There may be no better illustration of the tangled mess our news and information media structure has fallen into than the emotional, sometimes misleading debate over health care reform.
That's the notion which struck me last week while listening to a National Public Radio interview with longtime media critic Alex S. Jones, who has written a thought-provoking book about the changing media industry, Losing the News.
Jones laments that the "iron core" of the traditional news media — fact-based reporting and investigation — is disappearing, the victim of shrinking resources, consumer apathy, skittish owners and increasing partisanship. This not only brings less fact-based reporting, but it leads consumers to trust all news outlets less.
But, as Jones rightly notes, the biggest challenge news outlets face isn't just the demise of old school reporting; it's the advent of a new media structure which may be less equipped to deliver actual facts to citizens trying to make important public policy decisions.
Here's my list, inspired by Jones' excellent thinking, on the real, non-economic challenges news outlets face today:
Conflict: As it gets tougher to draw an audience, some news outlets are increasingly addicted to conflict in stories, one of the easiest ways to draw a crowd. In the health care debate, that means focusing on the yahoos screaming at town hall meetings or bringing weapons to public debates, skewing discussion away from the facts at hand to the circus surrounding them.
Pundits in journalists' clothes: Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Bill O'Reilly may not have much in common, but one thing they share are shows that often present opinionated takes on the day's news in the same style (and on the same channel) as more traditional reporting. This means they can assume the authority of journalism, but not all of its standards.
The audience's desire: As technology makes it easier for the audience to zero in on what they want when they want it, temptation grows to deliver reports which fit what consumers already believe. It also increases the pressure to oversimplify complex issues and present issues without much nuance.
No wonder Daily Show host Jon Stewart scores so highly in polls about news and information providers; free of the need to provide responses from the targets of his satire, he can deliver the kind of bold critiques more measured reporting has a tough time duplicating. A taste of pop culture savvy and attitude can liven up dry reporting. But when stories about Michelle Obama's shorts get more attention than the reporting on her husband's initiatives, perhaps it's time to consider a change.