American Journalism And Democracy

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Ever since the very beginnings of our nation, journalism has been a keystone in the American way of life. Even before the revolution, newspapers and pamphlets were used to spread news about the war, independence, and happenings across the nation. This model, although mediums for reporting have changed, has remained deeply important to the way our country runs even to this day. The nation was developed in a way that gave the citizenry the power to choose: to choose their leadership, and people to represent them in the Legislature. Citizens were given the power of free thought, and are able to make decisions on their own for the sake of bettering the country. Reliable and trustworthy news plays a big role in keeping our citizenry informed. Recently media has begun to diversify: the increasing popularity of the internet has given smaller news stations a way to connect to new and broader audiences. However, this is not always a good thing. Although having many different news outlets allows stories to be heard from varying perspectives, the prevalence of the news and so many conflicting voices fighting for attention is negatively impacting the way our government functions.

In recent years, social media has begun to contribute to the downfall of trustworthy news in our democracy. As the internet becomes more and more influential it is becoming increasingly difficult to find credible news, and much harder for qualified journalists to make their voices heard. With each passing day the internet is becoming more vast, and more people are using the web to gather news. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, just over 50% of 18-29 year olds and 49% of 30-49 year olds say that they most often get their news from websites or social media (Tanz). One of these websites, Facebook, has been gaining a significant amount of attention on account of their “news” content. It has been found that many of the articles shared on Facebook each day are false or abusive, as publishers are able to hide behind the anonymity of the platform (Spelman). These stories use tactics like appealing to fear or patriotism in order to get clicks. A recent paper published in Human Communication Research found that anger was a “key mechanism” in determining whether someone shared information on Facebook (Tanz). This leads to the sharing of radical and outrageous stories from both sides of the political spectrum. The more often that these false and inflammatory stories are spread, the harder it becomes for qualified journalists to report the facts. According to Jason Tanz, senior editor for Wired magazine since 2009, before social media, “a newspaper editor had the final say as to which stories were published and where they appeared. Today, readers have usurped that role. An editor can publish a story, but if nobody shares it, it might as well never have been written,” (Tanz). Without user interaction, stories from legitimate news organizations often go unnoticed, unread, and forgotten. The outrage-centric model of internet sharing is putting modern journalists at a significant disadvantage, making factual stories harder and harder to find.However, not all media experts believe that social media is detrimental to the news cycle. Some critics argue that this model for news sharing is beneficial to the public, giving them the choice to share stories which they individually find meaningful. Social media gives power to the individual: “News is immediate; with information consumers (users) at the heart of content delivery. Users can generate their own content and upload it to social media channels, controlling what content they want to view and when they want to view it,” (Martin 40). They also argue that, although some journalistic opportunities are beginning to disappear, having social media allows journalists to further investigate stories and keep their news up to date. The wealth of citizen reportage gives journalists new opportunities, opportunities that previous generations never had (Martin 42). Although the use of social media does have some benefits, such as the ability to share important news faster and giving power to the individual, it also has the ability to quickly share false news. False stories can spread on the internet like wildfire, and oftentimes when the truth finally comes out it has already done insurmountable damage. Additionally, it is easy for professional journalists to be drowned out in the sea of citizen reportage. Citizen reporters do not have any organizational restraints: they are free to publish whatever they please, with no consequences from their employer. However, professional journalists are paid to present an issue wholistically: their content is generally more researched and contains more of the truth. In an article from FWU Journal of Social Sciences it is simply put that, “It is impossible for journalists to present balanced viewpoints and remain objective at the same time. Balance in news entails different viewpoints or a plurality of perspectives, thus rendering news subjective and lacking in credibility,” (Saqib). In the eyes of the consumer, a story containing opinions from multiple points of view is often seen as weak; it is not trusted as much as a story formulated to appeal to only one side of the issue at hand. Further, the rise of citizen reportage rather than