’d quoted parts of what the woman had said.
Sitting in the publisher’s office, he told me the woman (who either worked for Big Oil or had a spouse who worked for them— I can’t remember which) had accused me of misquoting her and that I needed to prepare a correction to run in the next issue. The rest of the conversation went something like this:
Me: “But that’s exactly what she said.”
The publisher (who happened to attend the event I had covered): “Look, I know that’s what she said. I was there, and she definitely said that, but I’ve had a call from Big Oil.”
Me: “Oh. So …”
Publisher: “Yeah, look you didn’t do anything wrong, but …”
Me: “I’ll write up a correction and let the editor know.”
That, my friends, is what advertiser bias looks like in action.
Clickbait is old news
While media bias has existed as long as journalism, what is new is pay per click advertising. In the early 2000s, print news publications begrudgingly began making their way online, unsure of how to co-exist with emerging bloggers and citizen journalists. As time went on, some publications opted to place their content behind a paywall, while others chose online advertising. One of the most popular styles of online advertising is pay per click— meaning the amount payable to the publication for displaying the ad on its website is determined by the number of times readers “click” the ad. It’s a great model for businesses. For publications, however, it can create a funding deficit if the stories being published aren’t getting a decent number of people reading them. The solution? Clickbait headlines, sure to catch the attention of readers.
Here’s the thing: clickbait isn’t new. A child of yellow journalism, clickbait has been around for centuries. Those sensationalized headlines I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that’s clickbait. Sometimes, though, headlines are perceived by the public as being clickbait, when that was never the intention.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a story about several restaurants who made the decision to close for a short duration after being informed of COVID-19 exposures that had occurred inside their place of business. The headline I wrote was something along the lines of “businesses put people before profits.” Once the story was posted to the Mountaineer’s social media pages, people quickly took to the comments section to voice their disdain — how dare I write a headline suggesting businesses lose money by closing because of a pandemic we barely knew anything about at the time? What I was actually trying to relay in the headline, and in the story, was that those specific businesses, the ones who had a phone call from Interior Health telling them a COVID-exposure had taken place, were putting profits before people— not that I thought every single business in town should shutter its doors. Eventually the backlash became a bit too much, and a decision was made to change the headline.
Why media literacy and critical thinking are key
So, if modern day journalism problems are just old ones repackaged, what can we do about it? For me, the most common-sense solution is to teach media literacy skills that result in the public’s critical analysis of reporting for accuracy and credibility while also looking for evidence of bias. And when a bias is discovered, seeking out stories and reports that offer opposing, or preferably balanced, viewpoints.
I’m now 400 words over my assigned word count for this story and I’ve barely touched on the changes (that often aren’t really changes) to journalism. I haven’t touched on the growing demands large circulation publishers are putting on journalists to not only report on the news, but to also act as photographers and videographers, tasked with writing stories under increasingly tight deadlines while simultaneously creating content for social media pages. I haven’t even skimmed the surface of why I think the move from advertiser-based to user-based funding models aren’t the financial field of dreams we’d like to believe they are.
I could go on …. But at the end of the day, this is only my opinion. Are modern day changes to journalism just a repeat of ones that have happened before? You’ll need to decide that on your own.