Crisis Prevention: Four problems with news and democracy.

Author:Zuckerman, Ethan

Here are some "buckets" for making sense of why the news is in crisis: addiction, economics, bad actors and known bugs.

I've been studying news and digital media since 2002 and the news has been in crisis for those past 16 years, possibly longer. And not just the handwringing "Oh no, citizens are producing their own news, what will happen to journalism as a profession?" crisis. No, we're more than a decade into the "We can't afford to pay for the news, what happens now?" crisis, and no closer to a solution.

And now we've got a new pack of crises spawned in 2016. The "Macedonian teenagers are destroying democracy with fake news" crisis. The "We don't understand the Americans who elected Trump" crisis. The "Russian bots control what's news" crisis.

These crises are real, but some are more real than others. I've spent part of the last year meeting with the Knight Commission on Media, Trust and Democracy trying to learn the shape of these challenges and what might be done to address them. In the process of helping out as a consultant to the commission, I'm finding myself starting to become comfortable with four buckets these crises often fit into. I'm a believer that how you think about a problem shapes what solutions you propose, so picturing four crises feels like an improvement over a sea of troubles.

To understand these four crises--addiction, economics, bad actors and known bugs--we have to look at how media has changed shape between the 1990s and today. A system that used to be linear and fairly predictable now features feedback loops that lead to complex and unintended consequences. The landscape that is emerging may be one no one completely understands, but it's one that can be exploited even if not nilly understood.

What the Media Used to Look Like

Media used to look something like this: Production [right arrow] Distribution [right arrow] Audience (see Figure 1).

Producers made media--they wrote stories, filmed news segments--and handed them off to distributors to share with audiences locally or around the world. Often the distributors and producers worked for the same company: the same company that wrote the New York Times ensured that it got printed, bundled and delivered to people's doorsteps. The flow of content was primarily linear and unidirectional--yes, people wrote letters to the editor and some may have influenced later coverage, but the influences were far sparser in more contemporary models (see Figure 2).

The lifecycle of content wouldn't be so worthy of public attention except for the civic conviction that news helps us make informed decisions about our public lives. News allows us to be informed voters, so we know when to call our representatives to express our opinions, to know when we're so outraged that we should take to the streets in protest or boycott a company. Journalism gains much of its power from the realization that audiences are also citizens. When investigative journalists uncover corruption at city hall, their power comes from the idea that thousands of citizens are reading and will vote the bums out unless change is made (see Figure 3).

In modeling the contemporary media ecosystem, it's important to understand that citizens have a whole new set of options beyond voting or marching. Citizens amplify content they like, sending signals back to distributor that they'd like more of the same. They create content that reacts to what's been presented to them, entering the cycle as producers. As a result, they've...

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