professional journalism is negatively impacting our democracy because truth is being obscured. Nora Martin, a professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, explains, “ There are innumerable voices in the mix of diverse persuasions – with differing viewpoints and so many presumably credible claims to truth – it is becoming increasingly difficult for citizens to separate fact from fiction,” (Martin 43). With so many voices in the mix, it is becoming more and more challenging for citizens to determine which stories contain the real truth; thus renderinFg our journalistic cycle inadequate. In this new age of social media truth, as well as traditional journalism, are being lost; and a democracy cannot possibly function correctly in a nation without truth.In addition to social media, another huge issue in modern news that is affecting our democracy is the uprising of extremely niche and biased news sources. Heavily biased news networks are pitting Americans against one another, which is in turn creating an increasingly hostile and polarized public. In the modern age, American politics are extremely divisive and many news networks use the political divide to seek out viewers with specific ideologies. According to a poll by Gallup/Knight, ‘Republicans who can name an accurate source overwhelmingly mention Fox News.’ (Alterman 7). Fox News, a very popular right-wing news organization, is often criticized for it’s obvious conservative bias. But in our modern society news networks like Fox News are bound to be flourishing. Trust in the news is down: “ In 2003, 54% of the respondents to a survey said they trusted the media. In 2017, that figure was down to 41%,” (Fletcher). Additionally, political affiliation is cited as a major predictor on whether or not someone is likely to have a favorable view of the media, with Democrats being more likely to trust mainstream news than Republicans (Fletcher). With trust down, Republicans flocking to networks like Fox and Democrats to leftist networks like MSNBC is simply expected. This in itself would not be a huge issue if networks treated each other fairly, but unfortunately this is not the case. In order to retain views, many networks place blame for our nations issues on people or organizations that lean the opposite way, making the opposite side seem like the “bad guy” in all situations. One example of this negative influence can be seen in the actions of Dana Loesch, star reporter for NRATV. In a recent broadcast regarding a heroic school resource officer, she is recorded saying, “The mainstream media is not talking about the SRO (school resource officer) because it disrupts their narrative. I question what the media has against individuals defending their lives.” However, her claims of mainstream companies ignoring this news is simply not true. At the time her broadcast aired, CNN (who was specifically mentioned), The Washington Post, and The New York Times had all published stories noting the SRO for his heroic actions (‘Austin Bomber’ 7:36-8:09). Promoting false narratives like these that bash other organizations is further pushing our already polarized nation apart, hurting American government and citizens alike.On the other hand, some news professionals feel that biased networks are beneficial to the American public. These networks give Americans the ability to choose what kinds of information they wish to receive, and view programs that they enjoy watching. News does not always have to be objective, they argue: If it provides the consumer enjoyment where is the harm? Networks like Fox News and NRATV give Americans who have a distaste for left-focused traditional media a place to gather and consume content they want to watch. The viewpoints of these networks, “[seems] to resonate with a large number of Americans who [share] contempt for the covertly biased ‘mainstream media.’” (Goodspeed). These networks add diversity and alternative options to mainstream news, and if consumers don’t agree with the message they can choose not to watch.Despite delivering alternative viewpoints than mainstream media, having so many extremely biased and varied sources creates a citizenry that views the other side as the enemy rather than an equal. Additionally, Americans who do not fall into a specific political category are beginning to feel alienated, with millions of Americans avoiding news broadcasts all together. In the words of Matt Levendusky, American political scientist and best-selling author: “While the political can tune into Fox and MSNBC, those who dislike politics also have more options than ever for avoiding it. […] Even the most popular cable news programs [only] get 2 to 3 million viewers on a typical evening in a country of 300 million Americans (Levendusky). The increase in media options has, ‘[strengthened] the extremes while hollowing out the center, making the electorate more divided,’” (Levendusky). Those with strong political affiliations are able to watch networks that only reaffirm their ideas while people who feel less passionate about politics are able to escape its reach almost entirely. This is only going to aid in the polarization between parties, and in turn cause our democracy to falter. Without compromise and working together, our government will be unable to satisfy the majority of Americans, creating unrest and increasing tension. Biased sources are adding to the growing divide, not solving it.

