Since the dawn of spoken word, humans have relied on stories to share information. Peoples’ perceptions of the world are shaped by what they observe and what they are told. Every person relies on outside information to try to make sense of their world – and stories help people to do just that.
Yet, today, humans must wade through an endless barrage of stories coming at them every second of the day, all day, all year long. There is simply a dizzying array of platforms telling all sorts of stories, all the time.
Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, websites, podcasts, blogs, forums, discussion boards, videos and social media platforms produce content at a relentless pace.
Because, today, a well told story doesn’t just get shared – it produces profits.
Media has a great deal of power because of its ability to influence people. Media is really the main way stories are told anymore.
With so much potential reach – who is the media ultimately meant to serve anyway? Is modern media a charitable seeker of truth, context and deeply researched stories? Or is media driven by a different fundamental motive?
The common trait that binds all media, from every perspective, is the need to build an audience. Without an audience, well, nothing else matters to them.
The rush to create the largest audience has been greatly accelerated by tech. Any story can be shared to anyone, anywhere. Newspapers, aren’t dependent on a kid on a bicycle – nor magazines on the postal service. The potential audience for any article – is the world.
And what do people get because of that? Chaos.
‘Breaking News!’, endless ticker tapes, stories with no context, poorly researched articles created in minutes, sensationalist headlines. All delivered like a firehose to people.
But why? And what does it all matter in the quest for a better country?
From hometown papers, to blogs, to cable news – media is business, big business. All media sells something – most sell advertising. Some ‘non-profit’ media sells ‘underwriting’. Niche blogs sell subscriptions. But, it’s all the same. How much money any media can earn, depends on audience size.
Obviously, this creates an epic feedback loop: media tells stories that attract an audience, and the types of stories that that audience likes, are repeated.
So, it’s no surprise that media today is focused exclusively on generating the largest audience. Media companies learned long ago that the stories that get the most eyeballs, are the most outlandish. Stories that play to peoples’ emotions and fears. And this is what we get.
With worldwide audience potential – media stories get more and more sensational. There are more competing headlines to rise above, and there is no local community standard constraints. So media fractures into many tiny niches – seeking to build an audience from around the world, instead of at home. Thus, the formula looks the same: write about sex, violence, death, scandal, fighting, and controversy. Attack others with insane headlines, sow fear, create an enemy, make terrifying projections about the future. Get people’s attention by stoking their fears, reinforcing their views and pandering to their beliefs.
Humans have a hard time ignoring these. They are drawn to the stories that put down an enemy, reinforce their fears or exploit curiosities. People recognize a car salesman as distrustful because they are trying to sell something – yet people don’t grasp that all media does the same basic thing. Don’t worry about context or the future – just get those clicks today….
With this model, the sad reality is that the discourse suffers greatly. It’s less about the bad quality of journalism today, but about the lost opportunity for the truth to be told from a trustworthy source. Until the point where the media has separated its stories from making money – the public will never be told the real facts – they’ll just be told whatever attracts the biggest crowd.
The good news is, this isn’t an insurmountable problem. The car we all share – it hasn’t driven off a cliff and crashed into a dramatic fireball – it just needs to see the mechanic.
There is a way to change this game, and remove the ‘build and audience/sell to the audience’ circle. There is a novel way that has not been done before, that could free journalists and media to publish the truth, instead of sensationalist stories. Whether people would pay attention to real news remains to be seen, but, it’s right that people should have the choice.
Without real news and information, stories and context – it’s almost impossible for an individual to make a mental map of the world. Without an accurate map, it’s pretty hard for society to determine where to drive.