What we read, like what we eat, matters. It shapes our approach to life and our view of others. It can help us sympathize or demonize. Our clicks determine which organizations stay alive and which collapse. Let us be mindful of the consequences and make smarter choices.
As a direct result of our media consumption habits, the landscape has changed. Not all blogs or magazines or even, sadly, newspapers can be trusted. In fact, a particular few are so bad they warrant being called out by name:
- BuzzFeed: for nearly single-handedly infantilizing an entire generation of readers with overly simplified content; for frequent and unnecessary pandering to nostalgia; for shamelessly mixing advertising and journalism; for popularizing lazy listicles
- Huffington Post: for masquerading as serious journalism and for letting political views run the entire show; for popularizing misleading headlines
- MSNBC and Fox News: for such narrowly-focused and partisan coverage that it misses the bigger picture and dehumanizes those who disagree; for the elevation of minor gaffes into campaigns of public shaming and righteous condemnation (a behavior that can produce damning consequences for the targets)
- CNN: for making stories of nothing, and for reporting on them incorrectly at that
- HLN: for getting us interested in missing white women, while we ignore everyone else in the world with problems
- The Wall Street Journal: for viewing all the news, even nuanced ethical issues like climate change and layoffs, through a financial lens
- Los Angeles Times: for turning a respectable national publication with serious investigative journalism into a hollow shell for clickbait
- The Atlantic: for bombastic and misleading cover story headlines that actually distort the contents and thus poison conversation around them in the pursuit of sales
- Business Insider: for meaningless contrarianism
Actually, it's not just a few. The overwhelming bulk of news organizations have failed us, in the attempt to tag along with one or more of the above organizations. More accurately, we have failed ourselves by letting this happen - by supporting these organizations with our clicks (and subscriptions, and impulsive magazine purchases, based on little more than a provocative cover). Upworthy and Business Insider copy BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. The Young Turks copies MSNBC, with its embarrassing clips of Republicans and the public shaming that follows.
What I've described is a very negative landscape. And it leads me to an intense amount of skepticism. But there's also some degree of hope. A few organizations still represent what journalism is actually about. They warrant recognition and commendation:
- The New York Times: for a continued commitment to investigative journalism in the face of layoffs and declining interest; for being the first to report on the news that really matters; for having the courage to charge for great journalism and thus pioneer a new business model; for honest self-reporting; for maintaining broad coverage ever since the first issue that shies away from parochialism and toward the most important themes of the day; for continued reflections on the cultures and peculiarities of the five boroughs; for at times explaining complex technical topics in a way that is both accessible to wide audiences and faithful to the meaning of the concepts
- The New Yorker: for ambitious and lengthy pieces that challenge the reader with their depth, nuance, and vocabulary; for pieces that actually teach the reader something meaningful about a given topic; for an antiquated yet useful commitment to obscure English spelling rules
- The Onion (and the spirit of Charlie Hebdo): for being unafraid to offend; for offending everyone equally; for unflinchingly addressing sensitive issues that most publications consider taboo; for drawing parallels between truth and fiction
People today are fundamentally who they've always been. We're biologically drawn to novelty. Yet we also have in our genes a deep appreciation for depth. We value serious stories, and they play an important role in shaping the national conversation. The New York Times hardly gets any credit, but it's been responsible for investigative journalism that not only raises public consciousness but results in tangible change. I hope that someday soon we will swing back the pendulum to an equilibrium, where we consume gossip in moderation and spend the bulk of our limited lifespans thinking about and acting upon what matters. I'd like to think that our recent media revolution has been a result both of necessary technological innovation and a fascination with alternative models of journalism. As The New York Times is proving, these two trends need not compromise traditional journalism. They might even enhance it. For instance, infographics and social media — new tools that engage us visually and personally, respectively — can increase the reach of important journalism and magnify its impact. It's no coincidence that Edward Snowden chose a traditional media organization for his leaks. He knew how much influence these organizations wield, and how important their cooperation would be in advancing a vital discussion. And traditional media is ripe for innovation in journalistic storytelling.
It's amusing to see new media organizations adopt the strategies of the old guard. Even BuzzFeed is starting to rely on serious journalism as an important part of its content and mission, because the editors are smart enough about human behavior to realize that important stories have the greatest impact. While a cat video will gain 40 million views, it won't inspire any social change or lasting impact. It's the 4000 people who read a piece of climate change who will be compelled to actually do something about it. They might write their legislators, or posit a novel solution. These actions accumulate and they change our society in a meaningful way.
What can you do? Stop supporting organizations that hold news hostage to their reductive worldviews. Embrace organizations that take a wider approach.
You'll walk away more informed. And you'll get your priorities back in order.