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Finally, in conjunction with media influence and biased networks, another factor that is affecting our democracy is the prevalence of fake news. Fake news, generally speaking, is, “fabricated stories set loose via social media with clickbait headlines and tantalizing images, intended for no purpose other than to fool readers and generate advertising revenues for publishers,” (Vazquez). Recent claims of fake news are causing growing public distrust of most media companies, which hurts our government as the true facts are going unheard. According to a Gallup/Knight survey, “most Americans believe it is now harder to be well-informed and to determine which news is accurate. They increasingly perceive the media as biased and struggle to identify objective news-sources. They believe the media continues to have a critical role in our democracy but are not very positive about how the media are fulfilling that role,” (Alterman 7). This perception, that the news is untrustworthy, comes in part from the many conflicting stories and viewpoints told by news outlets each day. In recent years (especially under the leadership of our current president) the severity of the “fake news” problems have begun to come to light. Unfavorable stories are being labeled as false by our administration almost daily in order to preserve their reputation. In covering up these stories, or democracy is becoming more and more damaged. If U.S. citizens are unaware of the true state of their nation, how are they to make the proper decisions in the voting booth? If the public knew what was really going on, “it would be more difficult for U.S. elites and their allies to continue violating human [rights],” (Young 61). Through claims of fake news, the government is able to change the narrative on issues throughout the nation. This is an extreme flaw in the way modern news media functions, and further proof that stories should be presented in the most fact-driven and objective manner possible.

Alternatively, some journalists argue that fake news is no longer a pressing issue. According to them, by now people should be able to come to their own conclusions about what news is fact and what is fiction. The world wide web is over 25 years old, and the publishing of fake articles and phony web-pages is nothing new. By this point most internet savvy Americans are able to navigate this news with ease. Additionally, most fake news is easy to debunk for a trained eye. According to Brooke Binkowski, Editor-in-Chief of Snopes Magazine, it can be really easy to spot. “’Honestly, most of the fake news is incredibly easy to debunk because it’s [extremely obvious],” she says. “A site will have something buried somewhere on it that says, ‘This is intended to be satire. Don’t sue us,’ (Vazquez). If readers took the time to fact check any questionable stories, fake news would not be an issue for the vast majority of Americans, and it is the responsibility of the individual to stay informed.

Although it is ultimately an individual’s job to stay informed, the idea that fake news has little to no impact on most Americans is simply not true. The reality is that a large percentage of Americans are unable to (or unwilling to) figure out which news is real or fake, and this news has a profoundly bad impact on how our government runs. At present, only a minority of citizens are skilled in recognizing bias and propaganda in the news, able to detect one-sided portrayals of events, or able to seek out alternative sources of information and opinion to compare to those of their mainstream news media (Elder and Paul 9). One direct example of the impact of fake news comes from a Microsoft research study based on data gathered from Internet Explorer. They found that, “social media was the primary outlet for the circulation of fake news stories and that aggregate voting patterns [during the 2016 presidential election] were strongly correlated with the average daily fraction of users visiting websites serving fake news, (Alterman 7). Meaning, citizens who consumed greater amounts of fake news during the presidential election were more likely to vote for Donald Trump. This has without a doubt affected our democracy, as fake news consumption was proven to influence how our citizenry thinks and who they choose to vote for. People rely on journalists to give them the information that they need in order to make important decisions. Journalists influence how people view and interact with the surrounding world. How are American citizens supposed to make the right choices for the nation if they don’t know what’s really going on?In conclusion, although the prominence of media is helpful to society at times, overall it has a negative impact on our democracy, as well as us people. In the words of Dr. Richard Paul, founder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “democracy can be an effective form of government only to the degree that the public are well-informed about national and international events and can think independently and critically about those events,” (Elder and Paul 10). If the public are not informed of current events, the government cannot possibly run in the way it is supposed to. Likewise, as social media continues to expand and news becomes more shareable, the opportunity for false stories to spread continually grows. Each day there are hundreds of new stories published, thousands of hours of video uploaded and millions of posts made across all platforms from both biased and independent sources. The extremely vast amount of content highlights exactly why the country needs more independent sources of information. How are we, as Americans, supposed to decipher what is fact or fiction in this sea of fact-less claims and phony stories? Without news that is reliable our democracy will be lost in the chaos. 

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