If you had a bucket full of holes, but got paid based on how full it was, how fast would you get that bucket to your destination? As fast as possible? That is what happened to media in 2017, and it led them to commit error, after error, after error.
It makes sense. Like all businesses, our media is motivated by profit.
Media outlets want to break news before anyone else. They want to be the first, and they want to capture the spotlight. All that stuff is important, but it’s also the wrong goal. The problem is that speed kills. Putting speed above all else causes errors and oversights, and these both lead to fake news. However, if you want to be first in a time when anyone with a smartphone can broadcast breaking news, then you have to go fast – oversights and errors be damned.
Like a news anchor said a few years ago in an episode of “30 Rock,” “It's a 24-hour news cycle. We don't have time to do it right anymore.”
What the editors, publishers, and even owners didn’t seem to understand about their businesses in 2017 is that they are not the Indy 500: Their profit isn’t based on being first, it’s based on reputation. That means accuracy and quality are more important.
For instance, I am willing to wait for my news if I know that it is going to be more accurate than a Russian Internet troll.
I can get up-to-the-minute, or even up-to-the-second, news on Twitter, but I am also going to watch news in the evening to see what was right. “@anon72” probably isn’t the right guy to get a great stock tip from, although @anon72 can easily beat CNN, Fox, NBC, and ABC to the story because @anon72 doesn’t care about ethics, sources, or anything but attention. So, while bloggers and trolls might be quick with (fake) news, it doesn’t pay to compete with them or source them.
Big media needs to focus on being correct.
And, there is plenty to cover. As Mike Allen pointed out earlier this year, the media cycle during the Trump presidency has been wild yet persistent. In fact, it develops and changes so quickly that chasing the media cycle in this environment makes it nearly impossible to accurately deliver the news.
From the economy to palace intrigue, stories explode across the Internet every day. It is up to the journalists to triage what is going on and look for the most important stories, and it is the job of the editors, producers, and owners to allow the journalists to do this.
Just pointing a camera when news breaks is good for the first few minutes, but after that the analysis needs to be smarter than copy/pasting stuff off Twitter.
So, what does this mean for news in 2018? News organization should slow down. News needs to return to being the news, not the repeat what you read on social media because it’s easier. Legitimate news outlets need to re-earn our respect by acting more respectably. In the age of the Internet, where anyone can say anything – and I believe that this is a good thing – then anyone can read anything. And if Russian trolls, regular ol’ Internet trolls, campaign-operative trolls are treated as accurate as big media, then they all end up with the same reputation.
Just because a crackpot with an Internet connection says something doesn’t mean CNN, Fox, NBC, and ABC have to repeat him.
We are in a situation where populists have started calling for regulation. Left-leaners have called for fairness, and right-leaners are calling for an end to thought suppression. We don’t need any of that, we just need the major media players to understand the name of the game shouldn’t be speed – they need to compete for respect and trust. They need to understand the way for them to make boatloads of money in the age of the Internet news troll is to be more accurate than the trolls.
Instead of rushing with their bucket full of holes, media outlets need to sit down and fix the holes first. Then they can take their time. Their advertisers will understand, their watcher/listener/readers will respect it, and we will be better off as a country.
Charles Sauer (@CharlesSauer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is president of the Market Institute and previously worked on Capitol Hill, for a governor, and for an academic think tank. He authored the forthcoming book "Profit Motive: What Drives the Things We Do".
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